|Tuesday, August 20
Baserunning big part of Walker's greatness
By Tony Gwynn
Special to ESPN.com
Larry Walker is the most complete player in the National League. People may overlook him because he plays in Colorado, but Walker can do it all -- at the plate, in the field and on the bases -- and he has been doing the same thing for the last 13 years.
At the big-league level, baseball is more mental than physical. The cerebral part is evident in Walker's game; it comes from experience and realizing what he can and can't do in every aspect of the game.
Walker receives the least amount of credit for his baserunning, even though he is the best baserunner in the game. What puts Walker on a higher level is his mental approach. It's obvious to other players and people who watch the game that he is always thinking ahead. He goes from first to third better than anyone in baseball because he has thought about it before the ball is hit.
People have a tendency to think of great baserunners as players who can steal bases and flat-out fly. While Walker is not the fastest guy in the world and many other players could outrun him, he uses his knowledge of himself, the situation and the other team to his advantage.
He rarely makes a mistake on the basepaths. When he hits the ball, he recognizes right away if he can stretch a hit into a double or triple. If an outfielder bobbles the ball, he is always looking to pick up the extra base. Walker can also steal bases (career-high 33 in 1997) and is great at reading pitchers.
If Walker is on first base, he knows where the outfielders are playing, who can throw and who can't, who comes straight in to field the ball and who doesn't. And when the ball is hit, there is no hesitation on Walker's part. He is an aggressive person by nature, and that translates to every part of his game.
Watch Walker when he gets on base. On a base hit to right field, if the ball is hit right at the right fielder, the first thought is that Walker will probably stop at second. But you may be surprised to see him on his way to third. Walker was not born with that ability; it came from years of playing and knowing the game.
He applies the same knowledge to his play in right field, where he has won six NL Gold Gloves. Walker knows where to position himself for the hitters and what his pitchers are going to do. Again, he puts thought into what he is doing.
At Coors Field, for example, if a batter hits the ball to right field and thinks the ball is either gone or off the wall, I have seen Walker fake like he will catch it and then turn around, play the ball off the wall and hold the hitter to a single. There aren't many players who can do that successfully, but he is one of them.
Plus, Walker's arm is so strong and accurate that people will rarely try to run on him. They will go 90 feet and hold up because they know he is a great defender. Walker's experience makes him a more complete right fielder than Vladimir Guerrero. Even though Guerrero is a super talent, he has yet to harness what he can do defensively. Walker has. He has great instincts, knows the right angles to take, and how the ball will ricochet off the wall. There is nobody better in the National League.
As a hitter, Walker brings the same amount of aggression he does to baserunning and defense, but it's controlled aggression. That approach makes him a great all-around hitter who can both hit for average and for power. He has won three batting titles and is on the verge of a fourth this season. He has hit .350 or higher four times. He has hit over 40 home runs once (49 as the NL MVP in '97) and over 30 four times. Instead of going to the plate looking to hit it out of the park, Walker will hit the ball to all fields. He will even lay down a bunt on occasion.
People like to emphasize the Coors Field effect. They like to compare what Walker did in Montreal before coming to Colorado and what his numbers are on the road compared to his numbers at Coors Field. But while there is no question that hitting at Coors Field is an advantage, he still has to swing the bat and put the bat on the ball. I don't see the ballpark as that big of a factor. When I watch Walker hit, I mostly look at how he hits -- and he does a lot of things right.
Because he and Todd Helton play in a hitter's park, however, I think they are the two biggest threats to hit .400. And the pitchers have to pitch to Walker with Helton hitting behind him. Pick your poison; neither one is a great choice for the pitcher to face.
For as much damage as he can do with the bat, though, I still think Walker's baserunning is the part of his game I like the most. The last player I saw who ran the bases like him was Mike Schmidt. He didn't get a lot of attention as a great baserunner, but he was. Walker fits into the same mold.
Tony Gwynn, who will take over as the head baseball coach at San Diego State next year, is working as an analyst for ESPN.