By Tony Fioriglio – @TheTonyFiorigli
This is an article I never thought I’d have to write. I never had unrealistic expectations or anything, but I thought we’d reached a point where critical thinking and reason could be expected to at least maintain a gentle undercurrent for all discussion. However, as time has gone by, it has become abundantly clear to me that we are not yet at that point, which makes this article necessary. And now that I have to write it, I desperately wish I’d have written it sooner, for now I feel it may be too late to make a difference.
Welp, here it goes: Scott Rolen belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Foolishly, I thought this would go without saying, at least among a certain more data-savvy group of voters. I knew that contingent wasn’t big enough for him to get elected this year, but I thought (hoped?) enough voters would look at Rolen’s career stats and remember his eye-popping defense. Ideally, something like 30 percent or so of them would vote for Rolen, which is a strong base to steadily build upon over the next few years.
That likely won’t happen. Based on the early returns (as highlighted by Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker), with about 20 percent of ballots already announced, Rolen is sitting in the range of 11 percent, a percentage that will surely go down based on how voters that don’t typically reveal their ballot tend to vote. Now, instead of facing an Edgar Martinez-type climb towards eventual election (coincidentally, a candidate that produced almost identical career value), Rolen is staring down a one-and-done candidacy, like fellow jack of all trades Lou Whitaker. Whitaker, who was worth 75 wins over his career, fell off the writer’s ballot after one year.
What makes Rolen’s lack of support so baffling, though, is just how strong his case actually is by both traditional and advanced stats. Using advanced stats, Rolen is as close to being a slam dunk as one can be without actually being a slam dunk. (Is that a layup? I don’t know. I don’t know very much about basketball.) According to Baseball-Reference, Rolen was worth 70 wins over the course of his career, which is slightly better than the average Hall of Fame third baseman. Using the JAWS measurement (as created by Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated), Rolen ranks as the 10th most valuable third baseman in baseball history. The nine that rank above Rolen are either in the Hall or will be (Adrian Beltre, Chipper Jones). Interestingly, immediately behind Rolen among all-time third basemen is Edgar Martinez, the current cause célèbre of the sabermetric community and someone who played just 564 games, 25 percent of his career, at the hot corner.
Furthermore, Rolen is arguably one of the five best defensive third basemen of all time, ranking behind only Beltre in defensive runs saved since 2002 (as far back as the data goes). Using Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average, Rolen was worth 182.2 runs, which works out to about 18 wins over the average defender (fifth all-time). Offensively, he was 252 runs above average per Fangraphs, good for 18th among all third basemen. Basically, he was a better hitter than Adrian Beltre and a better fielder than everyone but Beltre.
Using traditional measures, Rolen’s case isn’t quite as strong, but there’s more than enough there to earn election to the Hall. In the hardware department, he won NL Rookie of the Year in 1997, was a seven-time All-Star, and won eight Gold Gloves. Looking on the back of his baseball card, in addition to more than 2,000 career hits, Rolen ranks in the top 16 among all third basemen in homers (15th), doubles (6th), runs (16th), and RBI (14th).
Despite his impressive resume, his lack of support shouldn’t be a total surprise. Rolen spent his entire career going unnoticed and underappreciated, to the point that it almost felt like the universe was conspiring against him. And if it wasn’t universe, it was his teammates and his team’s front office.
As the best player on some truly awful late ’90s Phillies team, the front office publicly ripped him when he dared become a free agent. And since he was generally not media-friendly in the way that teammate (and noted asshole) Curt Schilling was, most Rolen stories that made it to the public were either negative from his own team or highlighted his workman, vanilla-ice-cream demeanor, a reputation that is almost certainly costing Rolen votes now; he simply didn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer when he played.
Even when it looked like Rolen was going to have his defining moment, fate (and Endy Chavez’s giant glove) intervened and instead of hitting a go-ahead homer late in Game 7 of the NLCS, the defining moment of the 2006 Cardinals season was Adam Wainwright uncorking that curveball to freeze Carlos Beltran and clinch the pennant.
On every level, Scott Rolen’s case as a Hall of Famer is apparent. He is an all-time great defender, a well above average hitter, and he clears all statistical measurements for enshrinement in Cooperstown without any hint of the PED speculation that has doomed his contemporaries.
That he has received almost no support thus far is disappointing. After the election of Detroit legend Alan Trammell by the Veterans Committee earlier this winter following 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, many writers that grew up watching Trammell play publicly supported his election as vindication of their childhood memories. With Rolen, who has a similar case and demeanor to Trammell’s, let’s hope his journey to Cooperstown is a shorter one.
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