By Matt Snyder
(CBS SPORTS) – On July 26, 2014, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that it had decided to change the BBWAA voting rules. One of the changes was that players were allowed to be on the ballot for only 10 years before falling off; prior to that, the maximum was 15 years.
To this point, we haven’t had a clear-cut example of a player who was kept out of the Hall of Fame due to this change. The only player who has fallen off after 10 years is Fred McGriff. Last year, he got just 39.8 percent of the vote. I’m sure it could be argued that with five more years — especially now that the ballot crunch has been alleviated — that he’d make it, but he wasn’t all that close to induction.
Larry Walker could well be the first obvious victim of the rule change. He’s in his 10th and final year on the ballot this time around. Last year, he got 54.6 percent of the vote. Five spots were cleared from that ballot, with Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina getting into the Hall while McGriff fell off the ballot. Derek Jeter is the only obvious Hall of Famer coming on the ballot, so it seems like Walker could and should see a bump. We’ll get to that.
So far, that’s what he’s getting, but it looks like the final result is a total toss up.
Ryan Thibodaux tracks publicly available Hall of Fame ballots each year by checking out internet columns, tweets from voters’ revealing their votes and even some anonymous email submissions he receives. He and his group of trackers also compares the tallies to the final vote totals from years’ past. Last season, Walker was named on 69.5 percent of the public ballots, so his actual percentage was 11.3 lower. Apparently, the BBWAA voters who keep their ballots private don’t collectively like Walker nearly as much as those who make their ballots public.
So far, with 157 ballots known (there were 425 total votes last year, for a point of reference), Walker is polling at 85.4 percent.
If there’s a similar divide in public vs. private ballots this year, that means it’s possible Walker finishes with between 70-75 percent of the vote narrowly misses induction while falling off the ballot.
What a gut punch that would be.
Of course, the 11.3 percent drop isn’t hard and fast and it’s also possible Walker ends up above the 75 percent threshold.
It really looks like it’s going to be just a few votes’ difference whether or not Walker gets into the Hall.
Now, it’s inevitable when we discuss such things to point out Walker’s Hall of Fame case against the uninformed “it’s not the Hall of the Very Good” crowd.
- Walker hit .313/.400/.565 in his career. The only players in baseball history who qualified for the Hall of Fame (appeared in at least 10 years in the majors) and slashed .300/.400/.550 were Babe Ruth, Manny Ramirez, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Thomas, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and, yes, Walker. Only Walker and Ramirez aren’t in the Hall and Ramirez has two PED suspensions. Walker has zero.
- Now is about the time people bring up Walker playing home games in Coors Field since he spent a big portion of his career with the Rockies. First off, nearly all players hit worse on the road. In Walker’s career, he hit .282/.372/.501 away from Coors Field. Did you know Dave Winfield hit .283/.353/.475 in his entire career?
- Further, OPS+ factors in ballpark and era conditions. Adjusting for ballpark and league hitting averages, Walker posted a 141 OPS+ through his career, meaning he was 41 percent better than the average hitter. Vladimir Guerrero was 140 in his career. Reggie Jackson? 139. Al Kaline and Paul Waner were at 134 with Tony Gwynn at 132. Winfield and Roberto Clemente both finished with a 130 OPS+. This isn’t to say Walker was a better player than these Hall of Fame right fielders. It is to say dismissing him as a Coors Creation is foolish.
- Walker’s black ink includes three batting titles. He also led the league in OBP, slugging and OPS twice. He led in doubles, homers and total bases once.
- Walker won the 1997 MVP while also winning seven Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.
He never won a ring, but Walker hit .357/.438/.929 in his only World Series appearance (2004 Cardinals).
We’ve mostly covered hitting, but Walker was a true five-tool superstar. Look:
Again, three batting titles and a career .313 average. Five times in Walker’s career he walked more than he struck out in a season. He only struck out more than 100 times in three seasons. He’s 79th in MLB history in average and 55th in OBP.
The career .565 slugging ranks 12th in baseball history. He’s 89th in career doubles (471), 68th in homers (383), 104th in total bases and 65th in extra-base hits. Keep in mind there have been nearly 20,000 players, so even 104th in something is pretty damn impressive. Walker also sits 80th career in at-bats per HR (18.0) and that wasn’t even his signature stat.
Walker was a somewhat burly right fielder, so some people looking back might assume he wasn’t a great baserunner. Quite the contrary, he had 230 steals in his career, going for double digits in 11 different seasons and at least 20 in three seasons, topping out at 33.
As we know, baserunning is more than just stolen bases, so let’s point this out: Throughout his career, Walker took the extra base (that is, getting from first to third on a single, scoring from second on a single, scoring from first on a double) 52 percent of the time. Generally speaking, the league average is around 39-43 percent. Sure, Coors is spacious and probably helped some here, but he was an exceptional baserunner.
We already mentioned the Gold Gloves. It’s tougher to get a grasp on range from a data standpoint — if we’re going to talk about how big the Coors outfield is, though, we have to mention it here as well — but there’s nothing to suggest he was below average and most everyone at the time considered Walker a great defensive right fielder.
Walker had 154 career outfield assists, which ranks fifth all-time among right fielders after Clemente, Hank Aaron, Johnny Callison, Dwight Evans and ties Jesse Barfield. Here’s a fun one:
In terms of the new-school advanced metrics, Walker checks some more boxes. He’s 10th among right fielders in JAWS, which is better than the average Hall of Fame right fielder. He’s 11th in WAR, which, again, is above the average HOF right fielder. He tops the likes of Winfield, Guerrero, Gwynn and several others in both.
Finally, the whole “he was a big deal” thing. People like to rewrite history, but do you not remember when he signed with the Rockies from the Expos how big a deal it was? It was one of the biggest stories that offseason. He also started the All-Star Game four times (remember when he turned his helmet around to bat righty against Randy Johnson?). Winning the fan vote four times in a career where he only played more than 105 games 11 times seems like pretty good evidence he was a huge deal.
Walker isn’t an inner-circle all-timer like Ruth or Aaron, but the Hall of Fame is much more than that. Walker is better than many of the players already enshrined and would bring the standard of the Hall of Fame right fielder up. He should be inducted this year. Let’s hope he is. All we know right now is it’s going to be really close.