You might not have noticed, but a city that hasn’t had a Major League Baseball franchise since 2004 has six alumni on the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. Six former Montreal Expos are eligible for enshrinement in Cooperstown. That’s more alums on the ballot than for 18 other franchises. If I asked you to name all six former Expos on that ballot, I would be very impressed if you got more than three of them.
The obvious three are Tim Raines (in his 10th and final appearance on the ballot), Larry Walker (on the ballot for the 7th time) and Vladimir Guerrero (a first-time candidate).
The others: pinch-hitter extraordinaire Matt Stairs, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and, drum-roll please, relief ace Lee Smith, who is also on the ballot for the final time. How many of you remembered that the big right-hander finished his 18-year career in 1997 in Montreal, tossing 21.2 innings in 25 games? Smith, despite being 3rd all-time with 478 career saves, has virtually no chance to gain election this year: he pulled just 34% of the vote last year (a candidate needs to get 75% to be inducted).
I’ve written extensively about why it’s time to finally recognize the greatness of Rock Raines, the key reasons being that he was the 2nd best leadoff hitter of the 1980’s (to Rickey Henderson) and the second best base-stealer of the last 70 years (again, to Henderson), based on his 808 career thefts and astounding 85% success rate. Other than his brilliance on the base-paths, much of Raines’ statistical qualification rests on advanced metrics, which explains both why his candidacy took awhile to catch fire but also why he’s been a cause celèbre in the sabermetric community.
Raines debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot with just 24% of the vote and, even four years ago, was sitting at just 46%. However, the extensive lobbying effort on Rock’s behalf has seen his vote total rise to 55% in 2015 and 70% a year ago. Thanks to Ryan Thibodeaux’s fascinating Hall of Fame Tracker, we can safely predict that Raines will have his day in Cooperstown this summer. Of the first 199 writers to make their ballots public so far, 91.5% have checked Rock’s name on their ballots. Of those writers, 25 changed their vote from “no” last year to “yes” this year with none changing their votes the other way. According to Thibodeaux’s methodology, if Raines is just able to “hold serve” and not lose any support among the ballots not yet made public, he’ll be in the Hall.
With the likelihood that Tim Raines will be the third long-time member of the Expos to enter the Hall of Fame (the others being Gary Carter and Andre Dawson), the question du jour is whether Vladimir Guerrero or Larry Walker will or should be the fourth. Vladdy is on the BBWAA ballot for the first time and, based on the early voting, has an outside chance to become a Hall of Famer in his first try.
On the afore-mentioned Hall of Fame tracker, Guerrero is currently at 74.4%, right on the cusp. Literally, among the first 198 voters, he is two votes shy. Normally that would portend a disappointing day next Wednesday because the Tracker generally over-estimates a candidate’s ultimate vote totals. Still, whether it’s this year or the next, Guerrero is a lock to be enshrined in Cooperstown in the near future. If and when he is, he will be the first in what should be a long list of position players from the Dominican Republic to have a plaque in the great Hall.
Just as Vladdy would like to be the first Dominican-born position player to make the Hall (Juan Marichal and another former Expos star, Pedro Martinez, have entered as pitchers), Walker would like to be the first Canadian-born position player to get into Cooperstown. So far for Walker, born in British Columbia, in 6 years on the writers’ ballot, the verdict has been “no.”
This is Walker’s 7th year on the ballot and he has never polled above 23% in the balloting. Because of his 72.6 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Walker is a popular candidate in the sabermetric community (6th best among all of the candidates). Among the larger community of voters, spending half of his career in the thin air of Colorado casts doubts on the degree to which his career statistics are inflated by those years in Coors Field. Now, remember that WAR is supposed to take ballpark effects into account but Coors is a special brew among baseball diamonds and there is considerable skepticism about whether WAR is up to the task to account for it’s unique effect on baseball statistics. Walker, in his 7th year on the writers’ ballot, is languishing at 24% on on the HOF Tracker.
Anyway, before start digging into the Coors effect, let’s take a look at Walker’s and Guerrero’s basic career numbers (and compare them to Dawson’s, their predecessor in right field in Montreal, just for fun).
One thing leaps from the page:
Dawson, who is (deservedly) in the Hall of Fame, was not the same quality of hitter as Guerrero and Walker. His OPS (on-base% + slugging %) is dramatically lower. Every element of his slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS) is far, far below his more modern Expos outfielders. Dawson did not play in the prolific hitting era as the others, but you can’t explain away that disparity based on the ’80’s vs the ’90’s or 00’s.
Guerrero hit 11 more home runs in his career than the Hawk despite 1,710 fewer plate appearances. Walker scored just 18 fewer runs in his career than Dawson despite 2,739 fewer times at the plate.
Vladimir Guerrerro is considered a slam-dunk Hall of Fame player by a great many because of two key statistics: his career .318 batting average and 449 home runs. The only other players in history with that many taters and an average that high are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Stan Musial.
Ruth. Gehrig. Williams. Foxx. Musial. Guerrero.
For some voters, that’s all the research that’s needed.
If you loosen the criteria a bit, make it a career .300 average and 400 homers, you still only get 15 players: 10 Hall of Famers plus Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones and still-active Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Chipper will get into Cooperstown next year, Albert and Miggy will for sure five years after they retire and Man-Ram would be getting elected this year were it not for his two PED suspensions. It’s still an all-time great group.
Now, for our three power-hitting Expos products, let’s look at their accolades and advanced metrics. With regards to WAR, I’ve broken it down by two of its key component parts, batting and fielding. OPS+ takes the raw OPS and adjusts it for ballparks and the overall hitting dynamics of the era in which a player hit. 100 is league average, 141 is 41% above league average.
If you’re not a fan of WAR and its components, hang with me a moment.
One thing to remember about WAR is that, like home runs or hits, it is a “counting” statistic. The longer you play, the more “Wins” you can accumulate. The difference between WAR and a counting stat like home runs or hits is that you can go backwards and many players, even Hall of Famers, do in fact lose WAR points at the ends of their careers as they’re hanging on based on their past glories and not their current production. This was the case with Dawson: his WAR was -2.3 for the last four seasons of his career (in Boston and Florida). Still, if you exclude the Hawk’s last four seasons, he still logged 9,658 plate appearances in his first 17 seasons, more than his future outfield replacements.
As it was with the 8-time Gold Glover Dawson, Walker’s Hall of Fame case is in the totality of this game; he was an excellent hitter, fielder and base runner. Against his near-contemporary Guerrero, some writers have made the case that, if you put Guerrero into the Hall of Fame, you have to put Walker in as well. The argument is compelling: his WAR is 13.3 points higher despite over 1,000 fewer plate appearances. By the WAR components, Walker was a better defensive player (also evidenced by 8 Gold Gloves), a better base-runner and just as good a hitter as Vladdy.
So why is Guerrero on the doorstep of 75% of the writers’ votes and a Cooperstown plaque and Walker languishing below 25%? The three simple explanations:
- The discounting of Walker’s offensive numbers because of Coors Field. Walker’s OPS+ of 141 is nearly identical to Guerrero’s (140) and OPS+ is supposed to take park effects into account but it still doesn’t feel right because of Walker’s dramatic home-road splits (more on this to come).
- The romance of the traditional statistic of batting average and that luminous .318 average/449 HR club Vladdy is a part of with some of the greatest in the history of the game.
- The preference of most writers to value traditional offensive statistics above sabermetric stats such as WAR and OPS+.
Sometimes, also, it’s just about first and ongoing impressions. Guerrero was one of those young players that created instant buzz. From his long arms (giving him the ability to reach any pitch) to his rocket launcher arm from right field, Guerrero was feared from the moment he walked onto a MLB diamond. Pitchers feared throwing to him; base-runners feared running on him. From early on in his career he was looked upon as a bigger and badder version of Roberto Clemente. As players, Guerrero was feared, Walker was respected. There’s a difference between fear and respect in the crafting of a legend.
And, although its a minor point, there’s also their nicknames: Guerrero was known as “Vlad the Impaler,” Walker known as “Booger.” An “Impaler” is feared; the original “Vlad the Impaler” was a 15th century Romanian prince who’s reputation for cruelty gave rise to the name of the Count Dracula. And of course the name of “Vladimir” itself is exotic and memorable.
“Booger” was the nickname of one of the socially challenged teens in “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Anyway, going beyond the nicknames, let’s dive into the worthiness of each player on the field, starting with Guerrero. Do his results match his legend? The principal argument in favor has already been made: he had a unique combination of a high batting average and home run ability.
- He hit .300 in 13 out of his 15 full seasons in the majors (the only times he failed were when he hit a mere .295 or .290 in two of his final three campaigns).
- He was a perennial All-Star (8 times in a 9-year span). He won the 2004 MVP in Anaheim.
- He led his league in assists from right field three times.
- Bill James has a statistical “Hall of Fame monitor” which attempts to predict Cooperstown inductees. On the scale, 100 points is considered a good possibility and 130 a “cinch.” Vladdy scores 209 on the HOF monitor. That’s better than Sammy Sosa and his 609 home runs and all but four other players on this year’s ballot (Bonds, Clemens, Ivan Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez).
- If the proof is in how you’re viewed (and feared) by your opponents, Guerrero was walked intentionally 250 times in his career (5th most in the history of the game). The 250 IBB represents more than 33% of his career free passes. With his long arms and reach, you couldn’t safely pitch around him.
Here’s the counter-argument to some of those points:
- In an era with a prolific amount of home runs, his 449 total is unremarkable, 17th best in the last 40 years.
- He may have had a lot of assists as a right fielder, but he also led his league in errors a whopping 8 times.
- James’ Hall of Fame monitor is based on who “will” get in, not who “should.” It’s based on traditional bench-mark statistics over the history of the HOF, over-valuing batting average and not taking into account Guerrero’s relatively low walk totals.
- The 250 intentional walks can in part be explained by his years in a weak Expos lineup and some average Angels lineups.
Personally, I’m more in favor the “pros” than the “cons” of those arguments. There’s no doubt that he made a lot of errors trying to gun down runners but he still had all those assists. Advanced metrics, as unreliable and inconsistent as they are, were generally favorable until later in his career.
Let’s go beyond this and compare Guerrero’s numbers to his contemporaries over his 10-year peak (1998-2007), using a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances:
I included the final four categories to make a couple of points.
If you strip away the PED-linked players, Guerrero climbs to 4th in WAR, 3rd in OPS+, 3rd in HR and 2nd in RBI. Still, he’s behind some players in key categories who are not considered of Hall of Fame timber, speaking specifically of Carlos Delgado and Todd Helton (although the latter spent his entire career in Coors Field).
Delgado, the slugger for the Blue Jays and Mets, is an interesting case considering that he was drummed off the ballot after just one try a two years ago, failing to get even 5% of the vote. Just for yucks, here’s how Guerrero stacks up against Delgado for their entire careers.
There’s not a dramatic difference there other than in WAR. As hitters, though, they’re fairly darned close. Vladdy’s .318 batting average is more gaudy but Delgado’s on-base% is actually higher! He walked a lot and was 16th in MLB history with 172 times getting hit by a pitch. The disparity there is explained in the fact that Guerrero, while not a Gold Glover, was a productive right fielder (a very good one in his younger career) as opposed to the virtual zero defensively that Delgado was and that he also provided value on the base paths. So this is a case where WAR leads you to the correct conclusion. Delgado was a great slugger but he did it in a super-charged offensive era while Guerrero was a more rounded player and his throwing arm is a significant credential in his Cooperstown resume.
One of the criteria that many writers use for a Hall of Fame player is to have been a dominant player in the majors for a significant period of time and, more specifically, if a player is the unquestioned best at his position for a significant time frame, that usually gets a HOF vote. So here is how Vladdy stacks up among right fielders in 9 key categories during his 10-year peak:
Well, here it is in a nutshell: for a ten-year period (among MLB right fielders), Guerrero is first in WAR, OPS+, hits and RBI and second only to Sosa in home runs. He’s way ahead of the pack in RBI and this despite the fact that, for five of these ten seasons, he was anchoring an otherwise fairly toothless Expos lineup that was perennially near the bottom of the league in runs scored.
For all of the reasons described above, there’s no doubt in my mind that Vladimir Guerrero is absolutely a Hall of Famer. He passes the eye test and he passes the statistical test. When he’s inducted, he will have the honor of being the first of what will be an impressive parade of position-player inductees from the tiny island of the Dominican Republic. In the years to come, you can expect the recently retired David Ortiz and the still-active Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, and Robinson Cano to join Vladdy in the Hall but Guerrero will be the first. Guerrero will also be either the third player in Cooperstown with the logo of the now-defunct Expos on the cap of his plaque (following Carter and Dawson) or he’ll be the first with the logo of the Los Angeles Angels.
So, if Vladimir Guerrero is a Hall of Famer, is the same true for his superstar predecessor in Montreal, Larry Walker? According to many in the community of sabermetrics, the answer is yes. In fact, Paul Swydan of FanGraphs penned an article entitled “If You Vote for Vlad, You Have to Vote for Walker.” It’s a very interesting piece (if you like advanced metrics) and provides a compelling case. Whether you use the Baseball Reference or FanGraphs version of WAR, Walker is significantly ahead of Guerrero.
(Yes, by the way, these two sites have a different calculation for Wins Above Replacement and there’s actually a third version from Baseball Prospectus. You may sometimes see the terms bWAR for Baseball Reference, fWAR for FanGraphs and WARP from Baseball Prospectus. If you think that it’s a problem to have three versions of a baseball statistic, I’m with you. What WAR attempts to do, which is to provide a single number to encompass hitting, fielding, and base-running with a positional adjustment, is a very difficult thing. In all of my pieces, I use bWAR because the Baseball Reference site is, for me, the most user-friendly. If you really want to know the differences, you can link to it here. Anyway, Walker’s career WAR is better than Guerrero’s no matter which version you use. The Baseball Prospectus version has it the closest, with Walker at 65.9, Guerrero at 63.8; the FanGraphs version has it the furthest apart, with Walker at 68.7 and Guerrero at 54.3. Yes, the spread is as high as 14.4 and as low as 2.1. If that spread makes you lose a little bit of faith in the whole concept, I wouldn’t blame you.)
Anyway, there are two chief complaints against Walker’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame: #1, that he didn’t last long enough and accumulate the “counting” stats that you would expect from a corner outfielder and #2, that his statistics are overly skewed by the ten years when he called Coors Field his home ballpark. Remember, statistics like OPS+ and WAR are supposed to take ballpark factors into account but there are many (including myself) who don’t think the Coors effect is fully accounted for in these metrics.
So let’s get away from WAR for a moment and dive into statistics that we all know and understand, the ones on the back of the baseball cards we collected. I’m going to add one exception: I’m going to show you OPS+ because it’s a statistic we know but it provides context by ballpark and era. First, let’s look at Walker’s numbers and compare them to the eight of the legends already enshrined in Cooperstown (choosing among right fielders who played their entire careers in the 70 years after World War II).
(GG = Gold Gloves, remembering that Gold Glove Awards didn’t exist before 1957)
(ASG = Seasons on All-Star Roster)
OK, I think you’ll understand now why I put the context-dependent OPS+ into this chart. If you show just Walker’s raw on-base% plus slugging%, it’s better than every Hall of Fame right fielder of the past 70 years, including Hank Aaron! Even so, even after (purportedly) stripping away the Coors Field factor, Walker’s OPS+ is still better than Hall of Famers named Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline and Dave Winfield. Where Walker falls dramatically short, of course, is in the counting stats. His 2,160 hit total is woefully low. His 383 home runs are low for a right fielder who didn’t accumulate 2,500 hits, much less 3,000.
Now, to provide an even greater level of context, let’s take a look at how Walker stacks up against some other Hall of Fame outfielders who played primarily in center or left field.
Well, again, Walker’s career OPS+ is better than Carl Yastrzemski’s and Ken Griffey Jr.’s. If only he had the longevity of those obvious Hall of Famers. It’s here, though, that you can see that Walker’s career was probably superior to some already enshrined in the post WWII era, specifically referring to Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett. Also, look at the similarity in the numbers between Walker and the Duke of Flatbush named Snider. There is clearly a case to be made here.
But, but, but, the narrative goes, Walker’s statistics can’t be believed, he got a heavy buzz off the Mile High air that lightens the resistance to ball flight in Coors Field. His home-road splits are out of whack.
So let’s compare Booger’s home-road splits for the time he spent in the Mile High City:
Well, there’s a pretty dramatic difference here, methinks. Because we as baseball fans are conditioned to recognize a hitter’s batting average, the .383 batting average at Coors is especially eye-popping over this 10-year period.
Let’s be clear about something. There is no such thing as a career .383 hitter. Ty Cobb’s career .366 is the best ever for any player with at least 1,000 plate appearances; Ted Williams hit .344 lifetime. Since Williams hit .406 in 1941, only four players have bested .383 for an entire season (Williams, Tony Gwynn, George Brett and Rod Carew). Four players in 74 years. A .383 batting average is just plain silly.
Also, Walker’s .463 on-base% at Coors Field would be (if sustained throughout his career) 3rd best ever only to Williams and Babe Ruth.
His .713 slugging % at Coors Field (if sustained throughout his career) would be the best ever (Ruth’s career slugging % was .690).
These numbers are simply ridiculous, as inauthentic as a barometer of Walker’s overall skill as Bonds’ 73 home runs or Sosa’s three out of four seasons of 60+ home runs.
Walker’s overall Coors Field average as a member of the Rockies was .384 (the .383 total from 1995-2004 includes two games as a visitor with St. Louis in 2004 in which he went 1 for 8). The .384 average is the best ever for any Rockies player with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
Using the more relevant number OPS, Walker blows his fellow Coloradans away; his 1.179 OPS as a member of the Rox is more than 100 points higher than the next best player, Matt Holliday (1.068). So it is absolutely undisputed that Larry Walker has been the best hitter (by a mile) in the brief history of the Colorado Rockies.
In 22 years, since the opening of Coors Field, Rockies hitters have posted a .307 batting average and a .878 OPS in their home games, best by far in the majors. Conversely, those same hitters have posted a .243 average and .691 OPS in road games, the worst in the majors.
As a franchise, Colorado has a .548 winning percentage at Coors Field (170 games above .500). As a franchise, the Rockies have a .390 winning percentage in road games (389 games under .500). That’s a 158-percentage-point difference; the second biggest home-road disparity is just 103 points.
It’s fairly clear by the data that the Rockies hitters have an abnormal home field advantage that goes beyond their home park dimensions. For a visiting pitcher, you have to adjust to the fact that your pitches simply don’t break as much. That’s a much bigger adjustment than you might make to compensate for the Green Monster in Fenway or the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium.
So how do we properly account for this when evaluating his Hall of Fame candidacy? What you’ll see here in the chart below is a hypothetical. I’ve re-calibrated Walker’s career numbers by doubling his road statistics during the 1995-2004 and compared those numbers to his actual career.
Gulp. For a right fielder, this hypothetical career doesn’t look like a Hall of Fame career at all, seven Gold Gloves or not.
Is that fair? Is it fair to “double the road stats” to determine a player’s true worth? Well, it does level the playing field. It strips away the huge advantage of a player’s home ballpark. It can provide a greater apples-to-apples comparison among contemporary ballplayers.
However (I don’t remember who made this point a year ago), you can make a comparison that will surprise you when you look at the career road statistics of Walker and first-ballot Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.
Whoa! If you look just at the “rate” stats, there’s no difference between the two. Griffey sailed into Cooperstown a year ago with 99.3% of the vote on the BBWAA ballot while Walker got a paltry 15.5%. Of course, rate stats aren’t everything. Griffey piled up 630 career home runs (to Walker’s 383). Still, it’s evident that Junior’s career in the Kingdome (.310 BA, .393 OBP, .605 SLG, .998 OPS) was a huge asset in building his career numbers, not as great an asset as Walker’s years in Coors. but a huge asset nonetheless and nobody holds that against Griffey.
So it’s obvious that Larry Walker is not the only player in the history of baseball to gain a significant advantage from the yard in which he toiled. Many a Cub took advantage of the short power alleys at Wrigley Field and many a member of the Red Sox took advantage of the Green Monster. It’s part of the game.
Anyway, let’s put this into context by examining how big a factor Coors Field was in Walker’s career as it compares to other home-field advantages that players have enjoyed in baseball history.
Thanks to the greatest website in the universe, Baseball Reference, we have an answer to questions like these. The chart below shows the best OPS splits in the history of baseball from a home-road perspective. To explain the three key columns:
OPS home = the OPS in home games for each player’s career.
OPS total = the total OPS for each player in their career.
Diff = the difference (or “spread”) between the player’s OPS in home games compared to their OPS in all games.
On this chart, we’ll show the best seven “spreads” plus a few other key players of interest. I’ve set a minimum of 2,500 home plate appearances for these splits.
The list starts in 1913, which is the first year that Baseball Reference has splits of this type. Please note that these are not “home-road” OPS splits but “home-everything” splits.
Every once in awhile you look at something and it takes a few minutes to contemplate how extraordinary it is. Let me highlight and explain some interesting things on this chart:
- Hall of Famer Chuck Klein and Cy Williams played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1920’s (Williams) and 1930’s (Klein) in the Baker Bowl. Both were left-handed hitters. The Baker Bowl’s right field fence, 60 feet tall, was just 281 feet from home plate.
- You’ll notice a lot of members of the Boston Red Sox on this list (Doerr, Boggs, Rice, Lynn, Yastrzemski) thanks in part to the Green Monster.
- The Rockies (despite having only existed since 1993) dominate the list. Longtime Rockies Walker, Helton and Bichette occupy the #4, #5 and #7 spots; Holliday, Castilla, Tulowitzki, Galarraga, Cuddyer and Young spent many years in Colorado as well. Rockies alums occupy 9 of the top 50 spots in the OPS home-everywhere splits in the history of the sport.
What is truly stunning about this chart is the last row, where I looked at Larry Walker’s Coors-everything-else split. The OPS differential of .207 is bigger than any in the history of Major League Baseball. Walker is 4th overall on this list in the last 100 years in home-everything OPS differential, but that includes his six seasons in Montreal and his final year and a half in St. Louis. His Coors-“other” splits are ridiculous.
There’s a different way to contextualize the Coors Field effect and that is to compare Walker’s split to the rest of the players on the Rockies and the entire National League. The next chart (are you sick of charts yet?) shows Walker’s Coors-everything-else splits compared to other Blake Street Bombers and also compared to every other player in the bigs.
There are two other factors that need to be considered when evaluating the impact of Coors. First, starting with the 2002 season, the team started storing all baseballs in a humidor, a temperature and atmospheric pressure-controlled chamber. The policy was implemented because of tests that proved that balls were shrinking and hardenening in the lighter Mile High atmosphere.
Here are the pre-humidor and post-humidor OPS for Walker, Helton, all Rockies players and all National League players. I’m including Helton because he is the only other member of the Rockies that has at least 500 plate appearances both before and after the humidor was used.
The difference is striking and the super-charged Coors debut was concurrent with Walker’s prime. Some other facts about the difference between 1995-2001 Coors and 2002-2016 (Coors Light, if you will):
- In the franchise’s brief history, 20 members of the Rockies have posted a single-season OPS of 1.110 or greater (with a minimum of 250 plate appearances): 13 of those seasons occurred in the 7 pre-humidor years, only 7 have done it in the 15 seasons since.
- Of the top 15 batting average seasons for Rockies players (again with 250 minimum PA), 14 of them took place in the ballpark’s first seven years, ranging from Dante Bichette hitting .381 in 1998 to Walker’s .461 Coors BA in 1999.
- Walker hit 30+ home runs four times in his career: all four times occurred in the pre-humidor era.
- Walker hit .350 or better four times, all between 1997-2001.
So, what does this all mean?
The “pro” Walker Hall of Fame argument:
Walker’s Coors Field performance, the way he took advantage of his home ballpark, was so remarkable, so far and above any other player’s home game performance in the history of the sport that, in conjunction with his all-around game, it is worthy of a Hall of Fame plaque. The other Rockies on this list derived fantastic benefits from Coors but none of them produced like Larry Walker did and it’s not even close.
Larry Walker’s OPS in all home games (which includes his years in Montreal and St. Louis) was 1.068. Among players with at least 3,500 plate appearances in their home games since 1913 (the first year of the available Baseball Reference splits), only three players did better.
Those three names are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx. Walker’s career home-game OPS is better even than Barry Bonds. If you just took Walker’s 1.172 OPS in only his Coors Field home games, he would be second only to Ruth.
OK, that’s really impressive, some might say, but because of the Mile High air it’s as “fake” as Bonds’ 762 career home runs.
So, let’s go on the road again. Since 1913, there have been 389 players who have 3,500 plate appearances or more in their road games. Larry Walker’s career road OPS of .865 is still an impressive 53rd among all 389 of those players. Among near contemporaries, his .865 road OPS is better than Griffey, Sosa, Helton, Jeff Kent, Robinson Cano, Will Clark, Carlos Beltran, and Adrian Beltre.
Among non-contemporaries (albeit those who played in less prolific hitting eras), he’s higher on this list than dozens of Hall of Fame players (including former Expos great Andre Dawson, who posted a .800 OPS in 1,315 games on the road).
Of the 52 players since 1913 who have 3,500 plate appearances and a career road OPS better than .865…
- 27 are in the Hall of Fame
- 7 are on the Hall of Fame ballot with Walker (Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Vladimir Guerrero, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield).
- 5 are retired but not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame (Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz)
- 3 are still active (Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez)
- 8 have been linked to PED’s (Bonds, Ramirez, A-Rod, Giambi, Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco)
- Only 5 eligible non-PED-linked players have a road OPS higher than Walker’s and are not in the Hall of Fame (Carlos Delgado, Tim Salmon, Brian Giles, Dick Allen, Jim Edmonds)
Simply put, Walker’s .865 road OPS is not a bad number and not a disqualifier. Given the crowded Hall of Fame ballot, he probably wouldn’t get even 5% of the BBWAA vote with a number like that if it represented his whole career (as it was with Edmonds last year) but, in the context of his overall career, it’s not a deal-killer.
Oh, and he won seven Gold Gloves and was a superior base-runner. People talk about five-tool players. The tools are hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running. Walker excelled at all five facets throughout his career.
The “con” Walker Hall of Fame argument:
I’ve gone through this before but the “con” argument is pretty simple, actually: Walker’s years in Coors have inflated his overall “rate” stats to such a degree that his Cooperstown credentials cannot be taken seriously, especially when you consider his relatively low career “counting” stat totals.
And, to go back on the road one more time, let’s re-visit the “double the road stats” concept that we looked at earlier. We can see that Walker’s .865 road OPS, while not superlative, holds its own. But how does this compare to his contemporaries when you also stack up the counting stats.
The chart below is a hypothetical; it’s not based in reality but it’s scientifically valid. What I’m going to show here is a universe where a player spends his entire career on the road. As we’ve seen, home field advantages aren’t limited to Coors Field. What this chart does is essentially double each player’s road stats but with a few tweaks. For fairness, I’ve taken Coors out of the equation for everybody, whether they wore a Rockies uniform or not. After that, I normalized each player’s numbers by whatever factor was required to yield the identical number of plate appearances of their actual career.
So, as a simple example, if player X logged 80 plate appearances on the road (in non-Coors games) but had 200 total, I would multipy the stats from those 80 career PA by a factor of 1.25.
80 x 1.25 = 200
In reality, the factor is much closer to 1 but the the 80/1.25 math is easier to understand. Anyway, this how I gave everyone their true career plate appearances in the hypothetical.
NOTE: the hypothetical numbers you’ll see here for Walker are different than in the previous version, in which I merely doubled the road stats for his years in Colorado. To compare to other players, I’m taking his entire road career, including the years in Montreal and St. Louis.
I’ve included seven other players here, all of whom are on the current Hall of Fame ballot with Walker:
If all you had to look at were these offensive numbers, that nobody told you about PED’s or seven Gold Gloves or super-charged Coors Field results, is there anyone on this list that you wouldn’t put in the Hall of Fame before Larry Walker?
Among these eight players, only Jeff Kent and Sammy Sosa had a lower OPS in road games. Kent was a 2nd baseman; Sosa being last on this OPS list is surprising and a testament to how he was fortunate to play half his games in Wrigley Field, not to mention other factors that we believe might have “enhanced” his home run totals.
To beat this point to death, take a look at the hypothetical careers of six other players that were booted off the Hall of Fame ballot in recent years.
There’s not a lot of difference here. I included Ellis Burks because, like Walker, he was a member of the Blake Street Bombers in the late 1990’s. Nobody would ever think of Burks as a Cooperstown candidate but, when isolated from the Mile High environment, his numbers are similar to Walker’s.
The most relevant comparison here is with Jim Edmonds, a human highlight reel who won eight Gold Gloves in center field (a more important position on the defensive spectrum than right, where Walker played) and, in real life, hit 393 home runs. He was drummed out of Cooperstown consideration last year due to the over-crowded ballot in which the writers couldn’t find space for him in their top 10’s. For me personally, using the eye test, I consider Edmonds and Walker to be equally Hall-worthy.
The final issue to address is this: one of the explanations for the weak road statistics for Rockies’ players is the constant adjustments that they have to make, transitioning to and from the thin air in Colorado. Just as jet lag and lack of sleep takes a toll on the human body, there is unquestionably an adjustment that has to be made for all players going from a “normal” atmosphere to the Mile High City. Rockies players need to make this adjustment all year long.
Logically, being conditioned to the Mile High air should give the Rockies an enormous home field field advantage but might also put them at a decided disadvantage on the road. As we’ve shown, the data bears this out. Rockies hitters have the best home OPS and the worst road OPS among all MLB teams over 22 seasons.
To be best at home but worst on the road would seem to lead to the conclusion that, just as visiting teams have to deal with the altitude effects of Denver, the Rockies players have to adjust the other way on the road. The hanging curve at home bites out of the strike zone on the road. The impact of this can’t be studied by a Baseball Reference Split finder but, by diving into the game logs, you can see how a player does on a day-by-day basis. I downloaded all of Larry Waker’s game logs onto a spreadsheet and then sorted them for all road games that occurred in the three days after the team concluded a home stand.
You can see very clearly that, on “the day after,” Walker seemed to have, at least statistically, a bit of a Mile High hangover. However, you can also see that there are significantly fewer plate appearances due to natural days off for teams after they finish home stands. So whether this is something to explain the league-worst road numbers for Rockies batters is inconclusive at best. The “Day Two” numbers would seem to indicate that there’s no impact beyond the next day.
So, after all of this, does Larry Walker belong in the Hall of Fame. Do you believe in WAR? How much credit do you give for being one of the greatest home-field hitters in the history of the sport? What are the seven Gold Gloves worth?
Personally, I would be inclined to call the Canadian-born Booger a Hall of Famer. While his numbers were boosted by Coors Field, he was an excellent, all-around player and his Coors performance was other-worldly. That’s not to say that I would vote for him this year. I feel that there are too many other players that were just a bit better. The Hall limits any voter to 10 selections and, for me, he’s probably 13th or 14th on the long list.
If he eventually gets his plaque in Cooperstown, Walker will be the bridge of the direct lineage of Expos-bred right fielders from Andre Dawson to Vladimir Guerrero. Of course, if Booger is eventually inducted, they’ll likely put a Rockies logo on the cap on his plaque because his greatest years clearly were in Denver.
Tim Raines will be announced as a Hall of Famer on Wednesday. Vladimir Guerrero may be as well. It will take longer for Walker (if it ever happens) but it’s still a testament to the pipeline of fantastic talent out of Montreal for a franchise that never appeared in the World Series. Gary Carter, Dawson, Raines, Guerrero, and Randy Johnson were all drafted (or signed) and nurtured in the Expos farm system. For a team that no longer exists, the Montreal Expos have quite a history north of our border.
Thanks for reading.