(Photo: Phillie Phanatics)
It will be an interesting case come this December when Scott Rolen appears on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Rolen was a solid hitter and outstanding defender at third base while manning the hot corner for the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds during a highly productive 17-year career.
Cooperstown Cred: Scott Rolen
- Career: 316 HR, 1,287 RBI, 122 OPS+
- 8-time Gold Glove Award winner (3rd most for any 3rd baseman) (behind Brooks Robinson & Mike Schmidt)
- 7-time All-Star
- 1997 Rookie of the year (.283 BA, 21 HR, 92 RBI, 121 OPS+)
- Career 70.0 WAR (9th best ever for a 3rd baseman)
- Hit .421 with 1.213 OPS in 2006 World Series title with Cardinals
Rolen is the kind of player who would have been easily overlooked in the past but will likely get a long look by the voters because of his career Wins Above Replacement of 70.0. In the history of baseball, there are only 11 players with a WAR of 70 or greater who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame and not granted a plaque:
- 5 of the 11 are holdovers from the 2017 ballot: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Larry Walker.
- The others: Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, PED-tainted Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Grich, and 19th century players Bill Dahlen and Jim McCormick.
(NOTE: there are other non-Hall of Fame 70-win players. Pete Rose isn’t eligible because of his permanent ban from MLB; Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez haven’t hit the ballot yet; Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran are still active; Chipper Jones and Jim Thome are first-timers with Rolen this year).
At first glance, it seems to me that Rolen will likely join Walker as a low-vote, high-WAR player who languishes on the ballot for years. They’re similar in many ways in that they derive a great deal of their career value with the glove. Rolen was a 8-time Gold Glove Award winner; Walker won 7. They’re also similar in that they didn’t pile up the “counting” stats that traditionally get the voters’ attention; this has really hurt Walker (not to mention the inherent bias against his numbers due to his years in Colorado).
Also, the timing of joining the stacked ballot in the same year as a clearly superior player at the same position (Chipper Jones) really hurts Rolen’s candidacy. This fact is compounded by the presence of so many high-impact third basemen in MLB currently (Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and others) which may influence the perception among the writers about what a Hall of Fame third baseman should be. Although Rolen was not a contemporary of most of the current hot corner stars, he was a contemporary of Jones and Beltre and is clearly not in the same class as either.
With most players, we like to look at a 7-year peak or a 10-year peak. Rolen’s case is interesting in that he was consistently good throughout virtually his entire career but didn’t have a burst of dominance. He only received Most Valuable Player votes four times and each of those seasons were separated by multiple campaigns in which he didn’t receive a single MVP vote. He made 7 All-Star teams from 2002 to 2011, although for one of them (in 2005) he clearly didn’t deserve it.
Rolen had had the best season of his career in 2004; his .314 batting average, 158 OPS+, 34 HR, and 124 RBI were all career bests. Throw in his 6th Gold Glove and Rolen finished 4th in the MVP voting, his only top 10 appearance. In his injury-plagued 2005 campaign, he was hitting just .251 with 5 home runs at the All-Star break but was selected to the team in spite of it, perhaps because Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa was the All-Star skipper.
Anyway, the best way to evaluate Rolen’s career is directly against his contemporaries. I’m only including players with at least 5,000 career plate and appearances and who had careers that were concurrent with Rolen’s for at least eight of his seventeen seasons; Rolen played from 1996 to 2012.
There are 21 third sackers who meet this basic criteria: 5,000 plate appearances and at least eight seasons between 1996 and 2012.
|Full career stats for 21 3B with at least 5,000 PA and 8 seasons played between 1996 & 2012|
|Top Four||OPS+||Top Four||WAR||Top Four||Def. WAR|
|Chipper Jones||141||Adrian Beltre||94.2||Adrian Beltre||27.9|
|David Wright||133||Chipper Jones||85.1||Scott Rolen||20.6|
|Scott Rolen||122||Scott Rolen||70.0||Robin Ventura||17.1|
|Troy Glaus||119||Robin Ventura||56.0||Brandon Inge||13.9|
|Top 3 + Rolen||HR||Top Four||RBI||Top Four||Hits|
|Chipper Jones||468||Adrian Beltre||1642||Adrian Beltre||3048|
|Adrian Beltre||462||Chipper Jones||1623||Chipper Jones||2726|
|Aramis Ramirez||386||Aramis Ramirez||1417||Aramis Ramirez||2303|
|Scott Rolen (7th)||316||Scott Rolen||1287||Scott Rolen||2077|
|Top Four||Runs||Top Four||OBP||Top 3 + Rolen||SLG|
|Chipper Jones||1619||Chipper Jones||.401||Chipper Jones||.529|
|Adrian Beltre||1475||David Wright||.376||Matt Williams||.494|
|Scott Rolen||1211||Jeff Cirillo||.366||Aramis Ramirez||.492|
|Aramis Ramirez||1098||Scott Rolen||.364||Scott Rolen (5th)||.490|
Anyway, assuming that you believe the defensive metrics at least a little bit, it’s pretty clear that Rolen was the third best third baseman during his era. If you don’t understand or believe the defensive metrics (I’m talking about defensive WAR), then you can believe Rolen’s 8 Gold Gloves (compared to 6 for Robin Ventura, 6 for Eric Chavez and 5 for Adrian Beltre).
So he’s the third best of his era and, thanks to those defensive numbers, his 70.0 WAR is 9th best all-time among third basemen, behind 6 Hall of Famers, Jones and Beltre. But then there’s this: just behind Rolen in 10th place is Graig Nettles (with a 68.0 WAR); in 11th place is Buddy Bell (with a 66.1 WAR). Neither Nettles or Bell came remotely close to Cooperstown (although I could make a good case for Nettles).
So let’s look at these same nine categories with all-time rankings among third basemen, defined as those who played at least 50% of their career games at the position and those with at least 5,000 plate appearances.
|Ranks among 104 all-time Third Basemen with at least 5,000 PA|
|Top 3 + Rolen||OPS+||Top 3 + Rolen||WAR||Top Four||Def. WAR|
|Mike Schmidt||147||Mike Schmidt||106.6||Brooks Robinson||39.0|
|Eddie Mathews||143||Eddie Mathews||96.4||Adrian Beltre||27.9|
|Chipper Jones||141||Adrian Beltre||94.2||Buddy Bell||23.1|
|Scott Rolen (14th)||122||Scott Rolen (9th)||70.0||Scott Rolen (6th)||20.6|
|Top 3 + Rolen||HR||Top 3 + Rolen||RBI||Top 3 + Rolen||Hits|
|Mike Schmidt||548||Adrian Beltre||1642||George Brett||3154|
|Eddie Mathews||512||Chipper Jones||1623||Adrian Beltre||3048|
|Chipper Jones||468||George Brett||1596||Wade Boggs||3010|
|Scott Rolen (T-14)||316||Scott Rolen (13th)||1287||Scott Rolen (20th)||2077|
|Top 3 + Rolen||Runs||Top 3 + Rolen||OBP||Top 3 + Rolen||SLG|
|Chipper Jones||1619||Wade Boggs||.415||Chipper Jones||.529|
|George Brett||1583||Denny Lyons||.407||Mike Schmidt||.527|
|Wade Boggs||1513||Chipper Jones||.401||Eddie Mathews||.509|
|Scott Rolen (13th)||1211||Scott Rolen (22nd)||.364||Scott Rolen (6th)||.490|
The offensive numbers are solid but not extraordinary. Among these 104 third basemen, Rolen’s 8,518 career plate appearances rank 20th. So, among the “counting” stats, if he’s better than 20th, he’s over-performing the others. When he’s worse than 20th, he’s under-performing. In general, he’s over-performing but not by a wide margin.
3rd base has always been a tricky position in Hall of Fame voting. For most of the first 100 years of the game of baseball, it was considered a defensive position first. For the last several decades, teams have required hot bats for those manning the hot corner. As a point of comparison, I’m picking just a handful of third basemen here, from the last fifty years, that had a legitimate case to be made for Cooperstown but didn’t get any respect whatsoever from the writers.
|GG = Gold Gloves||ASG = All-Star Games|
Three of these players (Nettles, Sal Bando and Ron Cey) appeared in multiple World Series. All of these players except for Robin Ventura played during an era of much bigger ballparks and thus a less offensive-friendly era. I think it’s hard to say that Scott Rolen is so much better than these six players that he would ever get 75% of the Hall of Fame vote when all but Nettles never cracked 2%.
So it’s going to be a tough road for Rolen if there’s any road at all. Statistically, the most comparable Hall of Fame third baseman to Rolen is long-time Chicago Cub Ron Santo.
I’m not old enough to have seen Santo play so I can’t testify to the quality of his glove. The writers of the 1960’s saw fit to reward him with five Gold Gloves. I did see Rolen play and, at least to my eye, he was every bit as good defensively as the metrics and eight Gold Gloves would attest. He had exceptional reflexes; he was the guy you wanted at the hot corner on a scorching line drive.
I would have no problem with Scott Rolen in the Hall of Fame but I think he may have a road just as tough as Santo’s. In fifteen years on the ballot, Santo topped out at 43% of the writers’ vote in 1998. After four unsuccessful tries at various incarnations of the Veterans Committee, Santo was finally inducted to the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2012, a year and a half after he passed away.
Rolen’s case is a sabermetric and a fielding case. He’s a very borderline Hall of Famer based strictly on his offensive numbers. It’s always been true that, unless you’re a Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith or (this year) Ivan Rodriguez, a player with a Cooperstown case that starts with their ability as a glove man is going to have a tough time.
The most recent player to hit the Hall of Fame ballot with 8 Gold Gloves at a premium defensive position and offensive statistics that were deemed just not productive enough for Cooperstown was center fielder Jim Edmonds, a human highlight reel who often had a starring role on Baseball Tonight’s Web Gems. Look at the side-by-side numbers of Rolen and Edmonds, who were teammates in St. Louis from 2002 to 2007, winning two pennants and one World Series title together.
Rolen’s WAR is 10 wins higher than Edmonds’ solely because of the defensive metrics. Those metrics (as measured by Defensive WAR) indicate simply that Rolen and Beltre were in a league of their own defensively; they made many more plays than the average third baseman. For the years that Edmonds played (1993-2010), there were 17 (count ’em, seventeen) other center fielders who had a higher dWAR. If you believe the numbers, it means that Edmonds was perhaps a bit overrated as a defensive player, the type that would make the spectacular play but not chase down as many balls as his peers. Thus it’s safe to question whether the 8 Gold Gloves were deserved.
Now, as you can see clearly, Edmonds was the better hitter, as measured by pretty much everything: OPS+, home runs, RBI, on-base and slugging percentage.
Edmonds appeared on his first Hall of Fame ballot two years ago and got a grand total of 11 votes (2.5%), which was half of the 22 he needed to return to the 2017 ballot. My guess is that, as the years pass and younger writers examine WAR as a cornerstone statistic, Rolen’s 70.0 will be the biggest feather in his cap. But for the 2018 vote? With so many great players on the ballot, I’d be surprised if he gets above 15% of the vote and wouldn’t be shocked if he suffered the same fate as Edmonds and fell off the ballot completely by falling shy of 5%.
Thanks for reading.