TORONTO – Regardless of where the final number lands, Larry Walker’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame has taken a substantial step forward in his penultimate year on the ballot. Roughly 40 per cent of the votes for the Class of 2019 are already publicly known ahead of the Jan. 22 announcement, and he’s currently sitting at 66.1 per cent, a substantial jump from the 34.1 per cent he finished with last year.
A dip once all the results are included is probable, but either way there’s a major gain for the Canadian baseball icon from Maple Ridge, B.C., giving him a chance at induction in 2020, his 10th and final year on the ballot.
What would being a Hall of Famer mean to him?
“I already am, baby – I’m in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, I’m in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, the B.C. Hall of Fame, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame – I am a Hall of Famer,” Walker quipped Saturday ahead of Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet. “I get what you’re saying, Cooperstown is the ultimate one. You know what? I’ve been on the ballot nine years. I’m from a little town, Maple Ridge, never thinking I was going to play major league baseball. Now I’m on the ballot for a ninth year and I’ll be on it again for a final year.
“Gosh, in my eyes, that’s somewhat of an accomplishment and it brings me a lot of joy and happiness being able to do that. Not making it isn’t going to knock me down. I haven’t built myself up to be (knocked) down. I don’t feel like I’m a Hall of Famer, which makes it easy for me to accept if I don’t make it. That’s how I feel about it, as crazy as it sounds.”
Not worthy of Cooperstown? Really?
“It’s a lot easier that way,” Walker replied. “Because if I go around saying I’m a Hall of Famer and I don’t make it, I might be really upset. I’m a middle of the road type of guy, I’m happy with that. Being on the ballot for nine years is an honour for me.”
Guarding against potential disappointment is a wise approach for any Hall of Fame candidate, but especially for one surging late in his ballot eligibility like Walker. The 52-year-old admitted that he’s kept track of his gains and it’s changed his outlook, as “last year at this time I would have said, ‘I’m not worried about the Hall of Fame, it’s not happening.’”
Consider that in 2016 he garnered only 15.5 per cent of the vote, and you can understand why.
But with a logjam on the ballot beginning to ease, the ongoing turnover of the electorate, favourable comparisons to other Hall of Fame right-fielders and advanced metrics making a compelling case for him, the 75 per cent threshold needed for election is no longer out of reach.
The question now is whether the clock may run out on him before he gets there.
“There are things to take into (account) with me, and I just look at the negative ones for some odd reason,” said Walker. “I realize I played at Coors Field, I realize that injuries are part of my career. If people don’t look at that as hard than it makes it an easier decision maybe to just look at the numbers and put that checkmark. But I have those little black-cloud areas that get looked at.
“It’s part of the game and the way I played. I played at Coors Field, I played hard and I got hurt. I’m not regretful about any of it.”
His career OPS of .965 ranks only behind Babe Ruth and Stan Musial among right-fielders, his JAWS score (a metric that contains a combination of a player’s career and seven-year peak WAR totals) of 58.7 trails only nine right-fielders, all in the Hall. It’s also above the 57.8 average of Hall of Famers at the position.
A primary knock on him seems to be that he played 597 of his 1,988 career games in the thin air of hitter-friendly Coors Field, where he posted an OPS of 1.172. His career OPS at all other ballparks was .873, which serves to illustrate that he wasn’t simply a Coors Field creation at the plate, and given that his peak years came with the Rockies, it’s impossible to know how different his numbers might have looked had he played elsewhere.
Besides, players to have predominantly played at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or the early 20th-century band boxes didn’t face a similar penalty.
“Coors Field was an easy place to hit and I did really, really, really well hitting there. So thank God I did really, really well hitting there or else we probably wouldn’t be talking. I feel I should have succeeded there if it’s that easy,” said Walker. “But then again so should everybody else, and nobody else was putting up the numbers I put up when they played there. It’s a double-edged sword, there’s lots of good and there’s lots of bad.
“It depends on what side of the fence you’re on and how you want to dissect it.”
Increasingly, it appears, the end result is trending more favourably towards Walker.