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Larry Walker and Edgar Martinez: Where's the love?

Edgar Martinez (.312) and Larry Walker (.313) had nearly identical career batting averages. USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me a good question: Why do you support Edgar Martinez as a Hall of Famer and not Larry Walker? After all, Edgar was primarily a designated hitter and Walker was an outstanding all-around player with a higher career WAR. To be honest, I've never given Walker's career a full examination and sort of defaulted to the "Great numbers ... but in Coors Field" position.

Anyway, I promised a blog entry on the topic, so here goes. And, yes, I'm a completely and totally biased fan of Martinez.

As always, WAR is a good starting point for any comparison. Remember that WAR makes a positional adjustment, so Martinez loses value for spending the majority of his career as a DH. The offensive factor in WAR makes park adjustments, so Walker's Coors advantage is also considered in his WAR number.

Martinez: 68.3 (Baseball-Reference), 65.5 (FanGraphs)

Walker: 72.6 (Baseball-Reference), 68.7 (FanGraphs)

So Walker has the slight advantage on both sites. Here's how the two sites evaluate both players:

Martinez

Baseball-Reference: 531 runs above average on offense, minus-111 runs on defense

FanGraphs: Plus-501 runs on offense, minus-134 runs on defense

Walker

Baseball-Reference: 420 runs above average on offense, plus-19 runs on defense

FanGraphs: Plus-428 runs on offense, plus-4 runs on defense

That defensive rating includes a positional adjustment (and the FanGraphs offensive rating includes baserunning). Walker is actually rated as an excellent fielder -- plus-94 runs in his career via Baseball-Reference -- but he loses value via a positional adjustment. Martinez rated above average defensively at third base in 1990 and 1991 and then slightly below average in 1992. He tore his hamstring in an exhibition game on a crappy field in Canada in 1993 and eventually moved to DH in 1995 when the team acquired Mike Blowers to play third base (Tino Martinez was entrenched at first base).

Walker's other big advantage was on the bases. Baseball-Reference rates him at plus-40 runs in his career compared to minus-18 for Martinez. That 58-run difference is a big deal; without it, Martinez would have a slight advantage in WAR.

Peak Seasons

One thing I like to look at when discussing a potential Hall of Famer is peak value -- especially the number of high-performance seasons. A season with 5.0 is a Hall of Fame-level season. Martinez had eight seasons of 5.0 WAR or higher via Baseball-Reference (actually, all eight were 5.5 or higher). Walker had six, and two of those were under 5.5. Martinez's two next-best seasons (4.9 and 4.8) were also higher than Walker's next-best season. In other words, of the 16 best seasons between the two, Martinez had 10 of them.

Still, maybe I'm showing some pro-Martinez bias there. Jay Jaffe's JAWS system combines a player's career value with his seven best seasons. The sum of Walker's best seven seasons is 44.6; the sum of Martinez's best seven seasons is 43.6. Walker had two monster seasons, both better than any individual season Edgar had: his MVP year in 1997, worth 9.8 WAR, when he hit .366/.452/.720 with 49 home runs and played 153 games (the only time in his career he topped 150); and a 7.8-WAR season in 2001 when he hit .350/.449/.662 with 38 home runs.

The Coors Factor

Of course, both of those seasons came in Coors Field. Let me run some career numbers by you:

Walker at home: .348/.431/.637

Walker on the road: .278/.370/.495

Walker at Coors: .381/.462/.710

Martinez at home: .311/.423/.517

Martinez on the road: .312/.412/.514

Walker was a terrific hitter. In his MVP season, he hit .346 on the road with 29 of his 49 home runs. As a young player with the Montreal Expos, he twice hit .300. After going to the St. Louis Cardinals late in his career, he slugged over .500 at age 38 (in a part-time role). But at Coors Field, he became Babe Ruth. Martinez began his career in the Kingdome, and while it was a good home run park, it wasn't a great hitting park -- the lighting was bad and the power alleys were small, cutting down on doubles and triples. Overall, it was essentially a neutral run environment. Then he moved into Safeco Field, a pitcher's park.

Here's my point: Imagine what Martinez would have hit in that pre-humidor Coors Field era? I guarantee you he would have broken the single-season record for doubles. He might have had a chance to hit .400. After all, Walker hit .379 in 1999 -- while hitting .286 on the road. Edgar's career road batting average was 26 points above that.

In advanced metrics, park adjustments are made at a team level: What's the run environment of that park compared to the league average? A player's individual stats are then adjusted upward or downward. Isn't it possible, however, that an extreme hitter's park like Coors Field helps a very good hitter more than an average hitter or a poor one? I don't know if it does; I don't have the time to compare every hitter in Colorado Rockies history, but here's a quick and dirty study. Baseball-Reference has a stat called tOPS+, which is simply a way to compare a player's OPS split relative to his overall OPS. So in looking at home/road splits, if a player has a 100 tOPS+ split at home, that means he hit just as well at home as on the road.

We can look at the season-by-season totals for the Rockies compared to Walker. The higher the number, the better the team or player hit at home compared to the road:

1995

Rockies: 127

Walker: 125

1996

Rockies: 138

Walker: 171

1997

Rockies: 118

Walker: 100

1998

Rockies: 123

Walker: 129

1999

Rockies: 126

Walker: 140

2000

Rockies: 129

Walker: 131

2001

Rockies: 124

Walker: 124

2002

Rockies: 129

Walker: 119

2003

Rockies: 121

Walker: 127

OK, maybe there's nothing there. In some seasons, Walker did gain a bigger advantage at home than his teammates (in a better study, we'd first subtract Walker's numbers from the team totals); in others, he didn't.

In the end, it's still difficult for me to extract Walker from Coors. Would he have been as valuable playing in Dodger Stadium? Would he have won batting titles playing in the Kingdome, like Martinez did? At the same time, let's not forget how good Walker was in the field and on the bases.

Final Thoughts

There's one more thing with Walker: all the time he missed. He played 150 games just once and 140 games just twice. From his first full season in 1990 on, Walker missed 479 of 2,447 games -- 19.5 percent of all possible games. Martinez did miss 16.9 percent of his games from his first full season (also in 1990), but that percentage was dragged down by that torn hamstring in 1993 when he played just 42 games.

A friend of mine who is a die-hard Rockies fan told me that Walker had a reputation for taking days off: "He sat out numerous stretches in his prime just because he didn't really care to play baseball. Walker's a guy who just did what he wanted, when he wanted, his entire career. He sabotaged his own counting numbers by quitting on his teams, and voting him into the Hall of Fame would be giving him a total pass on that."

And that's coming from a Rockies fan who called Walker the most talented player he's even seen. Maybe it's unfair to print the thoughts of one fan? OK, but here's an example of what he was getting at. Back in 1997, Walker infamously asked to sit out a game that Randy Johnson started for the Mariners. "If I did that, I'd be squashed," Barry Bonds said at the time. "The public and media would eat me alive. ... I'd be booed every game I played in. You know, bro, the double standard."

Walker's comment: "I could have lied and said my knee hurt, but I told the truth. Randy Johnson is the best pitcher in the game, and I didn't want to face him."

Does that sound like a Hall of Famer?

The Last Word

Neither are getting in this year. Martinez is polling at 47 percent on Ryan Thibs' Hall of Fame tracker site and Walker is at 13 percent. It's Martinez's seventh year on the ballot and Walker's sixth, so time is running out (players now get 10 years on the ballot). Walker actually topped 20 percent his first three years on the ballot and then suddenly dropped to 10 percent in 2014 as the ballot became more crowded. Martinez started at 36 percent but was down to 27 percent last year. His jump is a good sign, but he'll have just three years left.

In the end, the biggest reason neither are close to the 75 percent threshold might not be Coors Field or DHing, but rather length of career. Voters love longevity. Walker's 383 home runs and 1,311 RBIs and Martinez's 309 home runs and 1,261 RBIs can appear rather pedestrian in this era of 500- and 600-home run hitters and 1,500-RBI candidates. Of players elected to the Hall of Fame who began their careers after World War II, Walker would have the sixth-fewest plate appearances (ahead of only Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby and Kirby Puckett). Martinez, with 644 more PAs than Walker, would jump ahead of Duke Snider, Yogi Berra and Bill Mazeroski, with the same total as Johnny Bench (although fewer than 500 PAs behind Orlando Cepeda, Gary Carter, Willie Stargell, Barry Larkin and Jim Rice).

Still, both have a career WAR total higher than many post-World War II Hall of Fame position players -- Lou Brock, Rice, Kiner, Puckett, Tony Perez, Luis Aparicio, Berra, Stargell, Harmon Killebrew, Billy Williams, Dave Winfield, Willie McCovey, Andre Dawson, Craig Biggio, Snider, Roberto Alomar, Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg. And those were guys all elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Martinez is one of the greatest hitters of all time, with a strong string of peak value seasons. I don't really care that he didn't have those three or four extra seasons of compiling numbers without value added. He's a Hall of Famer.

And Walker ... I remain on the fence. He wouldn't make my top 10 this year if I had a ballot. And by the time I am eligible to vote, he'll be off the ballot. He'll be a fun case for some future Veterans Committee.