Rolen into the Hall

Scott Rolen was on just 10.2 percent of the most recent Hall of Fame ballots. (via Mitch Bennett)

The Hall of Fame ballot, we all know, is absurdly crowded. A great many writers are prohibited from voting for all the players they believe to be worthy because of the 10-vote limit. This is a problem; I get it. But whatever complications may contribute to vote totals, I refuse to ignore the injustice of Scott Rolen getting only 10.2 percent of the vote.

Scott Rolen belongs in the Hall of Fame. We shouldn’t even be having this debate. But here we go.

I will admit to some personal bias. I grew up not far from where Rolen grew up, and he’s only a few years older than me. His name was known both as a basketball and baseball player in the region before he graduated from high school. I followed his career more closely than one might otherwise follow the career of a star who doesn’t play for your favorite team. And then he did me the favor of finishing his career with the Reds, who are my favorite team. But absent that, he still has a pretty obvious case for Hall of Fame inclusion.

Let’s start with a discussion of why Rolen was left off so many ballots.

First, there’s the lack of counting stats. He barely cracked 2,000 hits (2,077); he had only 316 homers. He didn’t drive in or score 1,500 runs (1,287 and 1,211 respectively). He did manage 517 doubles, which is nice, but if you’re a counting stat person, that’s probably not enough to get someone on your ballot.

The counting stats were so low, of course, because of injury. Rolen had only 10 seasons in which he played more than 120 games. He topped 150 only five times, and not at all during the final 10 years of his career. That hurts him.

He also played on four different teams. Indeed, his career numbers have an approximate similarity to those of Barry Larkin, but Larkin had the shine of playing for only one team. It also doesn’t hurt that Larkin won an MVP (though, oddly, not for his best season) while Rolen never really got much of a sniff in the MVP voting.

And then there is the way in which he fails by comparison. Scott Rolen’s career overlapped almost perfectly with the career of Chipper Jones. And there’s no way to argue Rolen was better than Jones.  So, I suppose I know a bit how Jonah Keri felt trying to convince people that it didn’t matter that Tim Raines wasn’t as good as Rickey Henderson. For a long time, two of the greatest third basemen ever were playing at the time. We should be able to appreciate that without penalizing one player.

And that brings us to the last reason Rolen might have been left off. Voters have never known what to do with third base. It is a notoriously underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. The expectation seems to be that, offensively, third basemen should be in the neighborhood of first basemen in terms of production. Equal, at least, to corner outfielders. But that’s almost never been the case. Historically, third basemen have been much closer to second basemen in terms of offensive output than they have been to any of the other corner spots.

And with that, it’s time to start making the case for why Scott Rolen belongs. Let’s start here:

Third base is hard. Defensively, it falls only behind short and catcher on the accepted defensive spectrum. A third baseman is expected to provide much more defensive value than a corner outfielder or first baseman. And Rolen was fantastic at third.

I understand that we cannot yet perfectly measure fielding. Indeed, we may not measure it that well at all. I also understand Gold Glove voting can be a poor barometer of how good someone actually was in the field.

That said, our best statistics—which should be reliable over an entire career, if not over a single season—tell us Rolen was the third-best third baseman ever at preventing runs, behind only Brooks Robinson and Adrian Beltre. Further, excepting the year in which he changed leagues and his rookie year (when he also was Rookie of the Year), Rolen won the Gold Glove at third every time he played more than 120 games. That’s eight Gold Gloves.

The stats and the eye test agree. Rolen was one of the greatest fielding third basemen of all time. I don’t see that there’s any real argument about that.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

So now it comes down to the context argument. Time for some lists.

Here are the players who played all (or most) of their careers at third and accumulated more WAR than Scott Rolen:

Alex Rodriguez
Mike Schmidt*
Eddie Mathews*
Wade Boggs*
George Brett*
Chipper Jones*
Adrian Beltre
Brooks Robinson*
Ron Santo*
*Hall of Fame

That’s eight Hall of Famers and two players who aren’t eligible yet. (And yes, like you, I am very much looking forward to the endless A-Rod debate that’s coming for us all.)

Of course, having a bunch of Hall of Famers above you doesn’t make the case on its own. There will always be a best-player-not-in. The line has to be drawn somewhere. But Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Harmon Killebrew and Tony Perez are all below Rolen on the list, and they all spent some portion of their careers at third. Also below Rolen is Edgar Martinez, who seems primed to be elected next year and who played third when he was able to take the field with a glove on his hand.

According to Baseball-Reference, Rolen’s career WAR, peak WAR, and JAWS score are all slightly above average for a Hall of Fame third baseman. (And we have talked already about how the standard seems to be extra high for someone playing third.)

Rolen also had one of the truly great seasons in the history of third base. His 2004 campaign, in which he generated 9.0 WAR while hitting .309/.404/.598 and playing his normal spectacular defense, stands as the 11th-best season ever by a third baseman according to FanGraphs.

For the last part of my argument, I want to compare Rolen to one other player specifically: Vladimir Guerrero.

Guerrero sailed into the Hall of Fame in his second year of eligibility with 92.9 percent of the vote. That there should be such a disparity between Guerrero and Rolen makes very little sense. They both debuted in the same year. Rolen played one more season than Guerrero but about 100 fewer games overall. So, sure, there’s the durability thing, but my goodness, look at these charts comparing their WAR totals by age and by their nth best seasons:

Source: FanGraphsVladimir Guerrero, Scott Rolen

Source: FanGraphsVladimir Guerrero, Scott Rolen

Guerrero was never better than Rolen. Never ever. Further, Rolen managed to be a solid player until the very end of his career, whereas Guerrero was below average for his last four seasons. (I suppose we can have an argument about whether it’s better to be a good player who can’t stay on the field or a poor one who can.) Rolen’s best season was far and away the best season either of them ever had. And, well, you can see the graphs.

Last, I want to stress again the extreme importance of context. For his career,  Guerrero had a wRC+ of 136, meaning he was about 36 percent better than the average, but given that, historically, the average right fielder has been eight to 10 percent above average, he’s something like 16-18 percent better than the reasonable expectation for a right fielder.

Rolen, by comparison, has a career wRC+ of 122. The average third baseman has historically been three to five percent below average, however, meaning that Rolen was a better hitter relative to other third basemen than Guerrero was relative to other right fielders. AND Rolen was regarded as the best fielder you could get, whereas Guerrero never won a Gold Glove, and the fielding numbers agree he was pretty bad in right.

None of this is to run down Guerrero or any of the other players mentioned who haven’t quite hit Rolen’s levels of excellence. Rather, it is to make clear that Rolen is so thoroughly qualified for the Hall of Fame, as the standards are currently constructed, that I don’t know of any truly reasonable argument not to vote for him. And heck, if you need an unreasonable one, he made Tony LaRussa, really, really mad. And that’s certainly worth a vote, don’t you think?

References and Resources

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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tramps like us
6 years ago

I like that Jason confronted the negatives, that’s always a good strategy. And much of this holds water. One part of his argument bothers me….as we’ve heard repeatedly, staying on the field is a skill and to dismiss Rolen’s lack of runs and RBI and hits because of injuries doesn’t hold water, IMO. He shouldn’t be given a pass there.

6 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

He hurt his back, which troubled him the rest of his career, playing on the plastic-over-concrete turf at the old Veterans Stadium in Philly. It’s the main reason he wanted out of there.

6 years ago

Nice arguments, but his most similar offensive players are Paul O’Neil and Shawn Green. Both good players, but not HoFers.

His stats are only marginally better than Greg Nettles (2 more War, .3 less dWar, fewer homers and fewer RBIs in few ABs but 1 more All Star game. Ken Boyer won an MVP, had more hits, a higher batting average and made 11 All Star games compared to Rolen’s 7. Neither Boyer or Nettles are about to get elected anytime soon.

While better stats than Traynor, Lindstrom, and George Kell in the HoF, electing Rolen would be the weakest post expansion-era third baseman in the HoF.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jason Linden

The argument rests on the fact that “neither Boyer nor Nettles is about to be elected any time soon,” which is false logic, as it assumes neither deserves to be. Nettles, at least, deserved much more consideration than he got from HOF voters. That’s another point in the disrespect the position gets from voters.

And I won’t even get into the counting of All-Star games.

6 years ago

Rolen has 70 WAR, how is this even a question of whether he’s eligible? You made some good arguments but it shouldn’t even be a question. Since 1950 he’s on of the 30-40 best position players in the game. His value is right there with Thome who just got elected.

6 years ago

So does Corky Miller’s mustache.

Dave Jordan
6 years ago

I will say this: I do wonder what Vlad Guerrero’s candidacy(and, more important, the relative enthusiasm for his induction)looks like if he spent his formative ML years in say, Milwaukee, rather than the dying Expos franchise. I believe there was a spiritual desire to commemorate the “last” great player from that “deceased” organization – which makes him going in as an Angel all the more funnier.

6 years ago

“Voters have never known what to do with third base. It is a notoriously underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame.”

I don’t think that’s it. Post-war, there are basically the same number of 3B as the other infield spots. The problem is the dearth of great 3B before the war. 3B was a defense-first position during the deadball era. It’s gradually moved down the spectrum and is now a touch below SS and CF, at least according to baseball reference (I’ve seen it even with those positions elsewhere).

The past few generations of 3B have included excellent players of Rolen’s caliber, but fell short of the HOF because of the Henderson/Raines dynamic you note. Nettles and Bell compare favorably to Rolen, but didn’t get voted in because they went against Schmidt and Brett. Ken Boyer has a case but paled in comparison to Eddie Mathews. Hopefully, Rolen won’t suffer the same fate.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago

I don’t like the haughty tone: “We shouldn’t even be having this debate, but here we go.” Everybody knew he would not get elected this year, so of course there is a need to defend Rolen’s case.

I probably would not have voted for Rolen due to the low plate appearances which resulted in a low hit and HR total. Still, Rolen’s career looks very similar to Ron Santo. I don’t really care if Santo is in the HOF, but he is. Santo had fewer years, but 800 more PAs, and a correspondingly higher hit and HR total. Both have around 70 WAR. Santo’s OPS+ is a touch higher. Santo has 3 fewer gold gloves, but two more All Star Games. Rolen was ROY and won a WS.

Maybe Rolen “deserves” it, but I don’t really care. There is something to be said about going the distance, and Rolen, due to injuries, couldn’t do it.

PS: Paul Molitor reached 3000 hits at age 40 in a season when he led the AL in hits, also winning the silver slugger award. He was still pretty good the next year. His final season was subpar, but he didn’t reach any “big numbers” in that final year except for 500 stolen bases, which was probably a personal goal, but didn’t really affect his HOF candidacy.

6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

“Maybe Rolen ‘deserves’ it, but I don’t really care.”

For someone so offended by another’s written tone, you’re pretty loose with your own.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  nickolai

Nikolai: I think that the author’s tone is more boorish than mine. He is trying to convince people of something which few people agree with, hence the low HOF vote total for Rolen. It does strike me as haughty to call Rolen’s HOF case “obvious” and to write, “We really shouldn’t be debating this” (not exact quote, but close enough.) Is it haughty for me to write, “Maybe Rolen “deserves” it, but I don’t really care? Perhaps, but it seems as if most people would agree with my feeling.

tramps like us
6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Santo played in a offensively depressed era; Rolen, during a relative offensive high. And, Santo had to compete against Kenny Boyer and, later, Clete Boyer for Gold Gloves. And interestingly enough, on the list of 10 most similar players on Baseball Reference, #7 is….Ron Santo. And #9 is Ken Boyer.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

Tramps Like Us: Sure, Santo played in a tougher era for hitters. And his OPS+ is slightly higher than Rolen’s. So, are you arguing that HOFer Santo is a better player than non-HOFer Rolen? It seems like you are, and I can agree with that.

Curacao LL
6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

I disagree with the author’s argument (below) but I like his tone.
He’s laying his case out and trying to make a sale.

6 years ago

Scott Rolen like Edmonds and abreu has that tweener problem. You are either a power guy (500+ with 45+ HR seasons) like thome or a hit guy (320 average and 200 hit seasons) like ichiro or gwynn. Those 280 hitters with 20-25 hr and a lot of walks like abreu or Edmonds are not really loved even though their actual hitting value is higher than an ichiro (who of course still is deserving due to his defense – but don’t get me wrong ichiro with the same defense but abreus bat has the same fate as Edmonds, he will get in purely based on his hit records).

The voters love guys who excell at one thing over same value well rounded guys without an elite thing (sorry Bobby, walks don’t count). Ideal are of course guys who excell at everything like griffey but if you can’t have that then it is definitely one top skill that wins black ink over several good but not top5 in the league skills)

Rolen is the same mold, great defense, 280 average with 25 hr and decent walk rates but nothing that would stand out to the voters.

Black ink and counting totals still matter.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

Yeah, pretty much right on the tweeners. And I don’t even think it is unfair to the tweeners. It is pretty hard to get excited about even the best Abreu and Rolen seasons. Edmonds had the best seasons, but he couldn’t even make it to 8000 plate appearances. Sorry guys, but them’s the breaks.

Ichiro defense/Abreu offense: Let’s also throw in Ichiro’s stolen base record. Abreu was no slouch there either, but Ichrio is at 509-117. 100 more steals with fewer caughts as well. I think such a player would get into the HOF after a long hard struggle. Pretty good offensive rates and totals, 10 gold gloves, and over 500 steals? Yeah, such a candidate would make the HOF eventually. Abreu retired 30 hits short of 2500. I would think that this hypothetical player tries a little harder to play at age 41 to reach that mark. Then again, Kenny Lofton did not.

6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Yeah maybe that player eventually would get in but after a long struggle. The real ichiro however will probably get 90+% on first ballot.

Voters slowly warm up to advanced stats, but cases like Hoffman and Edmonds show they are not nearly as advanced as we thought.

Damon G.
6 years ago

It wouldn’t offend my baseball sensibilities if Rolen gets in, but I hardly think he’s a slam-dunk case. You can tell this article is written by a fan (as honestly acknowledged by the author). It’s how I argue about one of my favorite players of all-time — Edgar Martinez.

The main problem with Rolen’s case is that it’s based hugely on the precision of WAR — particular defensive WAR — and there are reasons to be skeptical of defensive metrics.

Boyer, Rolen, and Santo all seem really close to me. It’s hard for me to parse out the differences. They are all right on the borderline. I think there are many players who could go either way — in or out –without it being the right or wrong decision. Rolen is such a case.

Lastly, I don’t like the comparison to Vlad, because Vlad is clearly getting style points from the voters. I’m not saying this is good or bad; I’m saying this has to be considered in any comparison with him.

Damon G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Jason Linden

It doesn’t make sense by your criteria, no. But voters clearly like guys who were different and exciting and had a visually compelling style of play (see also Kirby Puckett). These things don’t really apply to Rolen. So, I don’t think comparing Rolen to Vlad is very persuasive because their respective backers are using very different criteria to judge them — and it turns into a meta-argument about Hall of Fame criteria and not about specific players.

It would be better, IMO, to compare Rolen to somebody like Santo. Although, I think Rolen might lose that one — but just barely.

6 years ago

If your argument is triangle based on WAR, you lose.

Curacao LL
6 years ago

We need to decide if it’s the traditional Hall of Fame, or the Hall of WAR.
I am down with it being the Hall of WAR, if that’s what we decide. Giddy-up.

But if it’s the Hall of Fame, the biggest argument against Rolen is that he was never even an MVP finalist, and only finished in the top-10 once (4th, 2004). At no point in his career did the opposing fans see him walk up to the plate and say to themselves “OMG, it’s Scott Rolen, we’re toast!”

A .678 postseason OPS doesn’t build on his mystique. I know, small sample (141 PA), and we shouldn’t penalise players for not being on playoff dynasties. But because he was injured so much, he needs something else to catch the eye. I’m just pointing out the postseason wasn’t it.

The metrics show he was an excellent player. But a Famous one? I’m slightly surprised he stayed on the Ballot. Maybe that just means the HOF is flawed, but I’m still surprised he stayed on the ballot when Edmonds couldn’t.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  Curacao LL

This post pretty accurately reflects my feelings as well. I think there is a disconnect between guys who purely look at stats (myself included) and the larger baseball world when it comes to the Hall of Fame. And that disconnect is the “fame” aspect.

As a stats nerd it fills me with rage that Larry Walker gets 34% while Vladdy gets 94%. As an Expos fan (and fan of both players) though I totally understand why there is such a discrepancy. Vladdy is that guy. He is a player who people can and will tell stories about long after he is gone. He transcended players who are merely really good ball players and went to that next level. Larry Walker doesn’t. Neither does Scott Rolen. And, like it or not, that has sort of always been part of the qualifications for the Hall of Fame.

As Curacao LL said if we want to make it a Hall of WAR or Hall of Stats then lets do it. But the reality is that, right now, it isnt and never has been. And that is why Scott Rolen is not going to get much support despite having the stats he does.

6 years ago

I thought the author did a much better job of laying out the case against Rolen than he did pleading the case for him later in the article. The main basis of his argument is WAR and Rolen’s defense (which is a large portion of his career WAR), but then he says this: “I understand that we cannot yet perfectly measure fielding. Indeed, we may not measure it that well at all.” So you base his candidacy on one stat, which tries to measure defense, then you point out the stat may be flawed when it comes to defense. If we need to “throw out” defensive measurements, we only have the eye test for his defense. That combined with his not up to Hall-Of-Fame level offense, then Rolen is clearly lacking for enshrinement. He was, like so many other players, very good, but not quite great. If he could’ve stayed on the field more, probably a different story.

6 years ago

You started the argument for him correctly, measuring him vs. other 3Bman but then you messed up trying to equate him to non 3Bman, Vlad in particular.

During their peaks from 1998 to 2007, Vlad finished top 20 in MVP voting 9 times, 4 times in the top 5. Rolen on the other hand finished top 20 in MVP voting 2 times over that span, only once in the top 5. Hard to argue that the one who fared worse in the reporters eyes (nearly every year during their peak) was a better player overall.

Why the discrepancy? A. Rolen was rarely healthy and B. Rolen’s value was boosted by his defense.

Over that period Vlad had 51 oWAR and -5 dWAR and Rolen had 38 oWAR and 15 dWAR (via BRef).

Had Rolen been healthy, this probably wouldn’t be an argument, but he wasn’t and that counts.

Is he a HOF’er? Perhaps, but you have to be a firm believer in the way defense is measured. Furthermore, you have to compare him to only 3Bman and not all the other hitters.