Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Coors Field Probably Isn't the Main Thing Hurting Larry Walker's Hall of Fame Chances
After eight years languishing on the Hall of Fame ballot, Larry Walker’s candidacy is starting to show signs of life. He topped a third of the vote last year for the first time, and the early returns this year show him nearing two-thirds of the vote for the 2019 voting cycle. For the first time since he debuted at 20.3% of the vote back in 2011, it seems possible that Walker might finally be inducted into Cooperstown.
It would certainly be a worthy induction, if he does make it. But it’s also worth wondering why he’s taken so long to build up traction with voters. I’ve seen some claiming that Walker’s time on the Rockies (and therefore, his years playing in Coors Field) might be causing some voters to ding his candidacy unfairly.
There are plenty of other things that could be causing voters to unfairly discount him, and a lot of them are things that we’ve seen play out with other Hall candidates. For instance, Walker missed a lot of time from injuries (only once did he top 150 games, and seven of his seventeen seasons saw him miss 35 games or more), which resulted in a relatively short career, something that has hurt other players on the ballot in the past (Jim Edmonds, for one). Walker also was pretty well-rounded rather than exceling in one area, something that people have identified as a problem for decades now (even early Bill James writings referenced voters overlooking players who were well-rounded, like Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich).
There’s nothing to say that it couldn’t be multiple things hurting him, but up until this year, there hasn’t really been a great way to assess Coors Field’s impact in the mind of Hall voters. No one else who spent significant time on the Rockies spent much time on the ballot, nor did they really deserve to (the only other non-Walker players to hit the ballot with more than 10 WAR in Colorado prior to this year were Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, and Ellis Burks).
Not only that, but we haven’t really seen a ton of evidence that a lot baseball writers refuse to vote for Rockies in other awards; for example, the Rockies have done pretty well for themselves in MVP voting (Dante Bichette and Carlos Gonzalez both have top-three finishes, and guys like Nolan Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday*, and Todd Helton all finished in the top five/ten spots pretty regularly), which pulls from the same voting body. Maybe voters only have a problem with Coors Field when it comes to Hall of Fame voting, but it feels difficult to prove that when we really only have one data point.
*You could MAYBE argue that Holliday should have won the MVP award in 2007, when he finished second and was a little better than winner Jimmy Rollins. But you could also easily argue that neither of those two was one of the top three players in the NL that year anyway, let alone top five.
But this year, we finally got a second candidate to include in our analysis. Career-Rockie Todd Helton finally hit the Hall of Fame ballot, and he has numbers that wouldn’t look too out of place in Cooperstown, between 2519 hits, 369 home runs, 592 doubles, 61.2 WAR, and a 53.9 JAWS rating. Based on what we see in the early results, is Helton below what we might expect of a player of his resume?
Well…that’s actually a difficult question, and there are a few ways to address it. Going by Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker, through about two-fifths of the votes, Helton sits at 19.8%, just behind Scott Rolen. Rolen has a small headstart as a second-year candidate and was noticeably better than Helton by most value metrics, but they’re also very different types of players so probably not a great comparison. What about just among players similar to Helton?
Going by Baseball-Reference Similarity Scores, no one is especially similar to Helton (we’d want to see a rating of over 900 to call someone especially close). But there are a few that are somewhat similar; how have they fared in Hall voting?
Jeff Bagwell-Debuted at 41.7% on his first ballot, elected on the 7th try.
Miguel Cabrera-Still active, not eligible for the Hall.
Edgar Martinez-Debuted at 36.2%, looks primed to make it this year on his 10th try.
Luis Gonzalez-Debuted at 0.9% and fell off the ballot.
Vladimir Guerrero-Debuted at 71.7%, elected on his 2nd try.
Orlando Cepeda-Debuted at 12.5%, peaked in his 15th try at 73.5%; elected by the Veterans Committee.
Andres Galarraga-Debuted at 4.1%, fell off the ballot.
Larry Walker-Already addressed.
Jim Rice-Debuted at 29.8%, elected on his 15th try.
Fred McGriff-Debuted at 21.5%, peaked (so far) at 23.9%, but will likely top that this year. Might be picked by the Veterans Committee.
There’s a lot going on here. Helton’s at the lower end of this bunch, but he’s still ahead of three of the nine (including one who’s now in Cooperstown), and within striking distance of both McGriff and Walker’s debut totals. Moreover, he’s debuting in a year that’s pretty crowded, so it makes sense that he’d lose a few points compared to guys who debuted on more open ballots.
Also, this is a wide range of candidate quality. Cepeda and McGriff don’t seem too out-there as far as Helton comparisons go, but Bagwell and Martinez are more obvious fits for the Hall in my mind* (similarity scores are mostly based on just counting stats rather than anything more advanced), and even guys like Gonzalez and Guerrero have noticeably different Hall resumes than Helton. What happens if we limit our scope to just first basemen with similar value to Helton?
*I do think Helton should be elected; this is just to say that if I only had one spot on a ballot for one of them, I’d definitely put Bagwell or Martinez ahead of Helton.
For his career, Todd Helton was worth 61.2 WAR and had a JAWS score of 53.9. To pick a totally arbitrary cutoff, here’s every first baseman within 10 WAR of him:
Johnny Mize (70.9)
Eddie Murray (68.7)
Willie McCovey (64.5)
Mark McGwire (62.2)
Jake Beckley (61.6)
Keith Hernandez (60.4)
John Olerud (58.2)
Hank Greenberg (57.6)
Will Clark (56.5)
Bill Terry (54.2)
Tony Perez/George Sisler (54.0)
Fred McGriff (52.6)
Norm Cash (52.0)
I’m going to be honest, I’m not totally sure what to make of this group. It also spans a wide variety of outcomes, and you can see how and why each one doesn’t quite line up with Helton. Mize and Greenberg shouldn’t really be here, as they both had their totals limited by military service. Murray and McCovey cruised in on the first try, in part thanks to big milestone numbers that usually meant automatic induction and which Helton didn’t quite reach.* McGwire probably would have joined him if not for the steroid thing. Beckley was a 19th century star who made it into Cooperstown under a process nothing like what Helton will face.
*It’s worth noting that both clocked rather low in percentages, even though they were still both first ballot picks. McCovey just passed 81%, while Murray’s 3000 hits and 500 homer only just got him over 85% of the vote. That seems somewhat interesting and relevant to our larger context, at least.
The grouping of Keith Hernandez down to McGriff or so is probably the better comparison, although it’s still a little weird because Helton is the best of the bunch. Hernandez and Olerud both struggled on the ballot (the latter was one-and-done, while the former bounced between 4 and 11% over nine years), but both of their cases rely heavily on defense (which, as I’ve mentioned, is a bad sign for getting voters to evaluate the whole picture).
The other five are probably better fits for having mostly offense-based candidacies, even if Helton is noticeably better than any of them. As mentioned, McGriff started right about where Helton was in Hall voting, while Will Clark just missed the 5% needed to stick around a second year (although he’s appeared on a few Veterans Committee ballots since then).
The other three are in the Hall, but none of them had an especially easy time along the way. Tony Perez started at 50% of the vote in 1992 but took nine tries to finally make it. Billy Terry appeared on 15 ballots, although this was early in the Hall’s history, when the process was very different. Three appearances came before the five-year wait that would become a tradition was in place, but his first one after five years saw him reach just 15.5% of the vote.* George Sisler was an early star of the game, but got lost in the early shuffle that saw a surplus of worthy candidates up for debate. He made it in as part of the Hall’s fourth class of inductees, having started at just 34.1% of the vote back in the first year.
*It’s also probably worth noting that both Perez and Terry were faces of memorable dynasties, with Perez a key factor in the Big Red Machine and Terry serving as a popular player and manager of the New York Giants for two decades that saw them win five pennants and a World Series.
Doing the same thing we did with Walker’s comparisons that we did with Helton’s shows that the injuries limiting his playing time, lack of milestones, and well-roundedness of his game are probably larger factors slowing his election overall. For the right fielders within 10 WAR of Walker, Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn, and Dave Winfield all cruised in on their first ballots after reaching milestones; and while Paul Waner got stuck on some very crowded early-Hall ballots, he got in on his fifth year after four attempts polling between 40 and 72 percent.
Meanwhile, early star Sam Crawford narrowly missed 3000 hits and needed to wait 20 years for the Veterans Committee to look at his case. Harry Heilmann wasn’t as good of an all-around player as Walker before also being forced out of the game due to injuries, but he was a better hitter (148 OPS+ vs 141) and compiled nearly 1000 more plate appearances (and the counting stats to go with them). It still took him twelve tries to gain induction, and six tries to even top 12% of the vote (like Waner, there was also some early-ballot weirdness in place, but Waner still had a much easier path to election). Dwight Evans is maybe the prototypical “above-average hitter AND fielder” candidate, and fell off the BBWAA ballot after just three tries.
(Also, depending on your definition of “right fielder”, we also have Andre Dawson and Reggie Smith, although both started in center before moving to right field. Dawson, who didn’t reach either of the big hitting milestones but got somewhat close to both, took nine tries. Smith, who got nearly 2700 fewer plate appearance and finished nowhere near either, didn’t even hit 1%.)
Or look at some of Walker’s similarity scores. Duke Snider is his closest comp, someone who fell short of the major numbers and needed eleven tries to make the Hall despite 66 WAR. Johnny Mize and Joe DiMaggio both missed a lot of time due to World War II, and Mize still wound up needing the VC (after, somewhat like Walker, only just clearing 350 homers and 2000 hits). Chuck Klein was another VC pick, and played in even fewer games than Walker. Jim Edmonds (another frequent injury victim) didn’t even reach 2000 hits and fell off after just one ballot. There’s also Ellis Burks, Moises Alou, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman, all of whom failed to top 2000 games played (just like Walker) and saw similarly limited career totals as a result (plus, since similarity scores is just for hitting stats, the fact that they’re generally all much worse fielders and baserunners doesn’t really factor in). Holliday is obviously still active, but Alou and Burks both failed to top 1.1% of the vote and Berkman is only tracking at 1.2%.
The single most interesting one, though, is probably Vladimir Guerrero. WAR doesn’t really consider them too close, with Larry over 13 Wins above Vlad. However, most of that is from defense, with Walker staying a plus defender while Guerrero basically gave back all of his early years’ defensive value and then some in the back half of his career. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t look at fielding metrics and thinks of Young Vlad on defense, it’s easy to see them both as well-rounded, five-tool right fielders.
Guerrero wasn’t a first-ballot inductee, but he topped 90% of the vote his second time. Going just by rate stats, these two look a lot alike; Walker slashed .313/.400/.565 (a 141 OPS+), while Guerrero hit .318/.379/.553 (140 OPS+). Given those similarities and the disparity in vote totals, it might be that voters are discounting Walker’s rate stats due to Coors Field.
But I think it’s also very possible that a lot of voters just don’t look at rate stats when voting, and counting stats can distort how similar two players’ production was. Vladimir picked up over 1000 more plate appearances, and as a result his career totals look a lot better, to the less-discerning voter. 449 homers (9th all-time among players with 40% of their games in right field, and right in between Winfield and Dawson) looks a lot better than 383 (14th, between Evans/Rocky Colavito). Ditto for 2590 hits (18th, Heilmann and Jackson) versus 2160 (26th, Patsy Donovan/Magglio Ordonez), or to a lesser extent, 1496 RBI (13th, Sam Crawford/Dave Parker) versus 1311 (Ruben Sierra/Paul Waner*). In every case, Walker’s “grouping” looks substantially less impressive.
*While Waner is a Hall of Famer, he also batted first or second much more than Walker, who was almost always in the three/four slots, meaning that for voters who care about RBI, Walker was essentially a cleanup man with the RBI total of a leadoff hitter.
We are still just dealing with two data points, so maybe Todd Helton and Larry Walker are getting dinged for playing in Coors Field. But if Helton is being dinged for it, it doesn’t seem too different from whatever individual demerits are held against a lot of similar first basemen, and first basemen who’s main fault is being a “jack-of-all-trade” with both the glove and bat seem to have suffered worse. And if that type of “penalty” with the voters is bigger, Larry Walker’s lack of success to date makes a lot more sense. It important to make sure voters know how to adjust for playing in Denver, but the best strategy to convince holdouts is probably to stress how good Larry’s all-around game was, and how much value he managed to amass in spite of his frequent maladies.