Walker Faces Tough Hurdle
News Item: Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle questions Larry Walker's physical condition and says the right fielder needs to decide in the off-season if he even wants to continue playing.
Walker, who has two years and $26 million left on his contract, is having his first subpar season as a Rockie and perhaps the worst year of his career. Does Hurdle really want Walker to retire or is he just trying to motivate his slugger?
My guess is if Hurdle wants Walker to retire it's because he would like to free up his salary to spend on younger, more productive players. At the same time, I recognize Hurdle's comments may be nothing more than a ploy to get the Canadian-born outfielder to lose weight and get into better shape for the 2004 campaign.
There is no doubt that Walker has been a great player offensively and defensively since he broke into the major leagues in 1989. Larry has won three batting titles (1998, 1999, 2001), tied for the eighth most in the history of the National League. The man known as "Walk" is also a seven-time Gold Glove winner, tied for the sixth most by an outfielder in N.L. annals.
Walker won the MVP Award in 1997, a year that ranks among the best statistically in National League history. He became the first N.L. player to total 400 bases since 1959, posted what was at the time the fifth highest slugging percentage (.720), and was the third player to hit 40 HR with 30 SB and 200 hits in a single season. Walker also captured three legs of The Quad and was four hits and 10 RBI shy of the league's first Triple Crown in 60 years.
In 1999, Walker led the league in batting average, on base average, and slugging average--the first player to win the so-called percentage triple crown since 1980. His last batting title is only two years removed, and his stats last year (.338/.421/.602) stacked up with nearly everyone not named Barry Bonds.
Over his full career, Walker has put together some of the best rate stats among right fielders in baseball history.
1 Babe Ruth .474
2 Mel Ott .414
3 Manny Ramirez .411
4 Harry Heilmann .410
5 Paul Waner .404
6 Gary Sheffield .399
7 Ross Youngs .399
8 Elmer Valo .398
9 Larry Walker .398
10 Tim Salmon .390
1 Babe Ruth .690
2 Manny Ramirez .599
3 Larry Walker .574
4 Juan Gonzalez .563
5 Hank Aaron .555
6 Sammy Sosa .546
7 Chuck Klein .543
8 Frank Robinson .537
9 Mel Ott .533
10 Babe Herman .532
1 Babe Ruth 1.164
2 Manny Ramirez 1.010
3 Larry Walker .973
4 Mel Ott .947
5 Harry Heilmann .930
6 Hank Aaron .928
7 Frank Robinson .926
8 Chuck Klein .922
9 Gary Sheffield .919
10 Babe Herman .915
Unadjusted for ballparks and era, Walker's numbers compare favorably with the best of the best (with only Babe Ruth and Manny Ramirez faring better in the area of rate stats among players categorized as RF for their careers). As shown above, Walker ranks ninth in OBP (.398), third in SLG (.574), and third in OPS (.973).
I recognize that Walker's stats are inflated due to spending two thirds of his career playing home games at Coors Field, the most hitter-friendly ballpark in major league history. As a result, a more appropriate measure may be OPS+, which adjusts for ballparks and era. Walker ranks 60th among all players in the modern era and 12th among RF in OPS+. His total of 141 means he has been 41% more productive than the average hitter over his career.
Going by Walker's numbers this year, one can no longer make the case that he is still an elite offensive force. In fact, his stats on the road this year suggest Walker has become a mediocre hitter with his main strength being the ability to get on base via walks.
Walker's 2003 Home-Road Splits:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Home 65 210 52 70 14 5 6 42 47 35 .333 .462 .533 .995
Road 67 209 28 47 9 2 7 27 41 46 .225 .365 .388 .753
Not only is Walker struggling away from Coors Field this year, but he is in the midst of a very poor second half. This combo should serve as a warning to any general manager interested in obtaining Walker's services in the off-season.
Walker's 2003 First and Second Half Splits:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Home 89 292 61 86 17 7 9 54 62 52 .295 .428 .493 .921
Road 43 127 19 31 6 0 4 15 26 29 .244 .382 .386 .768
The trend is clearly not Walker's friend.
Hall of Fame Bound?
If Walker were to retire after this season, should he be voted into the Hall of Fame? Let's take a look at the HOF criteria as established by Bill James.
Black Ink: Batting - 24 (Average HOFer ~ 27)
Gray Ink: Batting - 113 (Average HOFer ~ 144)
HOF Standards: Batting - 50.8 (Average HOFer ~ 50)
HOF Monitor: Batting - 151.0 (Likely HOFer > 100)
Walker falls a little short relative to the average HOFer in the Black and Gray Ink categories (partially due to the explosion in the number of teams and players in the expansion era, making it more difficult to lead the league or be among the league leaders than in the pre-expansion era). Walker is right on the mark when it comes to HOF Standards, and he exceeds by a good margin what it normally takes to be enshrined based on the HOF Monitor. Of importance, these criteria are basically absolutes and not adjusted for ballpark effects or eras.
Chuck Klein (902) *
Dick Allen (887)
Albert Belle (877)
Gary Sheffield (871)
Ellis Burks (871)
Earl Averill (866) *
Frank Thomas (864)
Hank Greenberg (863) *
Johnny Mize (856) *
Edgar Martinez (855)
Without even looking at this list, I had thought all along that Walker was the modern day Chuck Klein. Like Walker, Klein benefited by playing the vast majority of his home games in an extreme hitter's ballpark known as the Baker Bowl. The fact that Klein has a plaque in Cooperstown shouldn't guarantee Walker's induction, but it probably makes the argument on his behalf somewhat stronger. Importantly, Walker has been a better defensive player and base runner than his comparables which should serve to help his cause on the margin when the time comes around for the Baseball Writers Association of America to consider his candidacy.
I don't think Walker's case is clear cut by any means. His absolute rate stats scream yes, his road and counting stats say no, and his adjusted stats say maybe. Accordingly, it is my belief that Larry needs to come back and return to his previous form for at least the final two years of his contract in order to overcome any and all hurdles in his HOF path. If he retires now or comes back and plays at a level closer to 2003 than 1997-1999, I would not be in favor of Walker's inclusion.