In the hours leading up to Tuesday's Hall of Fame announcement, Larry Walker, the prodigious Canadian slugger who seemingly met all of the quantitative and qualitative requirements for a plaque in Cooperstown, was prepared to get royally boned by the Baseball Writers' Association of America for the 10th and final time.
His preemptive, highly gracious resignation was frustrating but understandable. The voting members of the BBWAA had grossly and consistently failed to recognize Walker's greatness since he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011. Though the electorate has been trimmed of dinosaurs while becoming increasingly diverse and enlightened over the ensuing nine years, intransigence remained a powerful countervailing force.
Walker, after all, would've had to change a lot of minds over the years to reach the 75% mark in 2020. In his first year of eligibility, barely one-fifth of the electorate put a checkmark beside his name. In 2014, Walker received a paltry 10.2% of the vote, earning the right to appear on the following year's ballot by a margin of 20 votes. He didn't crack the 20% barrier again until 2017. Before last year, Walker had never earned a majority of the vote, and that jump in 2019 - up to 54.1% - allowed only for cautious optimism. To get elected in 2020, Walker would have to convert about 45% of his "no" votes from last year.
It seemed like Derek Jeter would comprise the entire Hall of Fame class of 2020. The voters simply didn't get it, and this pervasive inability (or unwillingness) to recognize Walker's greatness was perhaps best distilled two years ago, when Vladimir Guerrero waltzed into Cooperstown on a wave of nearly unanimous support - 92.9% - in his second year of eligibility. That same year, Walker barely received one-third of the vote, garnering 34.1%, which was, at that point, his highest mark yet. That's a stunning discrepancy because, in terms of raw numbers, Walker and Vlad were incredibly similar.
To be fair, Walker wasn't as indelible a figure as Guerrero, the free-swinging, batting-glove-eschewing phenom who remains as inimitable as any player in the last half century, but Walker was the better player. In fact, Walker, whose complement of tools earned him five All-Star nominations, seven Gold Glove awards, three Silver Slugger awards, three batting titles, one home-run title, and the 1997 National League MVP award, was better than a lot of the right fielders already enshrined in Cooperstown. He accrued more career WAR and a higher seven-year peak WAR - the two components of JAWS, Jay Jaffe's singular Hall-of-Fame evaluation metric - than the average Hall of Fame right fielder.
|Avg. HOF RF||71.5||42.1||56.8|
Thankfully, though, in their final opportunity to do so, the BBWAA acknowledged as much, giving Walker the institutional recognition he'd rightfully earned. Despite his doubts, Walker appeared on 304 of the 397 official ballots, commanding 76.6% of the vote and assuring himself baseball immortality.
When it came down to it, enough of the electorate could no longer cling to the specious reasoning they'd used for years to dismiss Walker's candidacy. His election, in fact, serves as a tacit admission that the fact that he played the majority of his career in Colorado didn't artificially inflate his case so much as it gave the BBWAA voters altitude sickness.
Even after accounting for the offense-boosting effects of Coors Field, they must've realized, Walker still finished his career with 141 OPS+, an on-base plus slugging that was 41 percentage points better than league average. Besides, fewer than one-third of his career plate appearances came at Coors Field.
To be sure, Walker raked in Colorado, putting up an unfathomable .381/.462/.710 slash line in 597 games in Denver's thin air, but he raked everywhere else, too. In fact, his lifetime road OPS of .865 - which, yes, encompasses a handful of plate appearances at Coors Field as a visiting player - trumps that of fellow right fielders Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson, both of whom breezed into the Hall of Fame in their first year on the ballot. The cozy dimensions in right field at Yankee Stadium did nothing to derail Jackson's candidacy. Finally, voters applied the same logic to Walker.
As for the litany of injuries Walker endured throughout his 17-year career, damaging his case in the minds of those who still measure value in games played, enough voters perhaps recognized that their impact was overstated. In his 16 full big-league seasons, Walker made at least 450 plate appearances a dozen times. Though he rarely made it through a summer without something sidelining him, all it really did was prevent him from reaching the statistical benchmarks that voters fetishize. Sure, his 383 homers don't pop off his Baseball-Reference page, but Walker, despite his frequent trips to the injured list, still managed more career WAR than every right fielder except Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Kaline, Sam Crawford, Jackson, and Paul Waner. Each of those players has a Hall-of-Fame plaque.
Now, Walker will, too. He'll get to share the stage with Jeter this summer. He'll get to get to express his pride over becoming the first Canadian position player inducted into Hall of Fame. He'll get the honor befitting one of the game's true greats.
It was long overdue.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.