Larry Walker will be a Hall of Famer. I’m not just hopeful about that, but convinced of it. He has the credentials, compares favorably to right fielders already in the Hall, and a growing cadre of writers are coming to terms with the fact that baseball in Denver is a real thing. Up until recently, I’ve also been convinced that Walker’s only path to enshrinement will be through the Today’s Game Era ballot — even more so after it lowered the bar by electing Harold Baines, who had a fine career but who few seriously considered a viable candidate.
There’s a reason I was convinced of that. In order for Walker to get voted in by the BBWAA, it would require an unprecedented jump of votes. Walker received 34.1% of the vote in his eighth year on the ballot, which was a nice jump from the 21.9% of the vote he got in his seventh year. The problem, however, is that he just doesn’t have enough time left. “Since 1966,” Jay Jaffe writes, “the lowest percentage any candidate has received in year eight while still being elected by the Writers is Bert Blyleven.” Blyleven had 40.8% of the vote in his eighth year on the ballot. The major caveat, however, is that Blyleven had the advantage of 15 tries, and he got elected in year 14. Walker only gets 10 tries.
But something unprecedented may be underway. As of this writing, according to Ryan Thibodeaux’s Hall of Fame tracker, Walker has appeared on 65.2% of the 199 public ballots released so far — that’s 48.8% of known ballots. Walker has gained 42 voters who previously didn’t vote for him now have. Just as importantly, Walker hasn’t lost any support, as nobody who has previously voted for him publicly has decided against it. The only other player to gain as many votes as Walker is Fred McGriff, who has gained 42 in his final year on the ballot. Although even McGriff has lost two voters, making a net gain of 40.
This is movement is extremely promising, and it’s cause to think about the factors that led to Walker’s predicament in the first place. Walker debuted on the ballot in 2011 with 20.3% of the vote, which is a respectable margin. He had a slight increase to 22.9% in his second year of eligibility. The third year, however, was the turning point for Walker, and it had nothing to do with him. That year, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot. That year, the increase of overall BBWAA sanctimony was inversely correlated with vote collection, and nobody got in.
The 2013 shutout led to a substantial glut, especially in the following years when a collection of all-time greats entered the ballot around the same time: Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and Ken Griffey Jr. At the same time, guys like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza, who wouldn’t have to wait so long under normal circumstances, also debuted. Because voters continue to be limited to 10 votes per ballot, it took some time for ballots to be able to breathe again. This could benefit Walker in a way we haven’t seen before.
This year, I’d expect three players elected: Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martínez, and Roy Halladay. Next year, there’s only one first-timer who’s sure to be elected, Derek Jeter. This unprecedented clearing of an atypically full ballot could help Walker quite a bit. The perfect storm that has suppressed his vote could be turning into a perfect storm for him to make that historic leap in voting.
Walker’s not getting in this year, but the percentage of the votes he gets should tell us whether or not he even has a shot in 2020. Let’s use Tim Raines’s candidacy as a touchpoint, as he, like Walker, only received 10 tries on the ballot. According to Jaffe, Raines made the greatest jump from third to last year on the ballot to election, 55% to 86%. If Walker gets elected, he’ll shatter that mark by going from 34% to breaking the 75% threshold. It’s perhaps more useful to look at Raines’s ninth and tenth years on the ballot. From Raines’s penultimate to final year on the ballot, he went from 69.8 of the vote to 86% of the vote. Walker, of course, doesn’t need 86% of the vote, he just needs 75%.
If Raines was able to gain 17 percentage points in his final year on the ballot, Walker may be able to as well. If Walker has any chance of being elected by the writers in his tenth year of eligibility, he’ll need to pull in at least 60% of the vote this year. Given that he has just over 65% of the vote from public ballots so far, that mark is within reach.
For Walker hopefuls, that’s the the magic number to look for when final tallies are announced tomorrow. If he gets 60%, Walker may make his way to Cooperstown by way of vote in an unprecedented final charge.