Larry Walker is the best right fielder in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame.
That’s the fact of the day, and there’s an extremely high likelihood that it will remain the case for a while. That’s the major takeaway about Walker from Jay Jaffe’s excellent new book (which comes out tomorrow), The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques. Jaffe places Walker squarely on the “who should be in” pile.
Jaffe gives Walker extended treatment. After a series of introductory chapters that detail the institution’s history, the history of its election processes that are constantly changing, advanced metrics, and the eponymous JAWS rating system, Jaffe dedicates a chapter to each position on the field. In each one, there are one to two case studies followed by snapshots of players already in the Hall of Fame and those who should be considered for induction. Walker gets the case study for right field, and Jaffe makes an extremely convincing case for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
Walker’s case is built on advanced metrics, particularly Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR), which adjusts for park and era. rWAR is the building block of Jaffe’s JAWS system for rating Hall of Famers. JAWS creates a Hall of Fame baseline by taking the average rWAR for inducted players at a specific position, taking those same players’ average rWAR in a seven-year peak (the players seven best seasons that need not be consecutive), and then averaging those two figures together to get a JAWS score. Each player’s career rWAR, peak, and JAWS score can then be compared to the Hall of Fame baseline. Walker deserves easy entry in this view:
Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame case, according to JAWS
Conversely, if one just looks at Walker’s 383 home runs and 2,160 hits (especially considering the era he played in and the fact that 31 percent of his plate appearances were in Coors Field), it would be easy to consign him to the “Hall of Very Good” bin. But that points to another area where WAR and JAWS come to Walker’s service. WAR accounts for total value, so it also gives credit for Walker’s excellent defense and base running. For his career, Walker was 94 runs better than average on the field and 40 runs better than average on the bases.
This is what separates him from someone like Vladimir Guerrero, who was every bit as good of a hitter as Walker but was just seven runs above average in the field, three runs below average on the bases, and didn’t add any defensive value for the 503 games for which he was the designated hitter. Guerrero cracked 71.3 percent of the Hall of Fame vote this past round and is a virtual lock to make the requisite 75 percent next time.
Walker—like Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines before him—is ripe to be the beneficiary of a grassroots, sabermetrically inclined, movement to gather enough votes to get him to Cooperstown, which is where he belongs. But it’s probably too late for Walker. Walker received 21.9 percent of the vote in 2017, his seventh year of eligibility. Jaffe writes that “the lowest percentage any candidate has received in year seven while still being elected by the BBWAA is Bert Blyleven,” who had 35.4 percent of the vote in his seventh year. Not only was Blyleven’s seventh year total much higher than Walker’s, but Blyleven also had 15-year cycle to work with, whereas Walker has just ten years of elibility. Blyleven was elected in his fourteenth year on the ballot. If Walker gets elected by the BBWAA, it will be unprecedented.
If it doesn’t happen, Walker’s next shot will be with the Today’s Game Era committee in 2022. The problem there is that those small committees haven’t elected a living player since 2001.
The reason behind Walker’s exclusion could also shed light on the other Rockies hopeful, Todd Helton. Has Walker been unable to gain votes because of the era he played in, distrust of statistics from Coors Field (despite adjusted stats that show how good he was), or the fact that he missed a lot of time due to injury (he only played more than 140 games in a season four times)? Jaffe seems to think it is mostly due to Coors Field. He writes: “the voters’ mistreatment of Larry Walker doesn’t bode well for [Helton].”
I think Walker’s mistreatment has more to do his missed playing time, and I’ve speculated before that Helton’s 17-year career with one team will give him a narrative-boost. It will be really fun to see how the voting shakes out in 2019, when Walker is in his final year of eligibility and Helton in his first.
Besides Walker and Helton, the only other mention of the Rockies might be that Dale Murphy played with the team in their inaugural 1993 season. That is to say, these slices of purple are just small parts of an excellent compendium of the Hall of Fame’s history, as well as its future.