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Larry Walker and Cooperstown

Except for maybe Augusta National, few institutions are as exclusive as the National Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit for slightly different reasons. Cooperstown honors a tradition of excellence and demands outstanding achievement before one can have a plaque with their likeness displayed there. Lots of good players come and go in the Major Leagues, and Marc's Ray Lankford Wing of the HOF features a roll call of worthy players who fall just short of HOF standards, often due to not meeting the longevity requirement for players making their way to Cooperstown.

Seeing photos of Larry Walker as an instructor in the Cardinals camp this spring got me thinking again about whether or not he's hall-worthy. Let's jump ahead to 2011 and consider his case. Without question, Walker had a great career, posting outstanding numbers along the way. While his case for membership is strong, it is not open and shut.

Through 16 seasons in the majors, Walker collected the NL MVP once in 1997, and over the course of his career was a five time All-Star, won three batting titles, three Silver Sluggers, and seven Gold Gloves. He even found a dead body on his Evergreen, Colorado ranch in 2004 while out with an injury. All of these things, except for the body, will have to be taken into account when the Writers find Larry's name on their ballot. His stats, however, will account for more, so let's jump in there and take a look at Walker's case sabermetrically.

For this exercise, I've used the updated Hall of Fame measures laid out by Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus. JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) averages adjusted career WARP (wins above replacement player) and a player's peak WARP representing the five best consecutive seasons of their career. Adjustments for injury are allowed, and this was certainly an issue with the oft injured Walker. Clearly, he was at his peak between 1997 and 2002, but I chose `97 through `01 to represent the five best. In 2000, Walker appeared in only 87 games, just over half a full season. Discarding that year, 2002 gets added into the mix. Also included per Jaffe, are Walker's Batting Runs Above Replacement (BRAR), Batting Runs Above Average (BRAA), and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). Walker's stats are then compared to the average HOF right fielder's numbers.

                      BRAA  BRAA  FRAA  WARP3  Peak    JAWS
Larry Walker   666    444     87      101       41.2   71.1
Avg HOF RF    754    482     33      110.2    43.3   76.8

As you can see, Walker is below average for HOF RF standards. Let's mention here also that HOF right fielders include some pretty elite company, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron for instance. Effecting Walker's case for the HOF most is the impact of injuries, essentially limiting him to 12 years worth of playing time over the course of 16 years. However, Walker's numbers do not water down the Hall's standards for right fielders even though he would represent the lower end of that spectrum.

I'm sure that the vast majority of voters from the BBWA don't consult the WARPs and JAWS and BRAA when they vote on players, and that hurts Walker's candidacy. When you look at his impressive resume, you don't see any magic numbers. There's no 500 home runs; he didn't collect 3000 hits. And when you look at his totals, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that he might well have reached those milestones had his body cooperated. Politics might help his case as voters seek to give the walls in Cooperstown a little Purple. His status as a Colorado Rockie from the basketball score era at Coors may also hurt his case, as voters point to elevation inflated numbers. Of course, his career OPS+ is 140 which takes a little off that argument.

Walker's a classic bubble candidate, in that he can just as easily be voted in as he can be kept out. Injury plagued career or not, he still finished a 17 season career with a .313/.400/.565. He could sneak in because of a few week classes, or he could just as easily suffer Dale Murphy's fate of being on the ballot for years, gradually getting fewer and fewer votes, until the Veterans Committee comes along and puts him in there. Until then, he'll have to settle for the slightly less prestigious but equally as beloved spot in the Lankford Wing.

[this is an update on an article I wrote last spring. -rvb]