Larry Walker, Baserunning, and His Hall of Fame Contemporaries
As the Hall of Fame votes keep trickling in, dozens of arguments have been made for and against – mostly for – Larry Walker, who is in his final year on the writers’ ballot. Since he played over half of his career in Denver, there are many who downplay his offensive numbers as being inflated by playing so many games at a high elevation. Something that never comes up is a facet of baseball that elevation doesn’t affect – baserunning. When looking at how he ran the bases compared to how his Hall of Fame contemporaries did the same, it is clear that Walker was an elite baserunner.
Comparing Larry Walker to Current Hall of Fame Members
Larry Walker played from 1989 to 2005. Consequently, this study includes every current member of the Hall of Fame who played so much as an inning anytime between the 1989 and 2005 seasons. This includes Mike Schmidt and Jim Rice, even though they played their last career games earlier in the 1989 season than August 16th, which is when Walker made his debut. This study also does not include pitchers. That makes 32 position players.
There are five categories in this study: run scored percentage, stolen base percentage, first-to-third-on-a-single percentage, scoring-from-first-on-a-double percentage, and scoring-from-second-on-a-single percentage. Incredibly, Baseball Reference has data for all these situations. Since numbers have little meaning without context, the author found the average of the 33 players for each of these categories. He then created a “plus” category for each stat – the player’s percentage divided by the average, multiplied by 100. A “plus” stat of 100 meant that it was the average for the 33 players. Numbers above 100 meant the player was above average; below 100 meant that the player was below average. Each digit represents one percent, so 107 means that the player was seven percent better than the average.
Run Scored Percentage
In the first area of the study, Run Scored Percentage, Larry Walker finished a respectable 10th. When he reached base, he scored 34% of the time. The leader of this group, not surprisingly, is Rickey Henderson, who did so 39% of the time. As a plus stat, Walker’s percentage becomes 107; Henderson’s is 123. There is no shame for Walker in finishing behind the nine players ahead of him. Henderson, Craig Biggio, Paul Molitor, Tim Raines, Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Ryne Sandberg, Robin Yount, and Ozzie Smith were all outstanding baserunners.
This percentage, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt. Baserunners only have moderate control over whether they score. Ultimately, it’s up to the batters hitting behind them to hit the ball. What the baserunners do have control over is making smart decisions while running – namely, taking that extra base without running into an out.
(Calculation note: Run Scored Percentage takes the number of runs a player scored and subtracts his home runs. It then divides that by the number of times he ran the bases – hits (minus home runs), hit by pitch, walks, and games as a pinch runner. It does not include times that he reached base on an error or catcher’s interference.)
Stolen Base Percentage
The second area of the study – stolen base percentage – had Larry Walker finish 10th again. The average player from this group stole 255 bases in 340 attempts – a success rate of 75%. Walker stole 230 bases in 306 attempts – a success rate of 75%. That puts him right at the average, giving him an SBP+ of 100. The top finisher in this category was Raines, whose 85% success rate gave him an SBP+ of 113. Larkin, Henderson, Alomar, Smith, Molitor, Biggio, Chipper Jones, and Sandberg finished second through ninth, in that order.
The bottom five should come as no surprise. Jim Thome came in 29th, stealing 19 bases in 39 attempts (49%) for an SBP+ of 65. Next came Gary Carter, with 39 steals in 81 attempts (48%) for a rating of 64. Cal Ripken, Jr. had 36 steals in 75 attempts (48%) to also get a 64 rating. Mike Piazza was next-to-last, swiping 17 bags in 37 attempts (46%, which is still much higher than his rate of throwing runners out – 23%) and a rating of 61. Finishing dead last was Wade Boggs, who stole 24 bases in 59 attempts (41%) for a rating of 54.
These two categories have Walker in the top ten, but these are categories Walker has only marginal control over. He cannot control what hitters behind him end up doing, and he cannot make himself a faster runner. What he can do is run the bases wisely and take advantage of the opportunities he gets. That is where the next three categories come in.
Extra Bases Taken
This statistic looks at how often a runner takes more bases on a hit than the batter does. The most common time this happens is when a runner scores from second on a single. That play is so common, in fact, that “scoring position” includes second base, as knowledgeable fans know. What baserunners can do to help their team the most, however, is making it from first to third on a single or scoring from first on a double. That is where Larry Walker shines the most.
He scored from second on a single 68% of the time. The average of these players is 66%, so Walker received a 2ndSHP+ of 103, tied for 11th with Jones and Smith. Whenever he was on first and the batter hit a single, he reached third or scored 39% of the time. That gave him a 1stS3P+ rating of 115 – tied with Vladimir Guerrero and Larkin for ninth.
Scoring from First on a Double
This statistic is mind-blowing. When Larry Walker was on first and the batter hit a double, he scored 62% of the time. None of the other 32 players in this group had a percentage higher than the 50s. Furthermore, only 11 players other than Walker scored from first on a double more than 50% of the time. Eight did so less than a third of the time, and the last-place finisher – Thome – did so only 22% of the time. Even Henderson – one of the best baserunners in the history of baseball – only did so 51% of the time. (Yeah – “only.” Those who have played baseball on a full-sized field know how tough it can be to score from first on a double.)
The average percentage for this group of 33 was 43%. That gave Walker a 1stDHP+ score of 144. Larkin, who came in second, had a score of 136. This is astounding. A story to put this in context – in December, this author had an informal chat with Arizona Diamondbacks quality control coach Robby Hammock. He mentioned to Hammock that Walker scored from first on a double 62% of the time, and that Henderson did so 51% of the time. Hammock was astounded. His eyes got as big as saucers as he said, “Whoa!”
Walker Compared to the Rest
Where does Larry Walker rank in overall baserunning compared to his Hall of Fame contemporaries? To answer that question, let’s look at the average of the five “plus” statistics and call it “Baserunning Average.” When averaging the “plus” version of Runs Scored Percentage, Stolen Base Percentage, First-to-Third-on-a-Single Percentage, Scoring-from-First-on-a-Double Percentage, and Scoring-from-Second-on-a-Single Percentage, Henderson comes in first with a Baserunning Average of 117. Second place saw a tie between Sandberg and Larkin, who each had a Baserunning Average of 116. Walker came in fourth with a Baserunning Average of 114. Yount rounded out the top five with a Baserunning Average of 112.
The average fan tends to overlook baserunning, but it is an important aspect of baseball. Bad baserunning can destroy an inning and cost a team a game. Even a few of those can keep a team out of the postseason. Making a habit out of it can submarine a season. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, who managed the Baltimore Orioles during their most successful stretch, hated baserunning mistakes. To paraphrase him, he said that you only get 27 outs, so they’d better not come on the basepaths.
Larry Walker was an outstanding baserunner. Comparing his baserunning statistics to the current Hall of Fame members who played while he did backs that up. He belongs in Cooperstown, and, hopefully, enough voters will agree that he will end up taking his rightful place in the Hall in the summer of 2020.
For the complete baserunning data for this study, click here.
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