Back in the day, when Larry Walker was the sultan of swing in LoDo, he strode to the plate with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” reverberating throughout Coors Field.
Now, with Cooperstown as his ultimate destination, Walker is riding the crazy train again.
Just a few years ago, his candidacy appeared to be going off the rails, but as the former Rockies right fielder enters his final two years of eligibility for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he’s gaining steam.
Candidates need 75 percent of the vote to make it and he’s on track to get upwards of 60 percent when results are announced Jan. 22. That means that next year, in his 10th and final year on the ballot, Walker just might become the first Rockie to get a plaque in Cooperstown. It’s a remarkable rise. In 2015, halfway though his candidacy, Walker garnered just 11.8 percent of the vote.
What’s going on?
It’s a combination of the logjam easing on the 10-player ballot as elite players ahead of him have been inducted, the fact that many voters are giving Walker a second look, and a growing appreciation of his career as his window for induction closes.
“I have voted for Larry Walker as long as I’ve had a ballot, so this year isn’t any different,” said Derrick Goold, the longtime Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who has had a ballot since 2015. “It does appear like he’s gathering momentum in the voting…But this year’s ballot is one of the most-clogged ballots, perhaps ever, and we still see support for him building into a high tide. And next year’s ballot looks a lot looser, so this trend bodes well for him.”
Jay Jaffe, a former contributing baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and a Hall of Fame aficionado, has changed his opinion regarding Walker.
“Initially, I came down on the side of a “definite maybe” on Walker, but with further study, I’ve become increasingly convinced that he is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown,” Jaffe wrote recently in Fangraphs. “Circa 2015 and 2016, the 10-slot ballot was so crowded that I left him off my virtual one (I don’t get a real one until the 2021 cycle, the first after his eligibility lapses), before finding room again. Even virtually, those were agonizing cuts, because I’m convinced Walker belongs.”
Walker is thrilled with the surge in support – his vote total jumped from 15.5 percent in 2016 to 21.9 percent in 2017 and up to 34.1 percent last year — but insists he won’t feel jilted if he doesn’t end up in Cooperstown.
“Listen, I never really let my head swell up enough to think I would be in the Hall of Fame,” Walker said in a phone interview… “I’m completely honored to be on the ballot of 10 years, and to see my (vote) percentage climb like it has, for me that’s a big honor. I can take that and live with that.”
A hitting machine
Over his 17-year career (1989-2005), Walker slashed .313/.400/.565 and belted 383 home runs. After beginning his career in obscurity in Montreal, Walker, who grew up playing hockey in his native Canada, played the majority of his career in Colorado. He thrived during his nine-plus years with the Rockies, hitting .334 with a 1.044 OPS and 258 homers. Walker was also regarded as a true “five-tool player,” blessed with good speed, terrific baserunning skills and an excellent glove.
Walker won three batting titles, three Silver Sluggers and seven Gold Gloves while making five all-star teams. He was named the 1997 National League MVP when he had a mind-boggling season with the Rockies, slashing .366/.452/.720 with a 1.172 OPS, 130 RBI and 49 home runs.
But for some, those credentials simply aren’t good enough for a ticket to Cooperstown. Walker’s frequent injuries, and the fact that his best seasons came at the hitter’s paradise known as Coors Field (pre-humidor), leave him short of baseball immortality.
“I have never voted for Walker and that is highly unlikely to change,” said Dan Shaughnessy, a columnist and associate sports editor for The Boston Globe. “He was very good, just not Hall of Fame.”
Tom Verducci, the longtime baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, considers Walker a wonderful talent, but still struggles with the idea that he is a Hall of Famer.
“I have not voted for Walker but continue to consider his candidacy, as I have changed opinion on others over the years,” Verducci said. “Walker was a brilliant five-tool player, but in the past I found his reliability and volume of work below Hall of Fame standards. Walker played 17 seasons, but only once played 145 games and only once had more than 175 hits. He never played 140 games in back-to back seasons.”
Verducci also points out that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has never elected a right fielder with fewer than 2,500 hits or fewer than 2,100 games played. Walker finished with 2,160 hits and 1,988 games played.
“Walker would, by far, drop both such minimums,” Verducci said. “He wound up with nine qualified seasons with an OPS+ of 125 or better, fewer than Carlos Delgado (11), Jack Clark (11), Sherry McGee (11), Fred McGriff (10), Lance Berkman (10), Dick Allen (10) and Harry Stovey (10), to name several non-Hall of Famers not tainted by steroids.”
Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote pegs Walker as an “almost-Hall of Famer.”
“I thought Larry was a close vote and have thought that for years, Cote said. “The thing is, in all categories and all sports, somebody has to just miss. Everybody can’t get it in, so lines must be drawn somewhere. Also, as sort of a tiebreaker, his numbers are naturally inflated to a degree by the ‘Colorado Bump,’ having played the heart of his career for the Rockies in high altitude. All of that puts Walker right on the outer edge for me.”
Yet one remarkable aspect of Walker’s 1997 season was his performance away from Coors Field. Twenty-nine of his 49 homers were on the road, and his average away from Coors that season was .346.
Coors effect hurts Walker
Still, Coors Field casts a long shadow more than 13 years after Walker’s final game. At the ballpark in LoDo, he put up astronomical numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 plate appearances. In other ballparks, his line was a solid .282/.372/.501. In other words, Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage to his lifetime batting line.
“Like any question that might be tiresome, Coors Field is question that has to be dealt with, because it’s there,” Walker said. “I think eventually it’s going to go away, just as it did with the old Yankee Stadium or Tiger Stadium, or Fenway (Park) for that matter. Ballparks that were good to hitters.
“But I guess the one thing I’m happy about is that if it was that easy to hit in Coors Field, then damn, I’m glad I was able to do it. If I didn’t do that well, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Goold, who covered Walker in St. Louis for part of 2004 and all of 2005, doesn’t believe the Coors Field factor should disqualify Walker, just as some other 2019 Hall of Fame candidates should not be penalized for their specialized roles.
“There may be some voters who want to make a Coors correction to his statistics. Not me,” Goold said. “I consider it in the same way I consider that (designated hitter) Edgar Martinez didn’t play the field much and (closer) Mariano Rivera didn’t start.
“Given what we know about current vote totals, neither has been held back by what they weren’t — they are being celebrated for the player they were.
“In Rivera’s case, he played for a team that called October home and burnished his Hall of Fame career under baseball’s brightest lights. Walker played for a team that called Denver home. Did they make the most of the role they had? Did they make the most of the situation baseball offered them? Were they greater-than-elite in that situation? Did they rise beyond it? To me, the answer for Martinez and Rivera is the same as the answer for Walker: emphatically yes.”
Walker’s Path to Cooperstown
Larry Walker’s year-by-year vote totals in Hall of Fame balloting:
|Note: 2019 vote percentage based on tabulations by Hall of Fame tracker Ryan Thibodaux. Through Wednesday, Walker had received votes on 66 percent of the ballots that had been made public (162 of 412, or 39.3 percent).|
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