Walker is a guy who hasn’t gotten a whole ton of support for the Hall of Fame, and I find it at once easy and not easy to understand. The easy argument is that his greatness was a creation of Coors Field, which was for a time the most ridiculously hitter-friendly park the game has ever seen. He had his best years at altitude, therefore he’s not a great player.
I find it hard to understand this argument because Larry Walker was a legitimately excellent hitter before he got to Coors. Between 1992 and 1994, his last three years in Montreal, he batted .294 with a .371 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage. He was one of the better hitters in the National League, and he was just 28 when he joined the Rockies.
It just so happened that Walker moved to a hitters’ park at precisely the same time he hit his peak as a player.
Would Larry Walker have hit 49 home runs in 1997 if he’d stayed in Montreal? Probably not. Would he have batted over .360 three different times? Likely not. However, he did play in Colorado, and he played extremely well in Colorado.
Adjusted OPS+, which accounts for the Coors Field effect in his numbers, still leaves Walker with an excellent 141 mark. That’s tied for 68th all-time, and many of the guys ahead of him had much shorter careers. By WAR, which adjusts for park factors and also includes his excellent defense, he checks in at 72.6 wins, right between Hall of Fame right fielders Paul Waner and Harry Heilmann.
Larry Walker is often compared to teammates Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Eric Young, all of whom were mediocre hitters who looked like superstars at Coors. That’s an unfair comparison. Walker was a superstar everywhere, and he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
The more I learn about the history of the game, the more I see just how much I haven’t seen. Of the nine men listed above, I saw precisely none in their respective primes. I can look at the numbers and see how productive they were, I can read accounts of some of the things they accomplished, and I can even remember seeing some of them play near the ends of their careers, but it’s not the same. I didn’t hear the crack of the bat as a young Frank Thomas crushed home runs, I didn’t gasp as Raines tore down the basepaths and I didn’t watch in awe as Maddux and Glavine mowed down hitters.
That’s why I’m so happy Curt Schilling is on the ballot. I actually got to see a little of him at his best.
I wasn’t a serious fan in 2004, but everyone followed the Red Sox that year. I remember hearing about Schilling from people who knew far more about the game than I did, how their faces lit up when they said he was coming to Boston. I watched him pitch down the stretch, I saw the Bloody Sock game that helped the Sox to their 3-0 comeback in the ALCS, and of course I remember seeing the team hoist the trophy. There were a lot of great players on that squad, but Pedro and Schilling were the aces, and they came up huge.
My clearest memory of Schilling came almost three years later, when he was aging and injured but still showed flashes of that former greatness. I watched him pitch eight flawless innings and come within one strike of completing his first no-hitter. I remember seeing him shake Jason Varitek off, and I remember seeing Shannon Stewart lace a single. It was the closest I’ve come, so far, to seeing a no-hitter from start to finish.
That moment sort of captures Schilling’s career, doesn’t it? He never did pitch that no-hit game. He never won a Cy Young, though he finished second three times. He rarely led the league in anything: strikeouts a couple of times, innings pitched a couple of times, wins a couple of times and that’s about it. That’s a good resume, no doubt, but it doesn’t look like a Hall of Fame resume.
Add it all up, though, and Schilling starts to look like an all-time great. He reached 3,000 strikeouts, an even more exclusive achievement than 300 wins. Like Maddux, he did it with a remarkably low number of walks – 711, to be precise. His 4.38 K/BB ratio is the best ever among modern starting pitchers. Finally, there’s his excellent postseason resume: an 11-2 record, a 2.23 ERA, 120 strikeouts in 133 innings, three rings, many memorable moments and a World Series MVP.
There are so many great pitchers on the ballot (I haven’t even touched Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina yet), and so many more on the way (Johnson, Pedro and Smoltz, just as a starting point) that Schilling may have a tough time getting in, but he shouldn’t. I think he’s one of the 25 or so best pitchers of all time, and I think he’s a clear Hall of Famer.
There you have my top 10. I mentioned before that this is a stacked ballot, and there are many others whom I’d (virtually) vote for if the rules allowed. Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the guys who just missed.