Career Profile: Larry Walker

Larrywalker1993_medium
Larry Walker, 1993 (Getty)

Career Profile: Larry Walker

Per reader request, here is a Career Profile of former major league outfielder Larry Walker.

Larry Walker was signed by the Montreal Expos as an undrafted free agent out of British Columbia in 1984. Canadians weren't eligible for the baseball draft back then, and the sport wasn't played as often up north as it is now. Walker was primarily a hockey player until age 16, but caught the eye of Expos officials and was signed for a $1,500 bonus. He was very athletic, but also very raw, and the signing was more of a "give the Canadian kid a chance in case he develops into something" decision than a "this guy is a top prospect" investment.

     Walker was assigned to Utica in the New York-Penn League in 1985 at age 18, playing third base and first base. He struggled with the bat, hitting .223/.297/.307 and having strike zone issues. He did swipe 12 bases and showed athleticism, but there were serious doubts about his ability to handle higher-level pitching, and there was apparently some thought in the organization of releasing him. Fortunately, it was decided to give him another season to develop. A similar prospect now would get a Grade C rating.

    Walker moved up to Low-A Burlington in 1986 and something clicked: he hit .289/.387/.623 with 29 homers and 16 steals in 95 games, which got him a promotion to High-A. He remained productive at West Palm Beach, hitting .283/.423/.540 on the season with four more homers. He drew 72 walks combined between the two levels, and while he struck out 144 times, it was clear that he'd made terrific progress. He transitioned from third base and became a full-time outfielder as well. A player like that now (age 19, great tools, skills blossoming suddenly)  would get at least a Grade B+ and maybe an A- depending on the exact reports.

    Promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in 1987, Walker hit .287/.383/.534 with 26 homers, 24 steals, 67 walks, and 120 strikeouts in 474 at-bats. Power, speed, patience, youth, this was the complete package, and would rate at least a Grade A-. I might even give a guy like that a straight Grade A although the strikeouts might prevent that, but Walker was clearly an elite talent.

     Unfortunately, Walker hurt his knee and missed the entire 1988 season recovering from surgery. He came back in 1989 to hit .270/.361/.421 for Triple-A Indianapolis. His power was a bit disappointing with 12 homers, but he did swipe 36 bases (showing his speed was intact). I'd probably give a similar player a Grade B+ now. He got into 20 games for the Expos, hitting .170/.264/.170, but doing enough to earn a shot in 1990 spring training.

     Walker hit .241/.326/.434 in 133 games for the Expos in 1990 as a 23-year-old rookie, demonstrating good speed with 21 steals, decent power, and a solid 3.3 WAR. His sophomore year was better (.290/.349/.458, 127 OPS+, 4.0 WAR), and he built on it from there, having particularly strong seasons in 1992 (.301/.354/.506, OPS+142, 5.8 WAR) and 1994 (.322/.394/.587, OPS+151).

     As you know, he signed with the Rockies as a free agent in 1995. He had an outstanding three-year run in 1997-1999 (WARs 9.4 in his MVP season, 5.2, 5.0), was injured in 2000, then had a final monster season in 2001 (WAR 8.0) before beginning to fade. Even at the end he was still an excellent hitter, although injuries cur sharply into his playing time. He hit .289/.385/.502 (OPS+130, WAR 2.1) in 100 games for the Cardinals in 2005 before retiring.

    Walker finished with a career mark of .313/.400/.565, OPS+140, WAR 72.2.  He was a five-time All-Star, won an MVP Award in 1997, and won seven Gold Gloves. There might be a tendency to write much of his performance off as a creation of Coors Field, but even adjusting for that he was a tremendous player, a great hitter and an excellent defensive player in his prime. His biggest problem was his inability to stay healthy for a complete season, which cut into his ultimate counting stats.

    Most Similar Players: Vladimir Guerrero, Duke Snider, Ellis Burks, Moises Alou, Jim Edmonds, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Todd Helton, Chuck Klein, and Edgar Martinez. His highest Sim Score was 891 with Guerrero, a low score that indicates Walker wasn't really similar to anyone in particular and is an archtype.

     Walker has a Hall of Fame case. His Black Ink score is 24 (average for Hall is 27); Gray Ink 116 (144), Monitor rating 147 (100), and Standards rating 58 (50). His 72.2 WAR ranks 28th All-Time among outfielders, in company with Hall of Fame players like Robin Yount (74.1), Jesse Burkett (72.8), and Goose Goslin (71.9). 

      Will he get into the Hall of Fame? Not immediately, but I think there's a decent chance he will eventually. He may get downgraded due to the Coors effect and the general high-offense era of the 1990s, but even adjusting for all of that, he deserves strong consideration at least. Either way, Walker was an outstanding player, and it's difficult to accept that he might easily have been released after struggling in rookie ball.

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