An attempt to explain Larry Walker's Hall-of-Fame WAR without using WAR. (Adapted from this week's piece on Cardinals Hall of Famers.)
If you believe in Wins above Replacement—either popular form of everyone's favorite uber-star—Larry Walker is almost certainly a Hall of Famer. He has 69.7 rWAR and 73.2 fWAR, which puts him within five wins either way of Robin Yount, Johnny Bench, Sam Crawford, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and a bunch of other Hall of Famers people aren't very worried about. In rWAR he's tied for 81st. The problem: Most of the people who aren't voting for Larry Walker don't care about WAR.
So ignore WAR for a minute. Just take or leave the following suppositions:
1. Larry Walker was an outstanding corner outfielder—a seven-time Gold Glover who was regularly heralded as one of the very best in baseball.
2. Larry Walker was an outstanding baserunner—one of the "smartest" ones in baseball, which is code for a guy who is not very fast but appears to be really valuable on the basepaths anyway. (He also put up a 30-30 season, while he was at it.)
3. During his MVP season, Larry Walker actually had a higher OPS on the road than at home. Nevertheless, he did have a pronounced home/road split for his career. (Slightly more pronounced than Jim Rice and less pronounced than Chuck Klein.)
3a. It is possible to adjust reasonably well for that home/road split.
If you believe the last one, and are willing to accept that the run estimating offensive metrics springing from Bill James and Pete Palmer's 30-something-year-old work on the subject have some value, here's what the one that's a piece of rWAR says about Larry Walker's bat: For his career, adjusted for league hitting levels and Coors Field, Walker was 420 runs better than average. That puts him about even with, say, Rafael Palmeiro, in 2/3 the plate appearances.
If you can accept, then, that we have a fairly good idea of how to measure batting talent and adjust for park effects, bring back some of those broadcaster and sportswriter epithets from the 1990s—his impressive baserunning, his Gold Gloves. Imagine a Rafael Palmeiro with a higher peak and less-hanging-around, no PED suspension, and award-winning baserunning and defense. Is that player a Hall of Famer?
Here are the values for those epithets that make rWAR say yes: Compared to an average baserunner, over the course of his career, Larry Walker was worth 50 runs. Compared to an average mostly-right-fielder, over the course of his career, 90.
Those sound about right to me. It's easy to denigrate WAR as a black box, and the people who pay attention to it as beholden to reductive numbers. But in Larry Walker's case, the numbers seem to do a better job of describing the player I watched than most of the words I've read from Hall of Fame voters. If we're going to celebrate players who are multi-dimensional—who weren't just lumbering sluggers—we need to start valuing those other dimensions.