When the results of the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame balloting are announced on Jan. 26, I’ll be fixated on one name: Scott Rolen.
A third baseman who supplied exquisite glove work and above-average offense for 17 MLB seasons, Rolen’s credentials meet the standard for Hall of Fame honors. Whether it’s sooner or later, he’ll be making the journey to the stage in Cooperstown.
I’m not sure if Scott Rolen will reach the necessary percentage of votes this time around. This will be his fourth appearance on the ballot. The initial support for Rolen was sparse, but the momentum is churning now.
The yearly percentage of votes received puts Rolen on a positive trajectory: 10.2% in year one, 17.2% in year two, and a double jump to 35.3 percent last year. Eligible candidates have a maximum ballot presence of 10 years to hit the magic number of 75 percent.
If Rolen comes up short for Cooperstown certification next month, he’ll still have another six more plate appearances. His final swing would come in 2027. In the past two years of voting, we’ve seen two players beat the 10-year limit at the wire, getting the pass key into the HoF on their final crack: Edgar Martinez in 2019, followed by Larry Walker in ‘20.
I’d be truly surprised if Rolen needs to go 10 innings; he’ll get voted in before that. I wouldn’t entirely rule out 2021, but if nothing else Rolen will narrow the gap, and move nearer to the prize.
The math is working for him now. The BBWAA has voted in 22 candidates over the last seven years, with no fewer than two players selected annually over that time.
The controversial Curt Schilling received a checkmark from 70 percent of the voters a year ago, but he isn’t a sure thing for 2021. Two other returning candidates hit the 60-percent level last year — Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds — but the forecast remains foggy. You know, the steroids clouds and all of that. The case for shortstop Omar Vizquel (52.6% last year) will likely stall as voters cringe in response to the domestic-abuse accusations made by his wife, Blanca.
The most notable first-year eligibles are pitchers Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson and outfielder Torii Hunter. (Sorry, but no chance … at least not for a while.) The case for shortstop Omar Vizquel will likely stall while voters ponder domestic-abuse accusations made by Vizquel’s wife.
A pathway is open for Rolen, who played a valuable role for Cardinals teams that went to the playoffs four times in the next six seasons after his arrival via trade with the Phillies during the summer of 2002. (Rolen, however, missed much of 2005 because of his second serious shoulder injury as a Cardinal.)
With Rolen supplying gold-plated defense, a robust onbase percentage and a large dose of double-homer power, the Cardinals won two NL pennants (2004, 2006) and the ‘06 World Series. After feuding with manager Tony La Russa, Rolen asked for a trade following the 2007 season and spent his final five seasons with the Blue Jays and Reds. Rolen was a central figure on two Cincinnati playoff teams, 2010 and 2012.
But this isn’t just about the St. Louis years. Despite having to grind through intense shoulder pain and weakness over his final seven MLB seasons, Rolen has an impressive body of work. By any case book, it’s a Hall of Fame career if we evaluate Rolen’s place in history among third basemen. His offensive numbers could seem light to some, but that tends to happen when injuries pound an athlete down. Rolen never really lost his ability; after the extensive shoulder damage he lost the ability to consistently function at a peak level offensively. And keep in mind that both shoulder injuries were caused when an opposing player slammed into Rolen. It was just bad luck. Double-bad luck.
Anyway … even with injury-related deflation of his power, Rolen generated more than enough offense to stand with third basemen that already are in Cooperstown. And I’ll show you the evidence.
I apologize for sounding a little arrogant here, but I don’t see why anyone who knows baseball would reject Rolen. I don’t see a basis for a serious debate. Sure, every conscientious voter should put in the homework. But by any reasonable choice of methodology, Rolen passes the test.
1. Rolen’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 70.1 ranks ninth among third basemen in MLB history. (If you want to include Paul Molitor, Rolen would rank 10th. But 44% of Molitor’s career plate appearances were made as a designated hitter.)
2. Seven of the eight 3B ahead of Rolen on the all-time positional WAR chart already are Hall of Famers. The other, Adrian Beltre, will be. And Rolen’s WAR is superior to that of six enshrined, full-time 3B.
3. Rolen’s 70.1 WAR is above the average (68.4) for inducted 3B.
4. Rolen’s JAWS score — developed by the great Jay Jaffe as an effective tool for analyzing Hall of Fame candidates — slightly exceeds the existing average for HoF third basemen.
5. Likewise, Rolen’s seven-season “peak” JAWS mark (43.6) is above the average (43.1) for Hall of Fame third basemen. In a related note, Rolen’s career WAR is better than 68 position players that have HoF placques on the walls of Cooperstown.
6. Excluding Rolen, during MLB’s modern era (1900-present) only four eligible position players with 70 or more WAR are still on the outside at Cooperstown: Bonds, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Rafael Palmeiro. Bonds and Palmeiro encountered resistance from anti-steroids voters/crusaders. (Gamblin’ man Pete Rose had 70+ WAR but was banned from appearing on the ballot by MLB.)
7. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves during his career; in MLB history only Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt have more at 3B. Moreover, Rolen ranks 6th all-time among 3B in Defensive WAR. (Schmidt ranks 8th.)
8. Only two 3B in MLB history have a combination of 300+ home runs and at 8+ Gold Gloves: Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen.
9. Rolen is one of only seven 3B in MLB history to post a minimum of 300 homers and a 120 OPS.+
10. Rolen rates very well offensively among modern-era 3B who played at least 2,000 games at the hot corner: 6th in batting average (.281), 6th in OBP (.364), 5th in slugging (.490), 5th in OPS (.855), 6th in OPS+ (122), 6th in extra-base hits, 4th in doubles, 9th in homers and 10th in RBIs.
11. Rolen was a seven-time All-Star selection. (Four times as a Cardinal.) He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1997.
12. Rolen was at his finest over an eight-season stretch (1997-2004) during which he batted .287 with a .379 OBP, .524 SLG, .903 OPS and an OPS+ that put him at 33 percent above league average offensively. Among hitters that had 3,000 minimum plate appearances — and played at least 50% of their games at 3B for the eight seasons — Rolen ranked second to Chipper Jones in homers, RBIs, OBP, slugging, OPS+, and stolen bases.
And after what Rolen did in 2004, is there any reason to believe he couldn’t keep going were it not for the second shoulder surgery in 2005? For the 2004 Cardinals, Rolen batted .314 with 34 home runs, 134 RBIs, a .409 OBP, and .598 SLG. His OPS+ was 58 percent above league average.
13. Through his eight-year peak period Rolen led MLB third basemen in Total WAR, Defensive WAR, Defensive Runs Saved, Wins Above Average and won six Gold Gloves.
Are there weak spots in Rolen’s Hall of Fame documentation?
Sure. Which pretty much applies to every player, right? Even the great ones?
It’s been said that he never was the best player on his own team. That one is odd to me; isn’t it more relevant to compare Rolen’s Hall of Fame log to other third baseman? Where does it say that he had to be the No. 1 player on his team? I mean, isn’t that kind of hard to do when you’re a teammate of Albert Pujols for a significant portion of your career?
Rolen never led his league in any offensive category. That’s too bad. But he was 22 percent above average as a hitter… and … DEFENSE. If we agree that this is one of the top three third basemen (defensively) in more than 100 years of baseball … and he was a great hitter when healthy and a good hitter overall … and the advanced metrics tell us that he was one of the best third baseman at running the bases … well, what the hell do you want?
What about the postseason? In 39 career postseason games Rolen batted .220 with a .678 OPS. But he came up extra-large for the Cardinals with massive, timely homers in the 2004 NLCS. And he did it again during the 2006 World Series by hitting .421 with a 1.213 OPS. He should have been named series MVP.
OK, even if you want to subtract points because of the softer aspects of his career, the penalty doesn’t reduce Rolen’s overall career quality. And it doesn’t erase Rolen’s place as a Top 10 third basemen in the game’s history. Third base is historically and perplexingly underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. That must be addressed. So make room for Rolen. He belongs.
Thanks for reading … and Happy New Year!