Evolution of Walker’s candidacy indicates wider changes in HOF voting

Arash Madani looks at some of the reasons Baseball Hall of Fame voters have been apprehensive to send Larry Walker to Cooperstown, and why he is deserving of the nod.

TORONTO – Rather than taking the annual deep dive into my Hall of Fame ballot this year, an exercise I feel is an essential responsibility of being a voter, I wanted instead to write about Larry Walker’s final year of eligibility.

The final tally on the Class of 2020 will be revealed Tuesday evening and the best position player to ever emerge from Canada will then learn his fate. Walker should be, belatedly, a slam dunk, but based on the current trends being tracked by Ryan Thibodaux and his crew and past voting patterns, it’ll probably be agonizingly tight to the 75 per-cent threshold needed.

If he doesn’t get in, then the veteran’s committee offers another pathway to Cooperstown, one capable of correcting a blatant omission. Either way, the native of Maple Ridge, B.C.’s candidacy should not have dragged out this long – he’s clearly worthy of induction.

Just like when I first became eligible to vote in 2013, and in every year since, Walker was an automatic for me. This year, I also voted for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling.

Shi Davidi’s 2020 Hall of Fame ballot.

Jeter, on the ballot for the first time, and Kent, for whom I’d voted previously but removed to open space for other candidates coming off the ballot, are my only new additions. Voting for Jeter needs no explanation. I’ve written about my rationale for the others previously.

Bonds, Clemens and Walker have been on each of the eight ballots I’ve cast, and what’s been remarkable to watch is the way Walker’s candidacy has evolved. He debuted in 2011 with 20.3 per cent of the vote, stayed around there for the next two years, and then plummeted down to 10.2 per cent in 2014 and 11.8 a year later.

Year 2011    2012    2013    2014    2015    2016    2017    2018    2019
Percentage 20.3    22.9    21.6    10.2    11.8    15.5    21.9    34.1    54.6

From there he climbed sharply to 54.6 per cent, a spike I can anecdotally attribute to the clearing of loaded ballots that often left voters picking their top-10 candidates, not all whom they deemed to be worthy of induction, and the changing of the electorate thanks to new eligibility rules.

Regardless, it’s difficult to reconcile how a player now on the doorstep of election was only six years ago 20 votes away from falling off the ballot entirely. The swing from then until now will be in the range of 250 votes, a number so big that you’d think his stats somehow changed dramatically.

They haven’t, obviously, and I recently looked at how you could make a case against Walker. The main arguments rest on the Coors Field effect on his offence, or his games-played total (he appeared in more than 142 games only four times over 17 seasons).

The former is penalizing him for factors beyond his control, and the latter is penalizing him for playing the game hard and with an edge, both unfair from my vantage point.

What’s also intriguing, especially in thinking of how I can make better voting decisions in years to come, is how the baseline of what a Hall of Famer should be continues to change.

In terms of counting stats, Walker’s line of 383 home runs, 471 doubles and 2,160 hits with a .313 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and 230 stolen bases in 1,988 career games are competitive enough relative to other Hall of Fame outfielders, but there’s enough room for a critic to poke holes in the numbers.

The games-played issue seems to be a major factor, and those who don’t want to do the work can point to Denver’s thin air inflating his numbers.

Based on his initial vote totals, that line of thinking clearly carried the day.

On the other hand, through an advanced analytical lens, which seeks to measure a player’s entire contribution, Walker makes for an above-average Hall of Fame outfielder, as per the JAWS system combining both a player’s career and peak WAR totals developed by Jay Jaffe.

Odd as it is to say considering how Walker would have checked many of the boxes for the eye-test set, but it seems that it’s taken the game’s advancement in measuring players for his completeness as a player to be fully appreciated.

To me, the judgment of each player lies somewhere in the grey between the basic counting stats and more advanced metrics, factoring in what a player meant to their teams, their teammates, and the wider game as a whole.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Subjective stuff in a striving-to-be-objective world, sure, but it’s a piece of the puzzle, no matter how you weigh it.

In Walker’s case, his ascent to the majors prompted big-league teams to begin scouting Canada more aggressively. Former Montreal Expos scout Bob Rogers signed him for $1,500 as an amateur free agent in 1984 and if there was one player like Walker in the true north, teams reckoned there would be others, too.

“Once he got to the big leagues and was going to be a star … it enhanced the scouting of Canadian players,” the late Jim Fanning, a long-time Expos executive who approved Walker’s signing, told me years ago. “He was absolutely phenomenal.”

For that he has a deserved spot in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., and in combination with his career numbers, it should tip the scales for Cooperstown, as well.

Ideally, each Hall of Famer should have a real legacy, on a team, a city, a sport, a country. From the kids who grew up playing baseball on Larry Walker Field in Maple Ridge, the Rockies franchise retiring his No. 33, to the Canadians, young and old, he still coaches on the national team, Walker did, which is why I feel he’s worthy no matter how you frame the evaluation.

The way Walker’s candidacy has developed, however, is indicative of how much the decision-making of voters has changed over the past decade. We’ll soon know whether that evolution happened quickly enough for Walker to get the honour he earned.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.