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Larry Walker and an Alternate Coors-free Universe

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Since there is very little going on in Blue Jays land or even more broadly in baseball right now, and the Hall of Fame voting results will be announced in a couple weeks, I thought I'd write a couple pieces following up on some of the discussion that came out of the polls Tom posted last month. Today, I want to look at the candidacy of Larry Walker, who attracted 82% support among the completely unbiased BBB electorate, but hasn't cracked 25% with the writers.

I've only paid attention to the Hall of Fame balloting for the last couple years, probably mostly due to the annual polls here. Three years ago, when the BBWAA in their infinite wisdom pitched a shutout, was the first time I actually went through the eligible players and made up my own hypothetical ballot. I'd have gone with nine (Bagwell, Biggio, Bonds, Clemens, Edgar, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Trammell), with Walker the leading candidate for that last spot but left just on the outside. The glut of slam dunk first timers the last two years obviated any reconsideration, and even this year I'd have 10 before I got to Walker, with only Biggio having graduated and Mussina and Griffey being slam dunks for me.

But next year and beyond things open up, with Griffey and Piazza likely to be inducted this year, Trammell falling off the ballot, and Bagwell and Raines gone from the ballot in two years. So it's worth looking at Walker again.

There's two well known major points against Walker. The first is the relatively short length of this career, as he only got to around 2,000 games and 8,000 plate appearances. The second is the Coors factor inflating his career .313/.400/.565 slash line which would otherwise make him a slam dunk choice. Ultimately, he hit a mindboggling .381/.462/.710 at Coors in his career, but "just" .282/.372/.501 outside of Coors. Those latter numbers are still fantastic, but for an outfielder whose prime overlapped with the greatest offensive explosion in MLB history (1993-2006), it's not an obvious ticket to Cooperstown.

Of course, there's plenty of more advanced stats that can (attempt to) adjust for this, and Walker stacks up quite well. His career total of around 70 WAR (73 bWAR, 69 fWAR) is in the top 100 all-time, consistent with other outfielders who were easily inducted, and would actually be one of the highest for a player not inducted. He also doesn't lack for peak either, with 10 seasons above 4 WAR, six above 5 WAR and that transcendent 9-10 WAR MVP year in 1997.

And WAR probably actually undersells him. For Hall of Fame purposes, I think using a baseline of Average rather than Replacement makes more sense considering the higher calibre of players being considered. If you somehow had a Hall of Fame league, a replacement level team would probably be made up of something approximating MLB average players. Because his career was so short, a relatively higher amount of Walker's WAR was accumulated from being above average versus above replacement than other players with a similar WAR (Walker's WAA was around 45; most players in the 60 to 70 WAR range with longer careers are around 30-35 WAA).

But all of the above are only true if one trusts the adjustment factors implicit in these stats to be correct. And while adjustment factors overall do a very good job, at the player level things can break down. Applying generic adjustments to specific players with specific skills sets that might be tailored to specific parks can result in adjusted numbers that still have large contextual errors in them. And given the magnitude of the Coors/non-Coors difference for Walker, I could definitely see that being the case and it's what ultimately has given me pause from saying he's a clear Hall of Famer.

So I decided to test a hypothetical. For all his Rockie years, 1995-2004, take his non-Coors numbers and extrapolate them to all games played, and see what both his raw and adjusted numbers look like and if they're still Hall worthy. This will also neutralize another advantage he had which doesn't get adjusted for at all, which was getting more PA at Coors due to the high offensive environment. And if anything, this is a little harsh on Walker since hitters tend to hit a little better at home anyway and it robs him of any games played in Coors for that period.

Here is how his 1995-2004 ends up looking in this alternate reality, along with his alternate career totals and his actual careers totals:

1995 557 131 26 4 24 34 78 .262 .329 .472 .266 .341
1996 288 38 6 0 13 20 58 .149 .233 .322 .135 .248
1997 641 200 35 0 63 78 90 .367 .456 .778 .346 .509
1998 506 131 40 2 12 64 61 .301 .393 .486 .326 .385
1999 500 128 24 4 24 57 52 .302 .395 .548 .294 .399
2000 352 79 19 6 4 46 40 .269 .381 .414 .298 .351
2001 598 153 19 0 38 82 103 .311 .417 .583 .320 .420
2002 548 153 48 4 17 65 73 .325 .411 .551 .353 .411
2003 552 103 19 4 17 98 87 .234 .385 .407 .256 .345
2004 322 78 17 3 22 49 57 .296 .419 .629 .302 .434
Career 7920 1953 421 44 347 898 1237 .287 .378 .515 .304 .383
Actual 8030 2160 471 62 383 913 1231 .313 .400 .565 .332 .412

Extrapolating his road numbers, Walker loses 103 singles, 50 doubles, 18 triples, and 36 home runs, driving his career BABIP to a very normal .304 from .332 actual. His walk and strikeout numbers end up basically the same, and all told his slash line ends up at .287/.378/.515, putting him near a .900 career OPS. There's of course some craziness in extrapolating splits, as he had crazy splits in 1996 with a nearly 1.000 OPS home/road difference in little playing time. On the other hand, his 1997 season ends up even more epic, since his raw numbers were actually slightly better on the road. A 9-10 WAR season instead becomes 12 or 13 WAR. Those 63 extrapolated home runs would also have given him the single season record at the time, which probably gives him a Hall of Fame narrative as well.

What about the adjusted numbers? Fangraphs credits Walker with 406 batting runs above average. From this extrapolation, I get about 360, meaning the unaccounted Coors factor is at most about 45 runs or roughly 4 WAR. This sounds big, but he was already being discounted, mostly for Coors, by 150 careers runs (556 wRAA vs. 406 batting runs). That still leaves Walker at 65 fWAR, with about 40 of that being WAA, very much Hall of Fame calibre value.

The bottom line is Coors definitely inflated his counting stats, and even his adjusted stats are likely a little inflated due to the imprecision of adjustment factors. But going just off what he did outside Coors, he's still quite worthy of induction to Cooperstown and belongs on a hypothetical ballot in the future. That said, his extrapolated counting stats (under 2,000 hits, less than 350 home runs and 1,000 extra base hits) would have made it a very tough sell with a large segment of the BBWAA, and he'd probably have to wait for the veteran's committee to do him justice anyway.

Early next week I'll think about modern relievers and how to consider them for Cooperstown.