DENVER -- Outfielder Larry Walker’s candidacy in his final year on the Hall of Fame ballot has morphed into much more.
It’s a test of the legitimacy of numbers posted by Rockies hitters -- after 27 seasons and even a World Series trip in 2007, no one who has played for the team has been honored at Cooperstown. Denver’s hitter-friendly, Mile High atmosphere is at best disputed, at worst dismissed. Walker spent the bulk of his career and accomplished his greatest feats with the Rockies (1995-2004).
Voters are challenged to reconcile the 1990s through the mid-2000s, a time when performance-enhancing drug use in the sport was widely discussed, while evaluating Walker -- who has never been linked and proudly says there is no reason to do so. Some honored players have dealt with accusations, and some players of all-time accomplishment continue to be denied.
Finally, it’s a challenge to voters -- at least that’s the way it is in the eyes of small- to mid-market Denver, as well as to devotees of modern statistics, which are designed to define players’ comparative value and eliminate the distinction of eras.
The 2020 ballot was announced on Monday. A player needs to be checked on 75 percent of ballots to garner induction. last year, Walker was included on 54.6 percent of the ballots. His candidacy is almost up, because in '14, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum reduced the years of eligibility from 15 to 10. If Walker -- who also played for the Expos (1989-94) and finished his career with the Cardinals (2004-05) -- doesn’t qualify this year, his candidacy will be determined by the Modern Era Committee.
As a function of the many aforementioned factors, plus in no small part due to recent ballots crowded with must-elect players and BBWAA voters being restricted to 10 players on their ballots, Walker’s ballot performance has fluctuated.
2011 -- 20.3 percent
2012 -- 22.9
2013 -- 21.6
2014 -- 10.2
2015 -- 11.8
2016 -- 15.5
2017 -- 21.9
2018 -- 34.1
2019 -- 54.6
Could this be the year?
Walker will be in if he repeats last year’s 20.5 percent increase -- the ninth-highest one-year leap since 1967. The biggest increase in balloting history, by the way, is Reds shortstop Barry Larkin’s 24.3 percent jump from 2011 to his induction year of '12. And some of the crowding has subsided, thanks to 20 players over the past six years being inducted on BBWAA ballots.
Most analysts view former Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter as the only surefire Hall of Famer on this year’s ballot, with the candidacies of pitchers Curt Schilling and Billy Wagner having gained steam in recent years. Then there are the PED-tinged candidacies of two of the sport’s most dominant figures, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Colorado and MLB.com reporter Manny Randhawa have taken to traditional and modern methods to highlight a candidacy that many around the Rockies believe should be a no-brainer. Here are their reasons:
A WAR seemingly won
Baseball-Reference WAR, which reduces offensive and defensive stats (batting runs, baserunning runs and fielding runs) into one value to compare players and even take into account different eras, has Walker at 72.7 career WAR. That surpasses Hall of Famers (who played at least 75 percent of their games in the outfield) Tim Raines (69.4), Tony Gwynn (69.2), Andre Dawson (64.8), Dave Winfield (64.2) and Vladimir Guerrero (59.4).
What more can he do?
The only players in history who rank in the top 100 in all three WAR categories are Hall of Famer Willie Mays, Bonds and Walker. Only Walker and Bonds in history have at least 300 home runs, 200 steals and an OPS of at least .950.
How the cool kids say it
Walker posted a career slash line of .313/.400/.565. The only players with greater numbers in all three categories are Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby.
So what's the problem?
As Walker put it, “I guess I have a fault, and my fault is I played at Coors Field.”
Walker joined the Rockies in 1995, when Coors Field opened. The ball flew and runs soared at the park, to the point that much of the sporting press began and never stopped treating accomplishments there as if they didn’t count.
But there are two counters:
Let’s say Coors numbers don’t count
Walker’s .278/.370/.495 road slash line is equaled or bested by only 24 players (excluding active players), 18 of which are in the Hall. Walker’s road OPS (.865) is equal to or higher than Hall honorees Willie Stargell, Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline, George Brett and Roberto Clemente.
Let’s be real
As noted by author and Hall of Fame suitability expert Jay Jaffe, Walker’s gap of .203 between home (also including Montreal and St. Louis) and road OPS is third-highest in history with players with more than 7,000 plate appearances. But the two in front of him -- Chuck Klein and Bobby Doerr -- are in the Hall, as are six others in the top 10. Walker, Cy Williams (fourth, gap of .199) and Todd Helton (fifth, gap of .193) aren’t. People on the list have benefited from odd dimensions and short porches at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, Cleveland’s League Park, Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
So it comes down to voters, who can be affected by factors beyond accomplishments.
After Walker helped the three-year-old Rockies become the quickest expansion team to make the playoffs in 1995 and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in ’97, Colorado had just one more winning season with him in uniform. And frequent injuries, with absences late in down years, have turned off some voters.
While Walker wasn’t responsible for the pitcher issues that have dogged the club throughout its history, the injury issue bears a closer look. But as former MLB executive Dan Evans pointed out during a Rocky Mountain Society for American Baseball Research event to discuss the candidacy, Walker played in 78 percent of his team’s games while Griffey -- a first-ballot player with similar statistics -- appeared in 76 percent.
But if human factors come in, here’s one:
Walker went to the World Series with the Cardinals in 2004, after arriving in a trade with the Rockies, and he played through ’05. The Cardinals won it all in ’06, and general manager Walt Jocketty and eventual Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa presented an emotional Walker with a championship ring.