Scott Rolen, Ron Santo and the Third-Base Myth

In one way, Mike Schmidt is the prototypical third baseman: he was a great hitter and provided excellent defense. In another way, though, he isn’t: a prototype is a model on which subsequent reproductions are based. But no other third basemen has ever reproduced Schmidt’s accomplishments. He’s the best third baseman ever.

There’s a view that’s prevailed for some time to the effect that third basemen are just like first basemen except slightly more mobile. This was never really the case, though — and, on offense, third basemen now have a lot more in common with second basemen than their counterparts on the other corner of the diamond. This view likely cost Ron Santo the chances to enter the Hall of Fame by way of the writers’ ballot and, ultimately, prevented him from living to see his own induction.

A very similar player, Scott Rolen, will appear on the ballot for the first time in 2017. Based on the value he provided both on offense and on defense, Rolen deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Here are some mostly mainstream stats, with a few other metrics worked in, comparing Santo and Rolen:

Scott Rolen and Ron Santo
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR Gold Gloves All-Star Games Highest MVP Finish
Scott Rolen 8518 316 .281 .364 .490 .368 122 70.1 8 7 4
9397 342 .277 .362 .464 .367 126 70.9 5 9 4

That’s pretty darn close across the board. Rolen’s capacity for doubles resulted in a much higher slugging percentage. Because he played in an era defined by greater run-scoring, though, he sits slightly behind Santo in wRC+. Rolen closes the gap with superior defensive numbers, however — only Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt have more Gold Gloves than Rolen at third base, if you’re into that sort of thing — to end up with nearly identical WAR numbers.

Individual comparisons often make for a poor method for evaluating a potential Hall of Famer’s case. Going to the lowest common denominator will inevitably end up lowering standards for the Hall of Fame. (Consider what would happen if comparing every outfielder to Jim Rice, every first baseman to Orlando Cepeda, every second baseman to Red Schoendienst, etc.) That said, comparing a candidate to a clearly deserving member of the Hall┬ácan provide solid insight.

In this context, Ron Santo is relevant. He’s both (a) in the Hall of Fame and (b) clearly deserving. His 71 WAR is eighth all-time among third basemen. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS places him seventh among third basemen, and my HOF Ratings (a modified version of Jaffe’s system) ranks him at eighth, with Brooks Robinson (and six other guys) ahead of him.

Despite what appear to be strong credentials, Santo had difficulty finding his way into the Hall. When he first appeared on the ballot, he received just 15 votes (3.9%) and fell off the ballot. He was added back on the ballot in 1985 and received 13.4% of the vote. In 1998, after 15 tries, he fell off the ballot for good, after receiving just 43.1% of the vote. Over the next dozen years, Santo appeared on the Veteran’s ballot on four different occasions and still couldn’t gain election. It wasn’t until after his death that this error was corrected and Santo was finally inducted in 2012. Santo remains the only player born in the last 100 years elected by the Veteran’s/Eras Committee since 2001.

While Santo was overlooked, it might help to take a look at where Rolen ranks among third basemen who have been elected and played at least most of their career since World War II. It’s a small list and Rolen holds his own, but doesn’t fare all that well.

Scott Rolen and Recent HOF Third Basemen
HR wRC+ DEF Runs WAR Gold Gloves First Ballot HOF Veteran’s Committee
Mike Schmidt 548 147 151 106.5 10 x
Eddie Mathews 512 143 63 96.1 0
Wade Boggs 118 132 106 88.3 2 x
George Brett 317 132 -10 84.6 1 x
Brooks Robinson 268 104 360 80.2 16 x
Ron Santo 342 126 70 70.9 5 x
Paul Molitor 234 122 -114 67.6 0 x
George Kell 78 111 25 38.2 NA x
AVERAGE 302 127 81 79.1 5
Scott Rolen 316 122 182 70.1 8

By WAR, Rolen is way ahead of Veteran’s Committee entrant George Kelly, roughly even with Santo, and edges out Molitor, who’s actually only sort of a third baseman himself: he played more games in the field at third than any other position, but started more games at designated hitter than at third base. Chipper Jones and his 141 wRC+ will add strength to this list next year. Rolen’s wRC+ falls a little behind the average and he makes up some ground with great defense, but he’s quite a few wins short on overall value. That said, falling short of these guys, plus Jones and Adrian Beltre, still makes Rolen the 10th-best third baseman in history. To enter the Hall, third basemen have been held to an nearly impossible set of criteria: either (a) amass 500 homers or (b) record 3,000 hits or (c) be Brooks Robinson. Jones is just short of both (nor is he Brooks Robinson), but shouldn’t have a problem.

Of the non-Santo third basemen above, five were elected on the first ballot. As for Eddie Mathews, he had to wait four times, but mostly because, when became eligible, there were 14 other future Hall of Famers on the ballot alongside him. While the first-ballot distinction doesn’t really mean a whole lot when it comes to a player’s plaque or status, first-ballot players are generally of higher quality. There are 249 players who have been elected to the Hall of Fame. Of those, 124 were elected by the writers. Of that number, just 52 were elected on the first ballot. Rolen is being compared above to that elite group, plus Eddie Mathews plus Ron Santo. Falling short doesn’t mean he isn’t a Hall of Famer.

Let’s compare Rolen to another group of Hall of Famers, but before we do so, let’s take a quick look at the different expected offense by several defensive positions. Going back by decade, the chart below illustrates the wRC+ for first, second, and third basemen.

The top line, which denotes first basemen, demonstrates the pretty sizable gap historically between first basemen and third basemen. Over the last 60 years, the average first baseman has put up a 112 wRC+. The average third baseman? Just below average, at 99 wRC+. If you believe that third basemen generally are just slightly more mobile first basemen — and somewhere close to equal with the bat — you have been deceived. Third basemen have almost always been right around league-average hitters despite what the perception might be. Expecting anywhere near the same amount of offense from third base as first base is a setup for failure.

The second thing to notice on the graph is how much second base has improved over time. Up until the mid-80s, the gap between second base and third base was roughly the same as the gap between third base and first base. Over the last 30 years, however, that gap has been cut in half, with the average second baseman trailing behind the average third baseman by just 6 points of wRC+.

That leads to the next Rolen comparison, which is to second basemen. The chart below depicts Hall of Fame second basemen who played the bulk of their careers after World War II, compared with Scott Rolen.

Scott Rolen and Recent HOF Second Basemen
Name HR wRC+ Def WAR Gold Gloves First-Ballot HOF Veteran’s Committee
Joe Morgan 268 135 14 98.8 4 x
Rod Carew 92 132 -35.4 72.3 0 x
Craig Biggio 291 115 -23 65.8 4
Roberto Alomar 210 118 15.8 63.6 10
Ryne Sandberg 282 115 103.9 60.9 9
Jackie Robinson 137 135 93.7 57.2 NA x
Nellie Fox 35 96 178.7 45.2 3 x
Red Schoendienst 84 94 137.5 37.4 NA x
Bill Mazeroski 138 82 200.5 30.9 8 x
AVERAGE 171 114 76 59 5
Scott Rolen 316 122 182 70.1 8

Of the players above, Carew, Fox, Mazeroski, Morgan, Robinson, and Schoendienst all played in eras that featured a pretty sizable gap between the average third baseman and the average second baseman. That makes Morgan’s offensive achievement that much more remarkable and cements his status as one of the greatest players of all time. Carew’s offense is likewise impressive, although he played more games at first base than at second. It makes the Veteran’s Committee choices of Fox and Schoendienst slightly more understandable, and it’s pretty clear that Mazeroski, whose induction might have caused the hardening of the Veteran’s Committee, was elected mostly for his defense and one really memorable home run.

Compared to the three recent inductees from second base, Scott Rolen was the superior hitter in every case. If Biggio hadn’t been chasing 3,000 hits and stopped playing at 37, his wRC+ would be closer to Rolen’s. He also might not be in the Hall of Fame, otherwise, though. As for Alomar and Sandberg, they can’t use longevity as an excuse for hitting at a lower level than Rolen during their careers. On defense, Alomar had the reputation but not the numbers, while Sandberg had both. Over at third base, Rolen’s 182 runs above average on defense are better than all the second basemen above except for Mazeroski. It’s fine not to completely trust defensive numbers, but how big of an error bar would we require to say Rolen isn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player? If we want to discount Rolen’s defensive runs by one quarter, then he’s even with Biggio in career value. If we want to discount them by a third, then he’s even with Alomar in total value. If you want cut them half, then Rolen is even with Ryne Sandberg.

The days of the uber-light-hitting class of second basemen hasn’t been around in more than 30 years. Likewise, the days of the hulking class of third-base sluggers never really existed. That Scott Rolen didn’t hit like a Hall of Fame first baseman oughtn’t matter. That he hit and defended like one of the best third baseman should. Rolen is well above the average standard for Hall of Fame third baseman, and the mere fact that some of the greatest hitters of all time happened to play third base shouldn’t create an impossible threshold. Rolen was absolutely brilliant on defense, providing more impact than many Hall of Fame second basemen, while besting them with the bat as well. While the crowded ballot could certainly hurt Rolen, his candidacy should provide a decent test to whether the myth of the third baseman continues.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

I support Rolen’s bid for the hall.

I want to point out that everything that is true of Ron Santo’s bid for the hall is equally true of Ted Simmons.

He’s 9th all time in WAR at catcher and that’s only if you count Joe Torre as a catcher. Like Santo, he somehow fell off the ballot in his first year.

6 years ago
Reply to  stan

Google: Scott Rolen Press Conference

From the New York Times, March 24, 2002:

“Just before training camp opened last month, Rolen appeared at a news conference here at the club’s invitation to discuss his decision not to accept the $90 million/$140 million offer. When General Manager Ed Wade asked Rolen what he would say when asked why he rejected the offer, Rolen said he would say that the team’s ownership was not committed to winning. (The Phillies have consistently been in the lower half of payrolls.)

Wade objected, but that is precisely what Rolen told the Phillies last November when he rejected the offer, and that is what he said at the news conference.”

Scott Rolen’s press conference is unique in MLB history. This press conference is one of the most suppressed events in the history of the game. Every Philadelphia TV outlet (at least three local news plus Comcast Philadelphia) played the press conference that night. The following day video of this event ceased to exist. It most certainly does exist in multiple locations, but you cannot find it. Is there really a CIA file that contains the evidence that the CIA assassinated JFK? If so you might find a videotape of Scott Rolen’s press conference wrapped together with that file. You can’t even find a written transcript of Rolen’s noble act. None was ever published.

Scott Rolen’s press conference should be a video exhibit at Cooperstown. In fact, 99% of Phillies fans 20 years old and younger don’t even know this event happened.

Scott Rolen should have at least 20 WAR added to his total for this courageous act.