Is It Better to Burn Out or to Fade Away?

Derek Jeter is going to coast into the Hall of Fame while Scott Rolen will struggle to garner votes. (via Brian Marschhauser)

One of the thing that drives me nuts is an inconsistently applied standard. The Hall of Fame voting is supposed to be about excellence. But often, and for random reasons, it isn’t. And no, I’m not talking about steroids. I’m talking about Lou Whitaker and Ron Santo and the variety of other players who waited forever to get in or never got in despite having qualifications at least as good as many players who were elected, some of whom even appeared on ballots with them. This brings me to Derek Jeter.

Derek Jeter is going to sail into the Hall of Fame. We all know that, right? And you know what I think of it? Good. That’s what should happen. He absolutely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. One of the greats. All that. I want this as a preface because some of what is about to follow might read as an indictment of Jeter. It isn’t. Rather, it’s about the absurdity that results from Jeter being a lock while Scott Rolen got only 17% of the vote last year.

Let’s start with WAR, easily the most common stat these days in Hall of Fame arguments.

FanGraphs WAR
Jeter: 73.0
Rolen: 69.9

Baseball-Reference WAR
Jeter: 72.4
Rolen: 70.2

That’s absurdly close. Jeter basically has one solid but unspectacular season over Rolen in terms of WAR. If the voting between them were going to be close, and Jeter got in and Rolen fell just short, you’d maybe get it. Maybe. But probably not.

Still, maybe there’s a reason for it. Maybe Jeter just had a better peak than Rolen. Great peak seasons can make a big difference. I think we all get that.

But no, that’s not it. Rolen’s best season according to Fangraphs (9 WAR in 2004) is better than Jeter’s best season (7.4 WAR in 1999). Rolen’s second-best season is better than Jeter’s second-best, too. And his third. And fourth. And so on until we get to their 12th best seasons when Jeter’s 3.6 WAR tops Rolen’s 2.7.

Jeter did play short. So there’s that. But we all know who the better defender was between the two, and it wasn’t close. Defensive WAR is deeply flawed, but we’re talking about entire careers here, not a season or two.

There really are only two “good” reasons why someone would think Jeter was a slam dunk and Rolen wasn’t, and I want to try to beat back both of them.

The Compiler Argument

Derek Jeter has a lot more big numbers than Rolen. A lot more. It’s the classic difference between a player who burns out and one who fades away. He has, notably, 3,465 hits. Even his power numbers (260 home runs and 1,311 RBI) are in the same general echelon as Rolen’s (316 homers and 1,287 RBI), which is not what you’d expect given their reputations.

But here’s where I think the compiler argument falls apart. Jeter has more big counting stats than Rolen, but he also got a lot more playing time, 4,000 plate appearances more than Rolen. That’s an enormous amount of playing time. And because of that giant difference but their near identical WAR totals, Baseball-Reference tells us that Rolen was good for 44.1 WAA (Wins Above Average) while Jeter accumulated only 31.0 WAA.

Rolen was hurt a lot, there’s no denying that, but when he was on the field. He was MUCH better than Jeter. Rolen has more WAR than 108 of the 158 position players in the Hall. Only five of the 50 above him have fewer plate appearances than he did. Again, this is not a knock on Jeter. He was great and should go into the Hall, but imagine this: You could add 4,000 replacement-level plate appearances to Rolen’s career and he would STILL have a case for being as good as Jeter. The same Derek Jeter who is about to waltz into Cooperstown.

The Optics Argument

Derek Jeter has five rings. He has an entire season’s worth of plate appearances from the playoffs — where he performed well. He played for one team his entire career. The Yankees, the flagship team of major league baseball. He was a superstar and he liked being a superstar. He’s still in the public eye.

What Is Supposed to Happen at the Winter Meetings?
What, exactly, are we all here for?

Scott Rolen played for four teams. He has one ring. He was adequate in limited playoff appearances. Though he did piss off Tony LaRussa enough to get banished to Canada, and that’s not nothing. He is not in the public eye. He farms llamas in Indiana.

I hate the optics argument. The reason I hate it is that the whole reason the writers have the vote is ostensibly because they are supposed to have this broad and far reaching understanding of the game. Instead, they seem to have the same biases as fans in general. Guys who get on national TV a lot get more consideration. Same for guys who are good interviews or who play for the same team their whole career. They are in the public eye more, so they get more credit. This shouldn’t be the case. What should matter is your body of work. How good were you and for how long?

Scott Rolen was not on the field as much as Derek Jeter. But when he was on the field, he was so much better that, according to our best measures of value, he made up for almost all of the 4,000 more plate appearances that Derek Jeter had. If the compiled stats really, really, really matter for you, then okay. Sure. Put him in and leave Rolen out, but by any other measure, if Jeter belongs, then so does Rolen.


Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Sonny L
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Sonny L

Great!

Famous Mortimer
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While I agree with everything you wrote, the “fame” word is perhaps more important than you’re letting on.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I don’t disagree about the issue of compiling stats. But I do think that a HOFer should have a lot of HOF-worthy seasons and not just a few. Rolen’s career seemed to tail off pretty quickly while Jeter had a lot of good or very good seasons. To me, that’s important. For perhaps a more extreme example, take Dale Murphy, who was certainly one of the top 3 or 4 players in baseball for a few years in the 1980s. But, other than those few years, he didn’t have much. I don’t think Murphy should be in the Hall because… Read more »

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

You have it completely wrong if you think Rolen’s career fell off quickly. Rolen’s WAR over his last 6 seasons was 15.7, compared to 14.2 from Jeter. The middle 6 years of Rolen’s career he had 33.9 WAR. And the first 5 years he had 20.4. He put together good seasons consisently throughout his career, it’s not like he turned into Ken Griffey Jr. There’s no drastic dropoff anywhere for Rolen, and certainly not as bad as how Jeter finished his career. Look at their numbers and try to tell me that Rolen tailed off quickly. Compared to Jeter, Rolen… Read more »

SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

For comparison, Josh Donaldson has 41.4 WAR over his roughly 7 year career.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

Rolen got very injury prone very young. He never played in 150 games or got 600 PA’s after his age 28 season; he never scored or drove in 100 runs after his age 29 season (Jeter scored 100 seven times after his age 29 season). Rolen put up good walk rates throughout his career, but his inability to stay on the field means he never got as many as 60 walks after his age 29 season (Jeter, with a lower career walk rate, did it 6 times). Basically, after his career year in 2004 at age 29, you could never… Read more »

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

And despite missing a lot of time he still averaged 2.7 WAR per year for 9 years. That’s still a reliable player and he did that after a HOF level peak. That’s a pretty standard aging curve for players after 29. If you want to punish Rolen for not playing entire seasons (which doesn’t really matter since he ended up with a similar career value to Jeter) then you have to punish Jeter for having a much less impressive peak. They both ended up with the almost the same career WAR, if anything it should be noted how impressive it… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Ok, I concede to your better knowledge of their stats. I have no problem with Rolen being in the HOF. My point was really that I think longevity is a factor in evaluating a Hall of Famer. Murphy is probably a better example than Rolen.

hombremomento
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hombremomento

Might I add, Jeter had 72.4 WAR in his career, while Larry Walker had 72.7 WAR. Both very good, however Jeter accumulated this war in almost 12000 AB’s, while Walker accrued a higher number than Jeter in only 7000 AB’s. Of course Jeter should be inducted, but Walker should be inducted aswell.

free-range turducken
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free-range turducken

Oonta gleeben gloppen globen…..

Alex Gaffney
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Alex Gaffney

Well done. Rolen is a HOFer in my book.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

Ok, so… Here’s the thing. Yes, Rolen was a great player. Great defender, very good hitter. But there are a couple things here that you’re either overlooking or that your don’t care about, which need to be addressed. First off, “longevity” and “durability” are very different things. It’s not that Jeter really stuck around a long time and compiled. It’s that he was always on the field. And that’s very important. If you get 8,000 PA’s by coming to the plate 670 times a year for 12 years, you’re flat – out more valuable than somebody who gets 8,000 PA’s… Read more »

hombremomento
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hombremomento

Scott Rolen WAS that good. Man hammered the ball, swept in runs and played spectacular D at the hot corner

TheBestPhamInBaseball
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TheBestPhamInBaseball

I’m not old enough to compare Rolen against all time greats but watching Rolen field at third base was probably my favorite thing ever as a fan. I’ve never seen defense that was so clearly dominant and game-changing at any position. For a stretch of several years those slow dribblers down the third base line were basically an automatic out. I rarely see other 3rd basemen attempt those plays, much less succeed, yet for him they were just automatic. He played shallow, had incredible reaction time and agility, moved well to both sides, yet was quite tall so liners rarely… Read more »

TheBestPhamInBaseball
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TheBestPhamInBaseball

And I didn’t even mention his super strong and accurate throwing arm…

gabriel
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gabriel

There’s also the point that B-R and Fangraphs use the most favourable defensive metrics available for Jeter.

B-R: -243 Runs
FG: -137
FRAA: -305
DRA: -352
WOWY: c. -400

Substituting those alternate defensive numbers (from, in my view, superior metrics for career numbers), you’d cut his fWAR by 16-26 WAR, and his rWAR by 6-16 WAR.

Even if you just took the average of the all the defensive metrics, Jeter would fall significantly below Rolen.

jdtTX
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jdtTX

But Jeter bloodied his face up running into the stands that one time!

peter1977
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peter1977

First time commenter, so hopefully I am not making too much of a fool of myself. I feel that the 2 biggest differences between Jeter and Rolen are longevity (which others have already commented on) and postseason performance. The latter was mixed in with some other factors in the article under optics but personally I think this is important on its own. Jeter had much more opportunity to play in the postseason (158 games vs Rolens 39) and one can make the argument that this fact alone should not be held against Rolen, since it is team dependant. However Jeter… Read more »

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

Agree.

mgwalker
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mgwalker

Put me in the camp that interprets this as justification for wondering whether Captain Intangibles really deserves to be a unanimous first-ballot inductee.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

The whole unaminity thing was based on tradition going back to Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth… and that tradition ended with Mo Rivera. So the question really just comes down to “does this player deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?” That doesn’t necessarily mean that a player has the highest WAR, or even really that they’re the “best” player — it’s more “is there anything at all that makes you question whether this player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?” The answer for Jeter is pretty clearly “no” — there’s a whole lot… Read more »

mgwalker
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mgwalker

“But there’s just no actual argument as to why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.”

This is true of my post, by the way.

gtagomori
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gtagomori

Huh. Interesting. Thank you.