Is Scott Rolen Famous Enough For Cooperstown?

Among many fun conversations I had while in Arizona last week, perhaps the most interesting involved a topic I’d been thinking about for a while – Scott Rolen’s chances of getting elected to the Hall Of Fame. Rolen’s 12th on the list of career WAR by third baseman with +71.6, and that kind of total is generally good enough to get you elected. Given that he’s still reasonably productive and should have a few more years to add value, I think Rolen has a really strong case for election.

But if we change the question from “should Rolen get in?” to “will Rolen get in?”, the story changes quite a bit. Whether right or wrong, BBWAA voters still lean heavily on the results of seasonal awards, and Rolen has not been a guy that has done all that well in those categories. He’s made only six all-star games in 14 seasons and only finished in the top 25 in MVP voting four times, topping out at fourth in 2004 – the only year he cracked the top 10. Despite some excellent seasons, Rolen’s skillset is generally undervalued and he has spent most of his career with teams who haven’t made the postseason. Because he never posted eye-popping offensive numbers, he was easy to overlook, and that’s basically what happened.

Trying to find a Hall-Of-Famer who was similarly ignored by awards voters during his career is a challenge. Among somewhat recent electees, the only similar players in awards results is Tony Perez. Like Rolen, Perez only had one season where he was considered a legitimate MVP candidate, made just seven all-star appearances, and was generally considered a good player on teams with more notable stars. It took Perez nine years to get elected, and he got an awful lot of help from his Big Red Machine teammates and their lobbying efforts.

Besides Perez, most of the guys with Rolen’s pedigree are on the outside looking in. Tim Raines was similarly excellent, but also mostly overlooked during his career. Lou Whitaker fits a similar mold, and he fell off the ballot after his first year of eligibility. Perhaps the most disheartening comparison for Rolen supporters is Ron Santo. Santo beats Rolen nearly across the board, accumulated almost +80 WAR during a terrific career, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting four different times, and still couldn’t get elected. If Rolen has several more productive seasons before retiring, his career will mirror Santo’s, and we have a good amount of history that shows how much the BBWAA likes to vote for this kind of player.

Given that there are only 14 third baseman in the Hall Of Fame, I think it’s fair to suggest that voters need a paradigm shift on the value of the position. So, rather than comparing Rolen to other corner guys, where his offensive stats won’t stand up as well, I’d like to offer the following comparison.

Scott Rolen has a career batting line of .284/.369/.498, good for a .375 wOBA. His park-adjusted wRC+ of 125 shows that he’s been a good hitter throughout his career.

Derek Jeter has a career batting line of .314/.385/.452, good for a .371 wOBA. His park-adjusted wRC+ of 125 shows that he’s been a good hitter throughout his career.

They’re pretty similar hitters overall – Rolen has a bit more power, Jeter hit a few more singles, but the differences come out in the wash. Jeter does have an additional 2,500 plate appearances, so there is a quantity difference, but it’s not so large that Jeter should be a slam dunk first ballot guy while Rolen may never get in.

No, the difference between the two is on defense. Despite the fact that Rolen has almost certainly provided more defensive value throughout his career, Jeter gets the bump from having played the more difficult position. Unfortunately, the pattern is generally to compare up the middle guys against each other, and then compare corner guys against other corner guys, but not to compare third baseman to shortstops, despite the fact that they stand next to each other on the field and there is significant overlap in the pools of talent at the positions.

Can we really argue that Jeter has been so much more valuable in the field than Rolen to justify the differences in their expected differences in HOF election? I don’t think so, and voters showed that they were willing to give credit for defensive performance based on something other than position when they elected Roberto Alomar but not Barry Larkin. Rolen is an historically great defensive third baseman, and there simply isn’t that large of a gap between a great defensive third baseman and a mediocre (or terrible, depending on your acceptance of defensive stats) shortstop.

Jeter is going to waltz in to Cooperstown in his first opportunity, and rightfully so – he’s a Hall-Of-Fame caliber shortstop. Rolen, however, is a Hall-Of-Fame caliber third baseman, and if it takes us shining light on the fact that they’ve had similarly valuable careers in order to help Rolen’s case, then so be it. They both deserve to be in Cooperstown someday. We’ve got a couple of decades to convince voters of Rolen’s greatness, so that he doesn’t become Ron Santo 2.0.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

Rolen falls in to the Barry Larkin camp of extremely well-rounded but somewhat injury plagued. I think he’ll follow a similar path. He won’t make it on the first ballot, but will soon thereafter.