During the last round of Hall of Fame voting, Larry Walker appeared on 56.4-percent of ballots submitted – well short of the 75-percent necessary for selection. A disappointing outcome for someone with just one year of eligibility remaining and deserving of better support.
The most frequently cited reason for Walker’s relatively low vote count is 10 seasons with the Rockies. It appears the hitter-friendly reputation of the team’s ballpark – Coors Field – has unduly overshadowed his Hall of Fame candidacy. An unfortunate development considering his greatness regardless of era, venue, or elevation.
Some of you may not agree with my take and that’s okay. But please give me a chance to explain why Walker’s home field shouldn’t cloud his Hall worthiness. First, let’s quickly set the stage for our conversation by identifying where the left-handed hitter’s career slash line places him among the all-time greats.
For anyone who didn’t follow Walker’s career, he played 17 season with the Expos, Rockies, and Cardinals. When his career ended in 2005, only nine Hall of Famers had a higher career OPS. Since then, Frank Thomas became the tenth Cooperstown honoree to better the Canadian.
Hall of Famers With A Better OPS Than Walker
Walker’s slash certainly appears to place him in exclusive company. However, a vocal segment of writers and fans believe his statistics are bloated and thereby misleading thanks to a decade at Denver’s high altitude.
Mile High Club
There’s no denying Coors Field enhances a batter’s production like no other ballpark. A review of Walker’s career home/away splits with the Rockies provides visual proof.
Walker’s Colorado Splits
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No one, including Walker, would disagree his home and overall numbers benefited from his time with Colorado. The Rockies’ home field is a hitter’s delight and a pitcher’s nightmare.
Still, sabermetrics can help us effectively compare player production and value irrespective of era, league, or ballpark. Two such metrics (WAR and OPS+) suggest Walker is a Hall of Fame caliber player.
The following illustrates Walker’s career WAR (Baseball Reference version) and OPS+ along with his AVG/OBP/SLG. Also on display, the rank of each stat compared to position players enshrined in Cooperstown.
Walker’s Ranking Against The Very Best
Walker’s WAR and OPS+ are elite level. However, those having no use for sabermetric analysis are unmoved by WAR or any stat using a lower-case letter or a plus sign.
Fair enough, we’ll avoid the seam-head stuff moving forward.
Instead, let’s perform a series of comps using conventional stats from Walker’s career and Rockies tenure – specifically his away numbers. Perhaps doing so alters the perception his brilliance was exclusive to Coors Field.
In 1997, Walker won the NL MVP with a league-leading 49 home runs and an imposing .366/.452/.720 slash. Playing approximately half his games in Denver undoubtedly aided his production. However, he was arguably better away from home.
Over half of Walker’s home runs occurred outside of Colorado. In fact, his 29 road dingers tied Ken Griffey Jr. for most in the majors. Moreover, the five-time All-Star’s away OPS bested this impressive group of hitters with 300-plus road plate appearances – all Hall of Famers.
Top Road OPS (1997)
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That’s right. Walker delivered a higher road OPS in 1997 than his mile-high output (1.169). Moreover, his roadwork would’ve been good enough to lead the majors.
How many of you saw that coming?
Oh, and 1997 wasn’t a fluke.
Walker never duplicated his MVP season at home or on the road. That said; he was one of just eight players with a slash exceeding .300/.400/.500 during his peak Colorado years (1997-2002).
Over .300/.400/.500 On The Road (1997-2002)
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Not everyone listed above may enter the Hall of Fame. However, these players were among the best hitters during the period we’re discussing. Walker’s road numbers were commensurate with these great performances.
Hall Worthy Roadwork
Walker doesn’t just stand out compared to peers during his peak. The three-time Silver Slugger winner’s career road production is on par with a sizeable portion of all-time greats from the past seven decades.
Only 10 Hall of Famers with 4,000-plus road plate appearances since the end of World War II posted a better away AVG/OBP/SLG than Walker did. It’s a remarkable group comprised of recent stars and legends.
Better Road Slash Than Walker Since WWII
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As we move forward, it’s important we acknowledge a common misperception about hitting at Coors Field – its principal benefit isn’t more power. Instead, a spacious outfield increasing the opportunity for hits remaining in play is the ballpark’s secret sauce.
Walker’s detractors may suggest those outfield dimensions – and Denver’s thin air – are why he won three batting titles. To address this contention, I identified notable Cooperstown inductees with a lower career road OBP than the former MVP.
The results may surprise you.
The following isn’t all-inclusive, but should provide a sense of how well Walker’s ability to reach base away from Coors Field compares to some of baseball’s most recognizable hitters. Included are a Triple Crown leader, numerous batting champions, and 3000-hit club members.
Hall of Famers With Lower Road OBP Than Walker
Now, I’m not suggesting having a higher career road OBP than these players means Walker is better. Then again, reaching base more often than such celebrated hitters demonstrates Coors Field wasn’t the only reason he thrived with the Rockies.
And Current Hall Candidates?
Okay, we’ve demonstrated Walker outperformed a significant number of Hall of Famers. How does he measure up to the most prominent position players appearing on the current ballot?
Once again, Walker shines.
Road Slashes For Current HOF Candidates
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Although David Ortiz isn’t on this year’s ballot, I included him to provide added perspective on Walker’s standing among the best to play the game in recent years. Barring unforeseen circumstances, “Big Papi” is a Hall of Famer shortly after he becomes eligible.
Who Else Enjoyed Home Cooking?
We’ve already established Walker received a hefty Coors Field boost. Yet, it’s important to note other renowned hitters also enjoyed a “home field advantage” during a considerable portion of their respective careers.
The following Hall of Famers and candidates experienced a substantial home/road OPS split.
Sizeable Career OPS Home/Away Splits
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|Ken Griffey Jr.|
As expected, Walker leads the pack with former Colorado teammate Todd Helton trailing. No one else played for the Rockies.
The late Ron Santo leveraged 14 seasons of home games inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field into build a Hall of Fame résumé.
Wade Boggs had a .153 OPS difference during his 18-year career with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Devil Rays. Bur the five-time batting champion had a much larger home/road split (.199) during 11 seasons at Fenway Park.
The majority of remaining names played most or all of their home games at either Wrigley or Fenway. Kirby Puckett is one of the exceptions having spent his entire career with the Twins, who called the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome home until 2010.
During Griffey’s first tour with the Mariners, he owned a .998 Kingdome OPS performing well on the road too (.901). The large split displayed above formed during nine seasons with the Reds. His home OPS was .917 – significantly better than away from the Queen City (.838).
To be clear, I’m not questioning the credentials of any Hall of Famer appearing in our comps. Downgrading one person’s legacy to elevate another is unbecoming.
Still, it’s important to recognize home park dimensions and/or weather conditions significantly helped other notable names too – not just Larry Walker.
Fun fact: Carl Yastrzemski had exactly the same number of home and away plate appearances (6,996) during his 23-year playing career.
Big Home/Away Gaps Still Exist
Our final comp illustrates several recognizable active players having relatively large career home/away OPS splits with their current team since 2017.
Just for fun, I included three finalists for 2019 end of season awards – each recorded a much better OPS on the road than at home.
OPS Splits Among Active Players (Since 2017)
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Please remember most of these players are relatively young. Their career road/away numbers could look considerably different by the time they finally hang up their cleats.
Fun Fact: Mike Trout has an identical 1.000 OPS at home and on the road.
Of course he does.
For me, Walker’s decade at Coors Field isn’t the primary issue to consider when deliberating his Hall worthiness. Instead, a relatively small body of work merits further scrutiny.
Injuries throughout his distinguished career resulted in Walker making just 8,030 plate appearances. In fact, he played 130-plus games in just ten of his 17 seasons surpassing 150 contests only once – his MVP campaign.
To put Walker’s small sample into perspective, Mike Piazza (7,745) and Puckett (7,831) are the only Hall of Fame position players not to reach 8,000 plate appearances in the last half-century. Piazza played a position (catcher) known for truncating careers; glaucoma forced Puckett into early retirement.
Perhaps Walker experiences similar good fortune as Edgar Martinez did during his last year of eligibility. Edgar finally overcame the combination of the DH stigma and a relatively low number of plate appearances (8,674) to receive his well-deserved plaque this year.
Whether Walker enters the Hall next year not only affects his legacy, but also sets a precedent for all Rockies hitters. If someone with as much success as him struggles to gain traction with the electorate, what will be required of a future Colorado position player to earn selection?
Helton, who spent his entire career with Colorado, made his debut on last year’s ballot garnering 16.9-percent of support from the electorate. After the Tennessee alum, Rockies fans face a long wait.
The Rockies’ best active hitters – Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon – are years from ending their respective careers. Moreover, there’s no guarantee their final numbers will merit a Hall plaque.
If Walker’s exclusion were due to a small body of work, it’d be a more palatable explanation than the alternative – a Coors Field bias.
The premise a club’s home field can hamstring a hitter’s chances of earning a Cooperstown plaque would be unfair, especially when Wrigley and Fenway haven’t affected great players in a similar manner.
There’s a somber realization Colorado fans may have to acknowledge, assuming Walker misses the Hall. Will a Rockies hitter ever receive baseball’s greatest honor?
What a demoralizing proposition for a franchise in existence for over a quarter-century and still without a Hall of Famer.
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