Two wildly different players were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday—Derek Jeter, the near-unanimous, first-ballot shortstop who captained the New York Yankees to five World Series championships, and Larry Walker, who barely made it to Cooperstown on his tenth and final ballot fifteen years after his final MLB season.
Jeter was easily the more famous of the duo—he developed a reputation as one of the great postseason performers of all-time and did so with the sport’s most glamorous franchise. He wasn’t just a great player: he was a handsome, highly-marketable superstar in New York who earned more headlines for his dating life alone than Larry Walker did for all reasons combined. But Walker was every bit the player Jeter was—in fact, by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, WAR7 (a sum of the player’s seven best seasons), and by extension Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, Walker was slightly better. Given Jeter’s postseason credentials, which aren’t factored into WAR, I would pick Jeter if I had to pick only one of the two. But I don’t, and neither did Hall of Fame voters. Both deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
Derek Jeter’s one-team player status is held up as part of his legacy, but I would argue there is a certain charm to Larry Walker’s comparatively nomadic career. While Jeter is a top five Yankee by WAR (he trails Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and DiMaggio, players for whom I know I don’t need to give first names, in that order), Walker ranks 8th for the Montreal Expos (behind Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach, Vladimir Guerrero, and Dennis Martinez; in the combined history of the Expos and the Washington Nationals, he ranks 13th) and 2nd for the Colorado Rockies. Two franchises can credibly claim Walker as one of their all-time greats (Walker will surely be inducted as a Colorado Rockie, as he should), a very rare accomplishment.
Of course, it helps Walker’s climb up these leaderboards that he didn’t play for a team that existed before his birth until he was 37 years old. But on August 6, 2004, Walker was dealt from the Colorado Rockies to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for two players to be named later (eventually Luis Martinez and Chris Narveson) and minor leaguer Jason Burch. And while referring to Walker as a Cardinals legend in the way one might refer to him as an Expos or Rockies legend is ludicrous, his time in St. Louis is worth mentioning.
It might be tempting to cast Larry Walker: St. Louis Cardinal in the manner we tend to cast Babe Ruth: Boston Brave, Ty Cobb: Philadelphia Athletic, Pedro Martinez: Philadelphia Phillie, or (God help us) Willie Mays: New York Met. But Larry Walker, acquired as true overkill on a 2004 Cardinals team that was already on pace to win 104 games (they won 105, and in Walker’s final season, in 2005, they won 100), wasn’t merely doing a victory lap in St. Louis. He remained a force of nature throughout his 545 regular season and 103 postseason plate appearances in a Cardinals uniform.
For all intents and purposes, Walker’s Cardinals career amounted to a full season, but stretched slightly over a season-and-a-third calendar frame. In his 545 regular season plate appearances, Walker hit 26 home runs, posted a AVG/OBP/SLG triple-slash of .286/.387/.520, was an above-average if not quite fleet-footed base runner, and was worth 3.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. His wRC+ was 139. Between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, there were only 40 individual seasons (several players had multiple of them, including Albert Pujols) that eclipsed this mark. For perspective on how good a 139 wRC+ is, Walker’s offensive production, adjusting for era, equaled that of Reggie Jackson’s for his career. And this was post-prime Larry Walker—only 34 seasons in MLB history have been more productive at the plate by batters aged 37 or older.
The 2004, and to a slightly lesser extent 2005, Cardinals were an offensive juggernaut, and while Walker didn’t reach the heights of the Pujols-Jim Edmonds-Scott Rolen MV3 at the plate, he was a more than respectable fourth wheel in the lineup. In the 21st century, only eight Cardinals have posted a season with a 139 or higher wRC+: Albert Pujols (11 times), Jim Edmonds (six times), Matt Holliday (four times), Matt Carpenter (three times), Lance Berkman, Scott Rolen, Ryan Ludwick, and Tommy Pham (one time each).
Larry Walker is tied with Skip Schumaker, who had nearly five times as many plate appearances in a Cardinals uniform, for 36th on the Cardinals’ 21st century position player fWAR list. Larry Walker places ahead of the likes of So Taguchi and Matt Adams on the list despite his relatively brief Cardinals tenure. No player who ranks ahead of Walker on the list had fewer plate appearances in St. Louis. Among the 69 players in the 21st century with over 500 Cardinals plate appearances, Walker ranks 6th by wRC+. Among the top six, Walker was the second-most valuable base runner and the third-most valuable fielder per FanGraphs’s measurements, even though his skills at the two components, once elite in his younger years, had diminished greatly by his Cardinals years.
And this doesn’t even dig into Larry Walker’s postseason numbers for the Cardinals in 2004. Prior to 2004, Walker had only played in four postseason games, all in 1995 for the Rockies in a gentleman’s sweep in the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. In all three rounds of the playoffs, Walker hit two home runs. In the NLDS, Walker had a .333/.444/.800 in four games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He wasn’t as potent in the NLCS, but a .241/.313/.552 triple-slash is nothing to sneeze at. But most memorably was the 2004 World Series, a series which was otherwise an unmitigated disaster for the Cardinals. In 16 plate appearances, Walker posted a .357/.438/.929 triple-slash. His 1.366 OPS eclipsed the OPS of the MV3 combined. In Game 1, the first World Series game of his career, Walker was four for five with a home run and two RBI, and he almost single-handedly gave the Cardinals life. By Win Probability Added, Walker was worth 0.6 wins for the Cardinals—to date, it is the single most valuable game in postseason history by any hitter in a losing effort.
Larry Walker is, first and foremost, a Colorado Rockie, and then a Montreal Expo, and then a St. Louis Cardinal. He ranks nowhere near the upper echelon of all-time Cardinals, and his historic greatness applies far more in numerous other identifiers of his (he is also the most valuable position player in history from Canada, and trails only Fergie Jenkins among Canadians as a whole). His heights in St. Louis were not nearly as high as his heights elsewhere. But that he was so great in St. Louis and that such a player could be a diminished version of anything is perfectly emblematic of what a tremendous player Larry Walker was, and what a worthy addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame he is.