You may hear more than one name during today’s revelation of the new inductees into Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame. You will almost certainly hear Barry Larkin‘s. Perhaps Jeff Bagwell‘s or Tim Raines‘s. You certainly will not hear Eric Young‘s or Vinny Castilla‘s. But will you hear Larry Walker‘s? I doubt it. I would argue, however, that you should.
Walker, still the only Rockie to win a Most Valuable Player award, was certainly an elite ballplayer in his time. His 1997 MVP campaign found him hitting .366 with 49 home runs and 130 RBI. Each of these marks put him in the top 3 among all NL hitters. His 1.172 OPS was 1st in the league. He won a Gold Glove for his work in the outfield, and he even stole 33 bases. Perhaps most importantly, his WAR in that season, according to Fangraphs, was 9.4. Walker was a true five-tool player in many years of his career, but especially that 1997 season.
In order to consider whether he ought to be inducted into the Hall, however, we need to look beyond the scope of that season to his entire career. From that vantage point, I think, the argument grows even stronger. Few players were as consistently productive as Walker was from start to finish. Excluding the 1996 and 2000 seasons, when he played only about half the time due to injuries, Walker contributed at least 3.0 WAR in his time with the Rockies and with the Montreal Expos. His wOBA, which measures offensive actions in terms of their usefulness toward run production, was only below .342 once, in his very short 1989 season. In 2o11, the league average wOBA was .316, so that ought to tell you just how far above average Walker really was.
Now for the “but he played at Coors Field!” argument. Listen, I understand that for a number of years, offensive stats were inflated by the thin air in Denver. I will concede that to a point. But it’s ridiculous to write a player off entirely because of that slight advantage. Also, voters constantly overlook park factors in their assessments of players. For example, Ryan Braun won the National League MVP for 2011. He hit 33 homers, just the 6th-best mark in the league. Matt Kemp hit the most, 39. But Miller Park, where Braun plays his home games, ranked number 11 in all of baseball last season with a 1.062 home run rate. Dodger Stadium, where Kemp is most often to be found, ranked 19th with a 0.919 rate. Adjusted for park factor, Kemp’s greater number of home runs looks even more impressive. Despite the fact that Braun plays in such a hitter-friendly park, he was still given the MVP award.
My point is that there will always be intangible advantages and disadvantages. It’s disrespectful to an individual player and his accomplishments to put too great an emphasis on those things, which are outside the player’s control. If we are going to allow steroid users like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds into the Hall, and no doubt we will, we owe it to guys like Walker to partially dismiss environmental factors. Larry Walker deserves to be a Hall-0f-Famer.