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Larry Walker or: How I Finally Gave Up and Stopped Trying to Determine Hall of Fame Qualifications

For the past three years, I have been leading the campaign to get Larry Walker into the Hall of Fame. The campaign has mostly involved talking him up to people who don’t actually have Hall of Fame votes, so you’d think it would be largely ineffective, but his voting totals have gone up every year since I started, so clearly I should take credit. With just one year left on the ballot, in fact, he’s got a real chance to make it after coming in with over 54 percent of the vote this year.

My Larry Walker fixation began when I was doing one of my routine Baseball Reference browses and I came across the former NL MVP. A cursory look at his stats blew me away. I knew that he had a great stretch in the 90’s and that he was a good player for a lot of years but I didn’t realize just how impressive his numbers were. He retired with a .313/.400/.565 slash line. Those numbers seem to place him in the upper echelon of the game’s history. His slugging percentage, in fact, ranks 12th all time and every player ahead of him is in the Hall of Fame, active or out for steroid related reasons. Walker’s career OPS+ of 141 is tied for 69th all-time. Of the five players to equal that mark, Chipper Jones, Billy Hamilton and Eddie Collins are not just Hall of Famers, but legends of the game’s history. The other players tied for that mark are David Ortiz, another legend who will likely join the Hall soon, and Babe Herman, who, despite a relatively short career (1,552 games) that mostly took place during a league-wide offensive explosion, probably deserved more consideration than he got.

One major difference, though, between Herman and Walker is that, while the former was a terrible fielder, Larry Walker won seven gold gloves in his 16 full seasons. He also was a good baserunner, stealing 15 or more bases seven times and 230 for his career, and by all accounts, he was an exemplary teammate.

All of those are good seasoning to a Hall of Fame resume, but if Walker ever does get elected, it’s going to be because of his offense. If he doesn’t get in, it’s probably going to be because of his offense at home. After doing my initial double take at his numbers a few years ago, I reasoned that the only thing keeping him out of the Hall must have been the fact that he played the majority of his home games at Coors Field, a ballpark that has robbed most Rockies of legitimate statistics.

The first thing to do, then, to determine his candidacy was to take out his Coors numbers and see if he still stood out. As it turned out, those Colorado games did do quite a bit to beef up his resume. He batted .381 all-time at Coors Field and slugged a remarkable .710, which would be the best all-time if he had maintained the number everywhere he played. He also hit a homer every 13.9 at bats in Colorado compared with one every 20.9 in all other parks. So it’s clear that playing home games a mile high contributed greatly to his offensive success.

But he definitely wasn’t a washout away from Colorado. He played seven full seasons for the Expos and Cardinals and, of course, even when he was a Rockie only half of his games were at home. In all, only 30% of his career games were played at Coors Field and he was pretty good in the other 70%. His .283 batting average is a far cry from .381 and his .873 OPS may not put him in the upper tiers of greatness, but even those numbers merit consideration.

More important, though is the fact that everything he ever did in Coors Field goes on his career resume too. We can’t pretend he didn’t accomplish it just because it happened in a ballpark that is more conducive to offense. In an age when millions of words have been written and countless hours have been spent debating the candidacy of steroids users, not nearly as many people are willing to bend on a natural performance enhancer (i.e. Coors Field) that the players had no control over. When the first known steroid user gets voted into the Hall of Fame, Larry Walker and Todd Helton should be the first people in line behind them. If we can overlook intentional cheaters, we can certainly find it within ourselves to overlook those who simply took advantage of their circumstances.

The difference between drug abusers and ballpark opportunists, though, is that the latter category already has precedent.

 

The Hall of Fame famously has no explicit qualifications for entry. Nor should it. The ambiguity of what makes a player deserving is what sparks conversations, debates, unnecessary essays (like this one) and ultimately, the excitement at the annual announcement. But it also makes the decision-making process that much harder.

The original Hall of Fame voters didn’t seem to have any idea just how elite was elite enough. That’s why Babe Ruth wasn’t present on 11 ballots and Cy Young (who has an award named after him for goodness’ sake) didn’t even get in on his first try. The Hall was formed in 1936 and after a few years of ushering in the game’s greatest talents, only one player was elected between 1939 and 1945. It was clear that, at least to the original voters, this was meant to be a truly great honor, not something to be given out to anyone who was pretty good for a long time or even great for a brief time.

Eventually, the Hall opened up to a wider range of candidates, thanks mostly to the foundation and eventual evolution of veterans committees. Theoretically, as more people get elected, there is a clearer roadmap to who should be elected in the future. Once a precedent is set, new candidates can be evaluated on that standard.

There is, for instance, a strong precedent in favor of Larry Walker. In 1980, Chuck Klein laid the groundwork for all future sluggers who happen to play in a hitters’ park. Klein, who played in Philadelphia’s notoriously offensive Baker Bowl from 1928-1933 piled up jaw-dropping numbers including a then-NL record 43 homers in 1929. He led the league in that category four times in his first five full seasons, he paced the NL in batting average and on-base percentage once, slugging three times, hits twice, RBIs twice and runs three times. He was a one-time MVP, finished second two other times and was named to the first two National League all-star teams.

Then he was traded out of Philadelphia. As a Chicago Cub for the next two-plus years, his slash fell from .359/.412/.632 to .297/.366/.497. He went from 36 homers a year to 22 and after he retired, the BBWAA never gave him more than 28% of the Hall of Fame vote. Still, like Walker, his numbers away from his hitter friendly home weren’t bad and, 36 years after his career ended and 22 years after his death, he was voted in by the Veterans Committee

The two standards I have always tried to hold Hall of Fame selections to have been historical comparisons and how a player stacks up against his contemporaries. For Walker, let’s start with the contemporary comparison. His seven gold gloves, three silver sluggers, five all-star appearances and seven top-20 MVP finishes, including the win in 1997 certainly put him among the best players in the game for at least a good stretch of his career and the Klein precedent should tie up the historical qualification because there is little doubt that if his numbers were non-Coors aided, they would be seen as Hall worthy. But just as I thought I had sewn up my Walker argument, something came along to shoot a hole through it: Harold Baines got elected.

I have always been a fan of Harold Baines, but if we are using precedent to establish our Hall of Fame cases, Baines has just opened the door to hundreds of players who have been overlooked in the past. His 38.7 career WAR (per Baseball Reference) ranks 545th all-time. Considering that only 232 players have received induction, 545 seems a little low on the list. (Note: I don’t believe WAR should be used as a Hall of Fame standard, but it is a good general means of classification) And he doesn’t have any signature moments or attributes that should push him over the top. On the contrary, the fact that most of his career was as a DH would seem to hurt him in the eyes of most voters.

Now, as I ask myself how I can continue using past results to influence my future decisions, the question I really should ask is how could I ever have? Baines is statistically not worthy of the Hall of Fame based on most past standards, but he is far from the worst player in Cooperstown. What about career .258 hitter Rabbit Maranville or Tommy McCarthy whose career WAR (albeit pre-1900) was only 16.2? And there are dozens of other questionable players who have been enshrined. The fact is that the election process is flawed and always has been and there’s no way to fix it without going back and starting over with a more clearly defined set of standards.

I’m not suggesting that this be done. The pre and post announcement discussions are as much of what makes the baseball Hall great as the building itself, but it would be interesting to see who would stay and who would get the boot if we were to hit the reset button.

Personally, I would prefer a smaller Hall. I think that my views are more in line with the original voters who saw the honor as deserving of only the true icons of the game’s history. As I thought about this recently, though, I came to an interesting realization: my personal Hall of Fame would definitely not include Larry Walker. For as much stumping as I have done for him, I don’t see him as one of the game’s luminaries. I just think he belongs in based on the current standards (of which, as we have already discussed, there technically are none) and maybe because of my bias as a child of the 1990’s. Whenever Walker came up against the Cubs, I was immediately scared. If that’s not the definition of a Hall of Famer, I don’t know what is. Contrast that with the career of the recently retired Adrian Beltre.

Beltre is a no-doubt Hall of Famer and will almost certainly get in on his first ballot. His numbers and accomplishments make that hard to dispute and yet, I was never afraid of Adrian Beltre when he came up to bat. Despite a long and impressive career, he never seemed like one of the best players in the game to me. But I won’t hold that against him. He seems clearly to fit the mold on paper of what a Hall of Famer should be and so maybe I really don’t understand what that is myself.

We are in the midst of the most liberal run of Hall of Fame elections that the institution has ever seen. Over the last six years, 20 players have been voted in by the BBWAA, including four more this week. That’s easily the most of any six-year stretch ever and that comes despite the unquestioned best statistical players of the era getting overlooked.

As of right now, roughly 1.2% of all Major League Baseball players in history are in the Hall of Fame. For all the question marks who have made it, that’s still a pretty exclusive club and if a few undeserving members get in to service those that should, I’m OK with that. At the end of the day, the Hall of Fame is really just a museum, a wonderful place where fans can learn about the history and culture of the game and if all of the annual debates aren’t educational to you, then you probably don’t care much in the first place.

This year was the first time in a while that I didn’t fill out a mock ballot. I’ve got more questions than answers and therefore don’t really feel qualified, but that’s OK. Every year, I will continue to look forward to the Hall of Fame announcement in January. I will stare at all the numbers, listen to the debates and maybe participate in a few. I’ll keep watching the induction ceremony in the summer and wonder why I’ve never made a trip out to one myself and I’ll always eagerly anticipate my own next journey to Cooperstown. Just don’t ask me who I think should get in. I haven’t got a clue.

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