Scott Rolen rounded third and made the turn to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Congratulations to the former Cardinals third baseman who was an essential part of one of the greatest runs in franchise history. During his time with the Cardinals (2003-2007), the Redbirds went to the postseason four times in six years, won a MLB-leading 27 postseason games, captured two National League pennants and prevailed in the 2006 World Series.

Tuesday was suspenseful, and Rolen was safe by only five votes. How close was that? According to MLB Network, only 10 players have been cleared for Cooperstown by fewer than five votes.

Rolen had to be marked on 75 percent of the ballots and crossed the entryway by a narrow margin of 1.3%. Whew. Given the relatively weak roster of candidates on the 2023 ballot, I think it was ridiculous for Rolen to have to sweat this one out. That said, there’s no need for an instant-replay review; Rolen is in.

Scott Rolen won eight Gold Glove awards at third base.
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Thoughts:

1) Rolen’s passage was unique. Sports Illustrated tells us so: Since 1967 there were 670 players who received less than 15% voting support in their first year on the ballot. Until now, none had been elected by writers. Rolen crashed through in his sixth year of eligibility.

2) Among third basemen that made their big-league debuts over the last 40 years, only two have been elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers, with Rolen joining Chipper Jones.

3) Why did Rolen make it this time? The congestion had been eased by the removal of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling after they failed to be voted during the mandatory 10-year limit on the ballot. David Ortiz was the only player to get voted in by the writers last year, becoming the 14th new Hall of Famer chosen by the BBWAA since 2017. Writers had more spaces on the ballot to work with. The timing was right.

And …

4) Over the past several years more enlightened, dedicated voters took the time to drill down on Rolen’s case to educate themselves and develop a much better understanding of why he deserved a plaque in Cooperstown. That’s why Rolen’s voting percentage made such a rapid increase over the last four years, rising by an annual average of nearly 15 percent.

5) According to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, it appears that Rolen earned the requisite 75% this time without much help from so-called “Old School” voters. This is based on ballots that were shared publicly in advance of the 2023 election. Stark, who consulted with Hall of Fame election analyst Jason Sardell, reported that only 39 percent of the “Old School/Small Hall” voters supported Rolen this time. This classification of voters tend to be grumpy about analytics and are generally resistant to anything that goes beyond the simple-simon counting stats, baseball-card stats, the traditional plateaus (3,000 hits, 500 homers, etc.)

6) And doesn’t that surprise you? I’ve been watching baseball closely since the late 1960s, and Scott Rolen personifies the “Old School” style of player. He competed hard, all of the time. He pursued excellence with the fundamentals of the game. He did the so-called “little things” that the Old-School grouches admire and tout. He played the game “the right way” which is a big deal to the self-described traditionalists. Rolen wasn’t a one-dimensional player. He wanted to excel at defense, hitting and baserunning. You’d think these crabby voters would love Rolen, right? But it’s mostly about the counting stats for them, and Rolen didn’t reach the magic numbers.

7) The younger, more informed voters realize that all careers don’t fit one template, and it’s no surprise that they supported Rolen in larger numbers. They understand that a player can be great in ways that can’t be summed up by counting stats. And they place a premium on all-around value and quality over volume. There’s abundant information available to help voters form a more intelligent assessment of a player’s career, and the younger/informed voters take advantage of it.

8) Rolen’s all-around, three-way brilliance was more subtle than spectacular. Offense. Defense. Baserunning. It was all there; you just had to care enough to watch it all, or else study it all, to appreciate it. The sourpusses claim to value defense, but I suppose Rolen’s eight Gold Gloves didn’t matter to them. Not much. Hey, he only hit .300 three times! Hey, he only hit 316 homers!

9) Never mind that Rolen and Mike Schmidt are the only third basemen in MLB history to have a combination of 300+ home runs and eight-plus Gold Gloves. Never mind that, per Tom Verducci, Rolen is only one of five third basemen in MLB history to have 300-plus homers and 100-plus steals. Never mind (per Verducci) that Rolen posted eight qualified seasons with an OPS+ of 125, meaning that he was 25 percent above league average during those eight individual years. In MLB history only Schmidt (12), Eddie Mathews (11), George Brett (10) and Wade Boggs (9) did that more often than Rolen.

10) Never mind that the third base position has largely been disregarded by baseball-writer voting through the decades. Why? How in the hell does that make sense? Never mind that Rolen’s career WAR (70.1) is better than the average career WAR for Hall of Fame third basemen. Never mind that Rolen was the third-best player in baseball over his eight-year peak (using WAR) and the only two guys ahead of him were implicated in PED scandals. (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez.)

OK, I’ll stop grousing now.

I want to take a few moments to discuss an overlooked part of Rolen’s talent: his baserunning and how it made him a true three-way star. Rolen is usually cast as a two-way standout for his defense and offense. But we have to include his baserunning to complete the Hall of Fame profile.

* During the post-expansion era, which began in 1961, Rolen is the fourth-best baserunner among regular third basemen – that’s based on the FanGraphs metric, and a minimum of 7,500 plate appearances.

* This big man is only one of 10 third basemen to have 100+ stolen bases during the expansion era. And Rolen’s high doubles count – 517, the fourth most ever by a third baseman – is at least in part attributable to his smart judgment on the bases and the way he effectively “cut” first base for a more efficient sprint into second.

* Rolen was adept at reading the play and taking the extra base as a runner when a teammate put the ball in play. According to Verducci, only three Hall of Fame third basemen took the extra base at a higher career percentage than Rolen: Pie Traynor, Brett and Freddie Lindstrom.

* For his career, Rolen had an extra-bases taken (XBT) rate of 49 percent. For context, consider: over the past 10 seasons the average overall MLB rate of extra-bases taken was 40 percent.

* Between 1997 and 2007, Rolen’s XBT rate was a superb 56 percent. And we’re talking about a player who stands 6-4 and weighs 245 pounds. In his six seasons as a Cardinal, the lightning-fast Vince Coleman had an extra–bases taken rate of 51 percent. Rolen was at the same 51% in his six seasons as a Cardinal.

Finally …

I looked back at Rolen’s 2004 season and I believe it encompassed all of the attributes that made him a Hall of Fame player. I appreciated watching him play at the time, but his performance was even more impressive when reflecting on it nearly 20 years later and having access to statistical info that I didn’t have then.

The Cardinals won 105 games in 2004, won their first NL pennant since 1987, but lost to Boston in the World Series. That was the year of the incredible “MV3” – Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Rolen.

Here’s what Rolen did for the 2004 Cardinals:

Rolen led the team with 9.2 Wins Above Replacement. Yes. A higher WAR than Pujols (8.5), and a higher WAR than Edmonds (7.2). The only MLB players that had a better WAR than Rolen that season were Barry Bonds and Beltre. Rolen and Ichiro were tied for third with that 9.2 WAR.

Rolen made the All-Star team, won the Gold Glove, and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting behind Bonds, Beltre and Pujols.

In 142 games Rolen batted .314 with a .409 onbase percentage, .598 slug and 1.007 OPS. Per OPS+, he performed 58 percent above league average offensively. He hit 34 homers, knocked home 124 runs, and scored 109 runs. He struck out only 15.5 percent of the time with a terrific 12.2% walk rate.

With runners in scoring position, Rolen led the ‘04 Cardinals with a .358 batting average, 14 homers, a .742 slugging percentage and a 1.177 OPS. In those RISP situations he performed an astonishing 90 percent above league average offensively.

  Rolen was tied for the MLB lead with 30 defensive runs saved, the most by a big-league infielder that season. Ichiro, Seattle’s right fielder, also had 30 DRS. Rolen led all major-league fielders with a 3.3 defensive WAR.

Rolen’s baserunning was fantastic in 2004. He had an extra-bases taken rate of 56%, for 14th best among MLB players. According to Bill James, Rolen had a net gain of 26 bases as a runner (non-steals), tied with Tony Womack for best on the Cards. Rolen was thrown out only ONE time all season when trying to advance on a teammate’s batted ball. (Obviously excludes fielder’s choice plays.)

With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Rolen rifled a two-run homer off Roger Clemens to give the Cardinals a 4-2 triumph over Houston in NLCS Game 7. In Game 2 of the matchup against the Astros, Rolen clobbered two homers and drove in three runs to lift the Cardinals to a 6-2 victory and a 2-0 series lead

Rolen’s 2004 was among the best seasons by any third baseman during the post-expansion era. But he was overshadowed by Pujols and Edmonds and probably didn’t receive as much individual acclaim as he should have. It doesn’t matter now. Rolen is a Hall of Famer. He won’t be overshadowed again.

Thanks for reading …

Please pardon my typos …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.