Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Larry Walker

Claim to fame: Walker could be the first Colorado Rockie in the Hall of Fame. In his prime, he offered Triple Crown-caliber batting, Gold Glove fielding, a rifle arm, and even impressive speed– lifetime he stole 230 bases to go with 383 home runs and a .313 career batting average. His career OPS of .965 is 16th-best all-time, and Walker even played well his only appearance in the World Series, hitting .357 with two home runs for St. Louis in 2004. Problem is, Walker spent his best years in Denver and they came at the height of the Steroid Era.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Walker becomes eligible for enshrinement in 2011 which means that the Baseball Writers Association of America will be voting on him for the first time in the next few months.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This is going to be a tough call and part of an interesting election for newly-eligible players. Rafael Palmeiro will almost certainly be the first member of the 3,000-hit club since Paul Waner in 1952 not to get into Cooperstown on his first ballot, since he flunked a steroid test. Jeff Bagwell didn’t, but being a slugger in the Steroid Era could hurt his bid too. Larry Walker could represent something else: the first deserving player not enshrined because he played his prime years at Coors Field at the exact wrong time in baseball history.

In another era, Walker would have nothing to worry about. He’s near or above on most Hall of Fame metrics, and his career WAR of 67.3 is in line with other Cooperstown members. If he’d played in the 1930s, his stats would have placed him alongside greats like Chuck Klein, Joe DiMaggio, and Johnny Mize, and Walker would have had his plaque long ago. For some reason, even though the 1930s and the late 1990s parallel each other as two of the gaudiest eras for hitters in major league history, numbers for great hitters from the 1930s aren’t dismissed like those of sluggers from the 1990s.

Granted, there’s no doubt playing in Denver helped Walker’s career. His lifetime batting average as a Rockie of .334 is about 50 points higher than how he fared with his other two teams, the Expos and the Cardinals. In fact, the batting averages he posted between 1997 and 2002 are so out of whack with the rest of his career it’s almost comical, and the fact many ballplayers in those years may have been on everything short of horse tranquilizers doesn’t help Walker’s cause.

The reality, though, is there’s no proof Walker used steroids, and even in Montreal early in his career, he looked like something special. I recall an ESPN highlight of him gunning down Tim Wakefield at first from right field. That doesn’t happen too often. I also doubt that outside of Denver, Walker would have been much worse than fellow outfielders Duke Snider, Andre Dawson, or Jim Rice, among others. Those three men got into Cooperstown with the writers. Walker should too.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Al Oliver, Albert Belle, Bert Blyleven, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Dan Quisenberry, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, Jack Morris, Joe Carter, John Smoltz, Keith Hernandez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Pete Browning, Rocky Colavito, Steve Garvey, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines