HOF candidate Walker was jack of all trades

Ability to hit, play great defense and run well puts him in exclusive company

January 7th, 2018

Eventually, this will come around to Larry Walker. Last year, I put together a spreadsheet that had the top 100 players in three categories. (Yes, this is the sort of thing I do in my spare time.)
The three categories -- all pulled from Baseball Reference's excellent search tool -- were:
1. Batting runs
2. Fielding runs
3. Baserunning runs
The idea was to see just how many players in baseball history ranked in the top 100 in more than one category. See, there's something about the National Baseball Hall of Fame that few people know: Most of the great players in baseball history were great at one thing. They might have been good or average at multiple things, but generally speaking, they were great at one thing.
Frank Thomas. One thing. He was great at hitting baseballs very hard.
Ted Williams. One thing. He was great at hitting baseballs very hard.
Jim Thome, who will be elected this year, was great at one thing: hitting baseballs over fences.
Now, you could say -- and you would be right -- that hitting is more than one thing. The three guys I listed above all were not just great at hitting the ball, but also great at getting on base by drawing walks. Also, the single act of hitting a baseball is the most important one in the game … and it takes multiple skills.
But my point is -- and my top 100 spreadsheet proves it -- very few players are all-time greats at more than one part of the game. Babe Ruth ranked in the top 100 in one category. Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, all just one category. Even players who were widely acknowledged to be great all-around players, such as Barry Larkin and Joe DiMaggio, showed up in only one category.
Larkin made only the top 100 baserunning list, and DiMaggio made only the batting list (though it's worth noting his career was shortened by World War II).
So you can see: This is exclusive territory. In all, 34 players made the top 100 list in multiple categories. These are the players you would expect, for the most part. Players who made the list for batting and fielding included Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Schmidt, and Al Kaline. So did John Olerud, a bit of a surprise.
Players who made the list for batting and baserunning included Derek Jeter, George Brett, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson (of course), Ty Cobb, etc.
And then a few speedsters made the list for baserunning and fielding, including , Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith and, interestingly, .
That's not all of them, but you get the idea. But now comes the big finish: Only three players appeared on all three lists. THREE.
One is Willie Mays, though you probably knew that.
One is Barry Bonds, and you knew that, too.
And Larry Walker is the third.
Yep, Larry Walker. He ranks 57th in batting runs, just ahead of Mike Piazza, 58th in baserunning, one ahead of Bonds, and 90th in fielding, barely ahead of Tris Speaker.
Walker last year became my Hall of Fame cause. And this is the reason: The true rarity in baseball history is a player who can do it all. It's only natural that the greatest players in the game have some flaw. Cal Ripken Jr. couldn't run. Henderson wasn't a great fielder. Even the great Henry Aaron hit into a lot of double plays.

Walker had no such flaws. Well, that's not right: His flaw, if you want to call it that, was a general inability to stay healthy. He played 150 games in a season just once. He was a big ol' Canadian, someone who had dreamed not of a Major League career but of one in the NHL. His body tended to break down.
But he managed to play in almost 2,000 games, and in that time he hit .313/.400/.565, an incredible split. He won seven Gold Gloves, and the fielding numbers mostly match the honors. He stole 33 bases in his incredible 1997 MVP season, when he hit .366 with a league-leading 49 home runs and an impossible 409 total bases, which at the time was the most in 63 years going back to Gehrig. He was, throughout his career, an amazing baserunner.
Yes, now we must talk about Coors Field because everything Walker did is inevitably shaped by the Rockies' ballpark. It was a ridiculous hitter's ballpark for Walker, no doubt about that. One thing that is sometimes missed, however, is that Coors Field did not play a significant role in Walker's MVP season. That year, he hit .346 with more home runs and a higher slugging percentage on the road.
But Walker won batting titles in three of the next four years, and those were certainly influenced by Coors Field.
1998: .363 average -- .418 at Coors/.302 on the road
1999: .379 -- .461 at Coors(!)/.286 on the road
2001: .350 -- .406 at Coors/.293 on the road
That .461 average at Coors in '99 is still mind-blowing. So yeah, he did hone his swing for Coors Field, which is exactly what he should have done under the circumstances. The question is: How should that affect his Hall of Fame case? There's little doubt that his injury pattern and the Coors effect are the two factors that are keeping voters from selecting Walker.

My view is this: When looking at Walker's career, we already take into account the Coors effect … and he's still a Hall of Famer. Look, nobody ever forgets that he played at Coors Field. If anything, I suspect he gets hit too hard for it. Consider his lifetime 141 OPS+ -- that's in the top 50 all-time (minimum 6,000 plate appearances), the same number as Chipper Jones and one point higher than Alex Rodriguez. That adjusts for the ballparks Walker played in.
But then there's the larger point: Coors Field should not be a deciding factor when considering Walker's overall career. Walker was great at everything. Coors Field didn't make him a great baserunner. It didn't make him a great fielder. And he was a great hitter before he went to Colorado.
You certainly could question if Walker's career was long enough to merit the Hall of Fame. Durability is probably baseball's most underrated quality. But I think he played long enough. And in the end, there are only a handful of players in the long history of the game who were as complete, as versatile and as great in so many ways as Walker.