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.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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 Lmember
2 years ago

Great!

Famous Mortimer
2 years ago

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

Marc Schneider
2 years ago

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 I don’t think his overall career is worthy. Now, I realize that Rolen had more good years than Murphy, but I think the issue of peak vs. length is an important. Maybe Rolen was a better player than Jeter at his peak but his peak wasn’t that long.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

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 had the best last season, the better cumulative last 2 seasons, the better cumulative last 3 seasons, the better cumulative last 4 seasons, etc… That trend actually continues throughout Rolen’s entire career.

And if you want to talk peak then over Rolen’s best 7 year stretch during 1998-2004, he had 43.7 WAR. Coincidentally Jeter’s best 7 year stretch was during those same years and he accumulated only 35.5 WAR. Is 7 years not that long for you? Because no matter how many years you consider a player’s peak to be, the numbers for Rolen are still better than Jeter’s.

SucramRenrutmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

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

Pepper Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

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 rely on Rolen. He had 3 more years where he qualified for the batting title – 2006, 2009, and 2010 – but even those 3 years he missed a total of 83 games. So yeah, he contributed to put up monster defensive numbers, but he was done pretty early.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

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 was of Rolen to do that while having played 30% less.

Marc Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

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.

hombremomentomember
2 years ago

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
2 years ago

Oonta gleeben gloppen globen…..

Alex Gaffney
2 years ago

Well done. Rolen is a HOFer in my book.

Pepper Martin
2 years ago

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 by coming to the plate 400 times a year for 20 years. The former team can rely on your every day and then go find a good replacement to take your spot for the next 8 years; the latter has to get actual replacement level players to play a third of their games every year. Scott Rolen topped 600 PA’s only 5 times in his career, clearing 700 one time. Derek Jeter topped 700 PA’s TEN TIMES, and topped 600 PA’s SEVENTEEN TIMES. only twice in Jeter’s career did the Yankees need anything other a utility infielder to rest Jeter a couple times a month – when he suffered a dislocated shoulder on a slide in Opening Day in 2003 (when he still came to the plate 542 times), and when he was recovering from a broken ankle in 2013. Rolen’s teams had to keep an extra 3B on the roster at all times, because he could be counted on to miss huge chunks of the season every season. There’s a lot of extra value Jeter supplied that way, knowing that you could always pencil him in. It’s not like Jeter compiled extra stats by sticking around way too long – he turned 40 midway through his last season, and was an MVP contender as recently as his age 38 season. Jeter stayed healthier, and on the field, way more than the injury – prone Rolen. That matters.

Second… Rolen gained much of his WAR value from his otherworldly defensive numbers. And while he was a great defender, I’d hesitate to say that his numbers can be blindly trusted. To put it in perspective: Nolan Aranado and Manny Machado are two of the best defensive third basemen I’ve ever seen. Collectively, they’ve had four seasons that Fangraphs rates as at leat 10 runs above average. Rolen himself had 9 such seasons, plus another at 9.9… despite his infamous proclivity for missing games due to injury. Fangraphs believes Scott Rolen had more career defensive value than Willie Mays. Fangraphs believes Scott Rolen had more career defensive value, even with his relatively short career, than all but 4 other 3B who ever lived. Rolen was very good… but I’m not 100% sold that he was that good.

hombremomentomember
2 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

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

TheBestPhamInBaseball
2 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

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 got past him either. With his range, the shortstop was able to shade way over toward the second base bag while still having the left side of the infield more than adequately covered. Having watched him every day for years I don’t find it surprising at all that he rates much better than Arenado, Machado or Mays.

TheBestPhamInBaseball
2 years ago

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

gabriel
2 years ago

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.

jdtTXmember
2 years ago

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

peter1977
2 years ago

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 also performed better in the postseason (Jeter 308/374/465 vs Rolen 220/302/376). The basic premise at the beginning of the article is that standards are not consistently applied for HOF voting. The postseason performance is something however that I feel is used as an argument for players quite often (Schilling comes to mind). If I were to make an argument for Jeter over Rolen it would be based on the difference in postseason performance. That being said, I completely agree that it should be much closer between the 2 players.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
2 years ago

Agree.

mgwalker
2 years ago

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
2 years ago
Reply to  mgwalker

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 of arguments you can make that Jeter was overrated, or that Jeter wasn’t as good as this player or that player, but there’s really no argument you can make that Jeter doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Among players who started their careers after 1900, he’s 3rd all-time among SS’s in WAR behind Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr. He finished his career in the top 10 in R’s (kicked to 11th since then). He’s 6th all time in hits. He’s 12th all time in times on base. He never won an MVP award, but he finished in the top 10 eight times, the last time at age 38. He had double-digits home runs AND stolen bases for 15 straight seasons. He was never the best player in baseball — but he was definitely the most famous player in baseball. Other than being a pretty terrible general manager, he doesn’t have any character arguments against him. He was never implicated in any steroid allegations. He was a pretty lousy defender, but he was good enough to play shortstop for 20 years — fun fact: Jeter played 2,674 games at shortstop and never played any other position in the field; that’s more games than any other player in history ever played at ANY position without ever fielding another one. Second place is Luis Aparicio, who fielded 2,581 times, all of them also at SS.

Basically, there’s no argument against Jeter being in the Hall of Fame. He’s not the best player ever. He’s not the best shortstop ever. He wasn’t the best player of his own time. Hell, there was never a single year in which he played better than anybody else in baseball — closest was probably 1999, when he led all position players in WAR but when Pedro Martinez put up a 2.07 ERA and went 23-4 with 313 strikeouts and 11.6 WAR and probably had the best pitching season in history. But there’s just no actual argument as to why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.

mgwalker
2 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

“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.

gtagomorimember
2 years ago

Huh. Interesting. Thank you.