When it comes to the Hall of Fame debate, Larry Walker is an enigma. He was a five-tool player, the type that is beloved by those who study advanced baseball metrics. And yet, because of an injury plagued and shortened career, he fell short of many of the benchmark offensive numbers that Hall of Fame voters usually like to see, especially in an era filled with eye-popping statistics. And, of course, there is the Coors effect. The Mile High ballpark yields offensive numbers that disorient analysts, giving them a buzz or fog from which it’s hard to gauge a player’s true merit.

Cooperstown Cred: Larry Walker

8th year on the ballot (received 22% of the vote in 2017)

  • .313 BA, 383 HR, 1,311 RBI, ballpark-adjusted 141 OPS+
  • 7-time Gold Glove winner
  • 5-time All-Star
  • 1997 MVP with Rockies (.366 BA, 49 HR, 130 RBI, 178 OPS+)
  • From 1997-2002, averaged .353 with a 157 OPS+
  • 3-time batting champion (1998, 1999, 2001)
  • 9th most double plays turned as RF (40) in MLB history
  • 72.6 career WAR (12th best all time for RF, according to Baseball Reference)

(Cover Photo: Denver Post)

(This article is an update of a piece originally posted on July 20th, 2017)

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballot of 2018 represents Larry Walker’s 8th year on the ballot; he has never pulled above 23% in the vote, bottoming out at 10.2% in 2014, when 18 players received more than his 58 votes.

Because of his 72.6 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Walker is a popular candidate in the sabermetric community (7th best among all of the 2018 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 the unique effect it has on baseball statistics.

Walker is running out of time with only three years left on the ballot. There’s no precedent for a player skyrocketing from 22% to 75% in just three ballot cycles while the clock is ticking. Still, there a glimmer of hope in the early returns of the 2018 vote. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, as of 7:30p PT on Mon., 1/22, Walker is tracking at 40.6%, which is nearly double the 21.9% he received in 2017. Still, even if that vote percentage holds (most players drop in he final tallies), the gain would be 18.7%. If he were to gain an identical 18.5% in 2019 and 2020 (his final year on the ballot), he would barely beat the 75% threshold. Making this kind of gain every year is a heavy lift.

The kind of three-year surge that Walker would need to wind up in Cooperstown via the BBWAA ballot hasn’t happened since the early years of Hall of Fame voting. The last player to go from under 22% to over 75% in the span of four voting cycles was Herb Pennock, who went from 18.2% in 1945 to 77.7% in 1948. If he had more time, Walker might have a better chance. However, a few years ago, the Hall of Fame decided to shorten each player’s time on the ballot from 15 years to 10 years.

So far, the shrunken timeline has seemed to focus the collective minds of the voters. Tim Raines went from 46% in his 7th year to 86% in his final year on the ballot. Edgar Martinez was at 43% in his 7th year and in this, his 9th, is currently tracking at just under 80%. Although most analysts (including this one) predict that Edgar will fall short this year, he’s now in “scoring position” to get his plaque in 2019. The hill that Walker needs to climb is much steeper. Still, he has a passionate constituency and the ballot will likely be less jam-packed in 2020, so at least there’s a small possibility of a history-making three-year surge.

In the meantime, let’s try to answer the question about whether Walker deserves the voting surge that he’ll need to make it into the Hall.

Career Highlights

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Larry Walker made his debut with the Montreal Expos, becoming a solid regular in 1990, the first of five excellent seasons. The British Columbia born Walker, who went by the nickname of Booger, was far and away the best Canadian-born player in the history of the franchise and, in a different economy, would likely have been a cornerstone for the franchise. 1994 should have been the greatest season in the team’s history. The Expos, led by Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, and a skinny 22-year old pitcher named Pedro Martinez, had the best record in baseball before the players’ strike that would ultimately end the season and cancel the World Series.

After the strike-shortened ’94 season, the Expos gutted their powerhouse team. Centerfielder Grissom, starter Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland were traded and Walker was allowed to walk away as a free agent. He signed four-year, $22.5 million contract with the fledgling Colorado Rockies, a franchise entering just its third season of existence.

1995 marked the season in which the Rockies moved from Mile High Stadium into their new jewel of a ballpark on Blake Street, Coors Field. Walker and his fellow Blake Street Bombers took quickly to their new ballpark, winning 61% of their games there in 1995, enough to propel them to the playoffs under the brand new Wild Card format. The Rockies were bounced in the first round of the playoffs but baseball was super hot in the Mile High City.

After an injury-plagued 1996 campaign, Walker broke out in 1997 with his lone MVP season. The numbers were other-worldly: 49 home runs (13 more than his previous career high), 130 RBI (29 more), a .366 batting average (far better than his previous best of .322) and a ridiculous 1.172 OPS. Even when adjusting for ballpark effects, Walker’s OPS+ was 178, 2nd best in the N.L. to Mike Piazza.

1997 was the beginning of a brilliant 6-year run where Walker hit .353 with a 1.089 OPS (157 OPS+). Remember, OPS+ is designed to adjust for ballpark effects. 100 is league average so a 157 OPS+ is 57% better than average. Anyway, Walker’s 157 OPS+ for those six years was 6th best in the majors for any player with at least 2,500 plate appearances.

Here’s the top 10 list (showing the actual OPS as well for point of comparison):

Best OPS+ from 1997 to 2002, all players with min. 2,500 PA.
Rank1997-2002OPS+OPS
1Barry Bonds2031.161
2Mark McGwire1781.094
3Manny Ramirez1651.044
4Jason Giambi1611.000
5Jim Thome1581.008
6Larry Walker1571.089
7Edgar Martinez156.983
8Sammy Sosa1551.000
9Jeff Bagwell153.995
10Mike Piazza153.974
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Nearing the end of his career, in the middle of the 2004 season Walker was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, a super team that won 105 games in the regular season before losing the World Series to the “break the curse” Boston Red Sox. Battling a herniated disc in his neck, Walker only lasted one more year, his career ending after the 2005 season at the age of 38.

How Larry Walker Compares to Hall of Fame Right Fielders

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 question whether the Coors effect is fully accounted for in these metrics.

Anyway, understanding the context-defining virtues of OPS+ and WAR, let’s look at Walker’s numbers and compare them to eight legends already enshrined in Cooperstown (choosing among right fielders who played their entire careers after World War II). Remember that Gold Glove Awards didn’t exist prior to 1957.

These are ranked by OPS+. The goal here is to classify Walker with these eight greats in terms of pure hitting results.

Hall of Fame RF (debuted since 1945) and Larry Walker
PlayerOPS+WARPAHHRRBIBAOBPSLG
Hank Aaron155142.71394137717552297.305.374.555
Frank Robinson154107.41174229435861812.294.389.537
Larry Walker14172.6803021603831311.313.400.565
Reggie Jackson13973.61141825845631702.262.356.490
Al Kaline13492.31159630073991582.297.376.480
Tony Gwynn13269.01023231411351138.338.388.459
Dave Winfield13063.81235831104651833.283.353.475
Roberto Clemente13094.61021130002401305.317.359.475
Andre Dawson11964.61076927744381591.279.323.482
Courtesy Baseball Reference

OK, I think you’ll understand now why I put the ballpark-and-hitting-era 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! However, 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.

The Counting Stats Problem

Where Larry Walker falls dramatically short is in the counting stats. His 2,160 hit total is low and his 383 home runs are low for a right fielder who didn’t accumulate 2,500 hits, much less 3,000. This is, of course, because Walker only logged 8,030 career plate appearances. This is one of the complaints about Walker and its a valid one: he battled injuries throughout his career and had a hard time staying on the field consistently. Only once in his career did he play as many as 144 games (his MVP season, when he played in 153). During his 17-year career, Walker played in just 1,988 of his team’s 2567 games, a 77% total. By comparison, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson played in 89% of his team’s games from 1977-1993, the 17 years in which he was a full-time player.

And just a reminder that Wins Above Replacement is another “counting” stat. The longer you play, the higher your WAR is likely to be. The fact that Walker’s WAR is almost the same as Reggie Jackson’s is notable, considering that Reggie played in 832 more games. Because of the value gained by his vastly superior defensive and base-running metrics, Walker’s WAR is also higher Dave Winfield’s, Tony Gwynn‘s, and Andre Dawson’s, despite a shorter career.

The comparison to Dawson is particularly relevant because, in many ways, Walker was Dawson’s heir in right field in Montreal (if we forget the Mitch Webster/Hubie Brooks era). The Hawk, feeling the pain in his knees on Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf, left the Expos after the 1986 season, signing a one-year blank contract with the Chicago Cubs for the 1987 campaign. The change was good for Dawson; he hit 49 home runs, drove in 137 and won the N.L. MVP in his debut season on Chicago’s north side. In the first chart below, the basic “back of the baseball card” numbers and accolades of Walker and Dawson are compared. We’ll also show the numbers for Walker’s heir in right field in Montreal, Vladimir Guerrero, who of course is also on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot, and almost certainly bound for Cooperstown since he is currently tracking at over 90% of the vote.

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Career StatisticsPARHHRRBIBAOBPSLG
Larry Walker8030135521603831311.313.400.565
Vladimir Guerrero9059132825904491496.318.379.553
Andre Dawson10769137327744381591.279.323.482

One thing leaps from the page:

Toronto Star

Dawson, who is in the Hall of Fame, was not the same quality of hitter as Guerrero and Walker. Every element of his slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) is far, far below the later Expos outfielders. Dawson did not play in the prolific hitting era as the others, but you can’t explain away a disparity that large based solely on playing in the ’80’s vs the ’90’s or 2000’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.

Now, for our three power-hitting Expos products, let’s look at their advanced metrics. We’re going to get a little deep now so please hang in there for a few paragraphs. If you’re not a fan of WAR, don’t leave! Just go ahead and scroll down to “Vladdy and Larry.”

With regards to WAR, I’ve broken it down by three of its key component parts, batting, fielding and base-running. It’s not crucial to understand precisely how the numbers are calculated. What they are supposed to mean is the number of runs each player created (or saved) above or below that of a replacement level player (defined as someone you could find in AAA).

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Career StatisticsYears PlayedPAOPS+WARWAR runs BattingWAR runs FieldingWAR runs Base Running
Larry Walker17803014172.64209440
Vlad Guerrero16905914059.34297-3
Andre Dawson211076911964.52347014

Remember that WAR, like home runs or hits, 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 his game; he was an excellent hitter, fielder and base runner.

Vladdy and Larry

Against his near-contemporary Vladimir Guerrero, some writers have made the case that, if you put Guerrero into the Hall of Fame, you have to put Larry 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.

The Sporting News

But Walker has been mired at the bottom the Hall of Fame ballot for seven years while Guerrero debuted this January with over 70% of the vote mostly because, from the moment he set foot on the diamond, Guerrero had the “wow” factor and because he broke into an exclusive 400 home run/.300 career batting average club that Walker couldn’t reach.

As I wrote in my piece about Guerrero, Vladdy 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.

The other obvious reason that Guerrero is considered a sure-fire Hall of Famer and Walker is not is because of the natural skepticism attached to Walker’s numbers due to the decade he spent plying his trade in the mile high air 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).

For whatever it’s worth, in 25 career games at Coors, Guerrero hit .382 with 9 home runs, 20 RBI, and a 1.134 OPS.

Baseball Reference has a fun tool called “neutralized” statistics where you can adjust any players stats into a different hitting environment. On this tool, if Guerrero had a Groundhog Day life, spending his entire career with the 2000 Rockies, he would have hit .359 for his career with 3,122 hits and 539 home runs. By comparison, if Walker had spent every year of his baseball life with the 2000 Rox, he would have hit .341 with 2,534 hits and 443 home runs. This exercise is science fiction of course but, in real life, we’ll see below (in “The Coors Effect”) that the impact on any offensive player’s statistics from the Rockies home ballpark is real and severe.

Guerrero had more home runs and he had a higher career batting average despite Walker’s Colorado advantage.

Baseball Reference
CareerPAHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPSOPS+
Guerrero90594491496.318.379.553.931140
Walker80303831311.313.400.565.965141

And, if you look at just the career road numbers for each player (thus stripping out the Coors effect), it’s not close.

Baseball Reference
Road StatsPAHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPS
Guerrero4461210670.312.376.536.912
Walker4034168564.278.370.495.865

Finally, although it’s an irrelevant point, it’s a fun one, the matter of 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 memorable and very much in the news these days.

“Booger” was the nickname of one of the socially challenged teens in “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Anyway, if Vladimir Guerrero is a Hall of Famer, is the same true for his superstar predecessor in Montreal, Larry Walker?

A year ago, 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 and provides a compelling case.

The Coors Effect

Anyway, whether you consider him a Hall of Famer or not, Larry Walker was a great baseball player. But, but, but, the narrative goes, Walker’s statistics can’t be believed because 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 start by comparing Booger’s home-road splits for the time he spent in the Mile High City:

Larry Walker splits between Coors Field and all other ballparks
1995-2004PAHRRBIRH2BBAOBPSLGOPS
Coors Field2489154520555813178.383.463.7131.176
Other Parks2484115355366590126.281.386.518.905
Courtesy Baseball Reference

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, Gwynn, George Brett and Rod Carew).

Four players in 74 years. A .383 batting average is just plain silly.

Denver Post

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 complete offensive 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 at 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 23 years (from 1995-2017), since the opening of Coors Field, Rockies hitters have posted a .307 batting average and a .877 OPS in their home games, best by far in the majors. Conversely, those same hitters posted a .243 average and .692 OPS in road games, the worst in the majors.

During those first 23 years, as a franchise, Colorado have had a .549 winning percentage at Coors Field (179 games above .500). As a franchise, those same Rockies have had a .395 winning percentage in road games (378 games under .500). That’s a 154-percentage-point difference; the second biggest home-road disparity for any team during those 23 years is just 105 points (the Pittsburgh Pirates). Depending on how you look at it, the Rockies have either the biggest home-field advantage in baseball or the biggest road-game disadvantage.

However you label it, 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 seasons and compared those numbers to his actual career.

Hypothetical Career: double the road stats from 1995 to '04
Larry WalkerPAHRRBIRH2BBAOBPSLGOPS
Hypothetical7885331111511371906411.281.375.502.877
Actual 8030383131113552160471.313.400.565.965

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 or disadvantage of a player’s home ballpark. It can provide a greater apples-to-apples comparison among contemporary ballplayers.

But Larry Walker of course isn’t the only player in baseball history to derive an excessive benefit from his home ballpark. Peter Gammons made a point a couple of years ago that, if you look at the career road statistics of Walker and first-ballot Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., there are some rather surprising results.

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Road GamesPARH2BHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPS
Ken Griffey Jr.57968031381241298874.272.355.505.860
Larry Walker4034566967203168564.278.370.495.865

Whoa! If you look just at the “rate” stats, there’s no difference between the two. Griffey sailed into Cooperstown two years 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. Junior piled up 630 career home runs (to Walker’s 383). If you created a hypothetical “double the road stats” calculation for Griffey, he still would have had 596 career home runs.

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.

How Coors Compares to other Home-Field Advantages

The Hall of Fame is filled with players who took advantage of home cooking. 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 Larry Walker’s career as it compares to other home-field advantages that players have enjoyed in baseball history.

Thanks to 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 (with both home and road games).

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 game 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.

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Rk1913-2016 (min 2500 PA at home)Yrs w/ COLOPS in home gamesOPS in ALL gamesDiff
1Bobby Doerr0.929.823.106
T-2Hank Greenberg01.1221.017.105
T-2Chuck Klein01.027.922.105
T-4Larry Walker101.068.965.103
T-4Dante Bichette7.938.835.103
6Cy Williams0.936.837.099
7Todd Helton171.048.953.095
8Rico Petrocelli0.843.752.091
13Ron Santo0.905.826.079
16Wade Boggs0.934.858.076
23Matt Holliday5.964.897.067
T-24Jim Rice0.920.854.066
T-24Fred Lynn0.911.845.066
26Carl Yastrzemski0.904.841.063
T-28Troy Tulowitzki10.926.865.062
T-33Vinny Castilla9.857.797.060
T-38Andres Galarraga5.904.846.058
T-41Michael Cuddyer3.863.805.058
T-41Ryne Sandberg0.853.795.058
T-44Ernie Banks0.886.830.056
T-44Eric Young5.805.749.056
T-49Neifi Perez6.727.672.055
T-63Ken Griffey Jr.0.958.907.051
*BOLD: played with Rockies
Larry Walker: Coors Field vs. total at all other ballparks101.172.965.207
Baker Bowl dimensions (Courtesy: CBS Sports)

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, Petrocelli, Boggs, Rice, Lynn, Yastrzemski) thanks in part to the Green Monster.
  • The Chicago Cubs are well represented here too, with Hall of Famers and longtime Cubbies Santo, Sandberg and Banks.
  • The Rox (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, Young and Perez spent many years in Colorado as well. Rockies alums occupy 10 of the top 52 spots in the OPS home-everywhere splits in over 100 years of the sport.

Remember, what Baseball Reference is showing here is the split for each of these players for their entire career. 

I feel I may have “buried the lead here.” What is truly stunning about this chart is the last row, where I did a manual analysis of Larry Walker’s Coors-vs-All Parks split. Larry Walker’s OPS differential of .207 is bigger than any in the history of Major League Baseball by NEARLY DOUBLE. 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-All Parks splits are ridiculous.

The Humidor

There is one other factor that needs 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 Larry Walker, Todd Helton, all Rockies players and all National League players. I’m including Helton for comparative purposes 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. Helton will also be joining Walker on the BBWAA ballot a year from now.

Comparing Walker, Helton, and all other players pre-humidor and post-humidor
Larry Walker Todd Helton
Coors FieldOPSAVGAB/HROPSAVGAB/HR
1995-20011.220.39612.51.161.37513.1
2002-20131.035.33920.1.999.33221.0
All RockiesAll MLB
Coors FieldOPSAVGAB/HROPSAVGAB/HR
1995-2001.935.32822.1.912.31822.5
2002-2017.851.29827.7.829.29128.9

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 2002-2017 (Coors Light, if you will):

  • In the franchise’s brief history, 21 different times a member of the Rockies posted a single-season OPS of 1.100 or greater at Coors (with a minimum of 250 plate appearances): 13 of those seasons occurred in the 7 pre-humidor years, only 8 were done it in the 16 seasons since.
  • Of the top 16 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 1995 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:

Larry Walker’s prodigious performance at Coors Field, 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, that it makes him worthy of a Hall of Fame plaque. The other Rockies on these lists derived fantastic benefits from Coors but none of them produced like Larry Walker did and it’s not even close.

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.

Three. 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 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. From 1913 to 2016, there were 389 players who had 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 road game plate appearances and a career road OPS better than .865…

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 bottom line: considering how truly extraordinary Walker’s Coors Field numbers were, how vastly better they were to anyone else who’s ever played there, by excluding him from the Hall of Fame because we don’t believe those numbers, are we saying that no hitter on the Colorado Rockies can ever get a plaque in Cooperstown?

The “con” Walker Hall of Fame argument:

I’ve gone through this before but the “con” argument is pretty simple: Larry 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. On a ballot with so many players who posted huge numbers, Walker just didn’t play long enough to post the numbers he needs. And playing long enough also includes not playing enough games per season. As we saw in the Dawson comment above, Walker missed 23% of his teams’ games in his career.

I’m going to address one final issue, as it relates to the Coors effect. 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 23 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. So I dove into the game logs, downloading all of Larry Waker’s box score lines onto a spreadsheet and then sorted them for all road games that occurred in the three days after the team concluded a home stand.

Larry Walker: on the road in the first three days after Rockies home stand ends
Walker's Road Trips ('95-'04)PABAOBPSLGOPS
Day One160.264.356.471.828
Day Two294.288.415.571.986
Day Three275.295.415.502.917
First Three Days729.285.402.522.924
Overall Road Stats (with COL)2315.280.385.514.899

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?

Conclusion

The 2018 edition of the ballot is jam-packed with talent. Chipper Jones and Jim Thome are first-ballot locks, Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez and Trevor Hoffman are all currently tracking, per the HOF Tracker (a site worth bookmarking) at over 75% based on the ballots released publicly so far. Two fantastic pitchers from their generation (Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling) are trending upwards. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens hang around, year after year, sucking hundreds of votes from voters who believe that two of the greatest players of all-time should be in Cooperstown, PEDs or not. That’s 9 players right there and that combination exists on 41 of the first 207 ballots made public.

The player who most often occupies the 10th spot on those ballots is, right now, Larry Walker, and it’s not close. The Canadian-born star appears on 18 of those ballots that also contain the “Big 9.” The next highest totals are for Omar Vizquel and Billy Wagner, who appear respectively on 5 of those ballots each

What this tells us is that Walker has truly emerged as a “bubble” candidate. The momentum that his supporters are attempting to drive is depressed by the presence of so many high-level players and the limitation of 10 selections per ballot. 7 writers have already publicly stated that they would have checked Walker’s name if they were allowed to go above the limit of 10. Throw in holdover candidates Fred McGriff, Jeff Kent, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield with talented newcomers Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones and any baseball writer who believes in a “big Hall” has quite a math problem on their hand. This is the top 10 in the vote right now:

Personally, I think Larry Walker 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, far superior to any other player’s performance in his home ballpark. Now, when I say Walker is a Hall of Famer, 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 between 11th and 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 was inducted to the Hall of Fame last summer. Vladimir Guerrero almost certainly will be this year. It will take longer for Walker (and it will probably have to be through a future version of the Veterans/Eras Committee) 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 featured quite a trove of great players. Larry Walker was one of those great players and hopefully he’ll be rewarded eventually with a plaque in Cooperstown.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

One thought on “Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame Case and the Impact of Coors Field”

  1. If people can get voters to not notice Walker’s Home/Road splits and notice Helton’s worse numbers, that’ll help. Get them to focus on his career totals and averages, what he was.

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