Congratulations to Scott Rolen, who will join Fred McGriff at induction day in Cooperstown, New York, in July as the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rolen made electoral history with his roster: he now has the lowest freshman vote percentage – just 10.2% – of any player to eventually reach the 75% required of writers since modern voting began in 1966.
Rolen’s meteoric rise after six votes has left some fans wondering… well, to put it politely, what the hell is going on here. Scott Rolls?!? To them, he fails the “eye test” for Hall of Fame status — a test that usually seems to pass the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, and Ken Griffey Jr., as if the Hall of Fame is only allowed choosing the most unquestionable candidates.
With that in mind, let’s dive into Rolen’s career a bit. Here are six reasons why he goes to Cooperstown.
1. His WAR is Hall-worthy.
We start with his career WAR. Yes, it’s not the Hall of WAR, but it’s a reasonable premise that helps explain Why the baseball writers began to support Rolen. The Hall of Fame has always been about choosing the best players – a combination of career value and excellence. WAR is a guide to career value and helps us judge a player more effectively than relying on the eye test or a gut feeling. No, it’s not the full answer, but it’s an important part of the equation and gives us more context than numbers like hits or home runs that ignore position or defense.
Rolen’s career WAR of 70.1 fits right in with recent Hall of Fame selections, well above even the lowest bar of elected players. I’ve looked at all of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America selections since 2000 — not counting relief pitchers (which have lower WAR totals) and veteran committee selections (since committees take in the scraps that the writers don’t choose). Including Roles, which gives us a list of 39 Hall of Famers.
Their average WAR is 73.4. Rolen comes right in the middle: 19 players have more career WAR and 19 have less. He’s sandwiched between Gary Carter and Tim Raines.
2. He is the ninth best third baseman of all time.
Of the eight players for Rolen in WAR at the position, seven are in the Hall of Fame and the eighth is Adrian Beltre, who will be on the ballot next year. There are several Hall of Famers under him, including Home Run Baker, Jimmy Collins, Pie Traynor, and George Kell — a reminder that you don’t have to be Mike Schmidt or George Brett to make it.
Rolen’s value is sort of a dividing line between the Hall of Famers and other more modern third basemen who didn’t get in, including Ken Boyer, Darrell Evans, and Graig Nettles (all excellent two-way players).
Here is another way to look at it. MLB Network had a list of the ninth best players at every position:
C-Joe Mauer (55.2)
1B – Willie McCovey (64.5)
2B – Roberto Alomar (67.0)
SS – Pee Wee Reese (68.4)
3B – Scott Rolls (70.1)
LF – Willie Stargell (57.5)
CF – Richie Ashburn (64.2)
RF – Tony Gwynn (69.2)
That’s pretty good company if you ask me. They are all Hall of Famers, except for Mauer, who is not yet eligible (and will join Beltre next year). No, these are not necessarily players who are considered inner circle Hall of Famers, with the exception of Gwynn, but it is a strong list of well-qualified Hall of Famers.
3. Yes, his defense was that good.
Rolen’s WAR is bolstered by strong defensive stats; but if you want to believe in the eye test, then his defense also passes with secretariat-like flourishes. He won eight Golden Gloves, indicating how his D was viewed while active. Going back to the contemporaneous reports, some comments:
Tony La Russa called Rolen the best defensive third baseman he had ever seen. I once told him that my happiest day would be if there was a game where 27 groundballs reached third base,” La Russa said. “The way he plays that position, the way he runs the bases, the way he takes his bats, he’s a complete player.”
Mike Schmidt, who won 10 Gold Gloves, said that same year that Rolen is “better than me”.
Dusty Baker, Rolen’s manager in Cincinnati: “He’s got one of the best throws to the first I’ve seen.”
Jim Fregosi, Rolen’s first manager in the majors: “He has more reach than any of our shortstops.”
Terry Francona, Rolen’s manager with the Phillies, when asked if Rolen could play shortstop: “He’s covering short now.”
The anecdotal evidence supports the statistical measurements. Rolen was the Nolan Arenado of his generation.
4. His shot was better than you realize.
We’ll start with some old-fashioned statistics. It’s fair to say that Rolen’s counting stats don’t scream super loud, largely because he missed a lot of time with injuries in his 30s. Still, he is among third basemen (who played at least 50% of their games at the position):
Tied for 15th in home runs (one career long ball short of George Brett)
For rate stats (minimum 6,000 at bats), he is:
Seventh in OPS (his OPS was .855; Brett’s was .857)
12th in OPS+ (122, same as fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Paul Molitor and Tony Perez)
Seventh in slugging percentage
It all adds up to a borderline top-10 offensive third basemen and one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. (Baseball-Reference’s field stats credit only Brooks Robinson and Adrian Beltre with more field runs at third base.) That’s why Rolen is in the top 10 at the position, and in my book, if you’re top 10, you’re a Hall or Famer.
Part of the key here: Third base is the ultimate hybrid position: an offense and a defense. It’s one reason it’s the most underrepresented position in Cooperstown. It is a difficult position to judge.
5. He was underestimated in his own time.
One of the anti-Rolen arguments is that his only top-10 MVP finish was in 2004 when he finished fourth. But that’s really the point of everything here: we’re smarter than we used to be, better at understanding why teams win and lose baseball games than we were in 1997, when Rolen was named National League Rookie of the Year. Rolen’s early years were spent on poor Phillies teams; his first four Philadelphia teams averaged 91 losses, which didn’t help him get much recognition to begin with. Defense has always been an underrated art, and every gifted defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson has played in his shadow and rarely gets enough credit. (Although Nolan Arenado is finally breaking that trend, in part because it’s been nearly 50 years since Robinson played, so that shadow is finally diminishing.)
From 1997 to 2004, his eight-year peak, Rolen placed third in WAR, behind Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. In raw batting totals, he was eighth in doubles, 14th in RBIs, 17th in runs, and 23rd in home runs. I’m not advocating that he should have won multiple MVP awards, and he wasn’t a top-10 hitter in the game (except in 2004), but he was a very good, prolific hitter who was one of the best in the game used to be. eight seasons around players and still a solid player afterwards. We didn’t know how good then.
6. Joey Votto agrees.
“I loved playing with him,” his former Reds teammate said in a video posted to social media. “I have learned so much. If a player is lucky enough to have a role model and a teammate like him then they are as lucky as can be. I have shaped my career, my efforts and my work in his form. He is a Hall of Famer today. Deserving. And I have nothing but respect for him and his achievements.”
Is Rolen a slam dunk Hall of Famer? Of course not. But one question worth asking about any Hall nominee: Does a player raise or lower current Hall of Fame standards? Rolen raises the bar.