Commentary

Don't blame Larry Walker for ballpark

Just because he played at Coors Field shouldn't make people ignore his big numbers

Originally Published: December 30, 2010
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Due to Cooperstown's stupid rule limiting BBWAA writers from voting for more than 10 players, I find myself in a rather odd position here. I'm advocating the Hall of Fame candidacy of a player for whom I didn't actually vote because there wasn't enough room for him on my ballot: Larry Walker.

At first glance, Walker's Hall of Fame credentials are extraordinary. He was a career .313 hitter, a three-time batting champ and a terrific fielder (he won seven gold gloves). From 1997-2002, he averaged a .353 batting average, 30 homers, 98 RBIs and a 1.089 OPS. Those are numbers seldom seen outside of Albert Pujols or a movie in which Robert Redford fathers Glenn Close's child. And he averaged them for six seasons, including his Hobbsian 1997 MVP season (.366, 49 HRs, 143 runs 130 RBIs, 1.172 OPS, 33 stolen bases).

[+] EnlargeLarry Walker
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesLarry Walker put up big numbers -- and not just in Coors Field.

On the other hand, Walker had so many injuries -- he only played as many as 140 games in four years and also missed nearly four full seasons worth of games over his career -- that his counting numbers are not nearly as impressive. He finished with 2,160 base hits (fewer than Jason Kendall) and 383 home runs (Darrell Evans had more). He made an All-Star team only five times.

More importantly, Walker's home/road splits are simply outrageous. He hit .348 at home and .278 away. Thanks to the Coors Effect, he batted .381 at home in 1999 and .286 on the road. Some people say you can't hold it against a player for where he plays, and they're right. You can't hold it against him. But you certainly can -- and should -- put the statistics he accumulated there into their proper context. If a stadium benefited or hurt a player to a considerable degree one way or the other, you need to take that into account.

But here's the thing: Even when you take the ballpark into account, the Coors Effect doesn't nullify Walker's great seasons. Consider that OPS+ adjusts for ballparks (well, in theory) and that Walker had nearly as many seasons with a 150 or greater OPS+ (six) as Alex Rodriguez has had (seven). WAR (wins above replacement) also considers ballparks, and Walker's numbers are impressive there as well. Only four Cooperstown-eligible position players with a higher career WAR than Walker are not in the Hall of Fame. More than 80 Hall of Famers had a lower WAR than Walker, including Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew.

Furthermore, Walker isn't the only player to benefit from his home ballpark. Jim Rice benefited by playing in Fenway Park to a similar degree (he hit .320 at home, .277 on the road) and he's in the Hall of Fame. Granted, many feel Rice doesn't quite belong in Cooperstown, but that's partly because his offensive numbers were a little borderline for the Hall and he was slow and a poor fielder. Walker, however, was a great fielder and a good enough baseruner that he stole 230 bases and had a 30-30 season.

Plus, Walker also excelled at Olympic Stadium when he was with the Expos, so his career wasn't all about Coors Field.

I'm not saying Walker is an obvious, can't-miss Hall of Fame candidate and that the only argument is over which cap he should wear on his plaque. If so, I certainly would find room for him on my ballot by bumping off someone else. But Walker is most definitely a worthy candidate whose talents went far beyond simply where he happened to play.

Walker didn't quite make my ballot this year (again, the 10-player limit makes no sense) but I hope he makes at least 5 percent of the other ballots so that I'll be able to vote for him in the future.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com