Scott Rolen Was Dominant

When a player first comes up on the Hall of Fame ballot, their career is likely still fairly fresh in a voter’s mind. It’s possible, however, that the fresh appearance can cloud the memory. After all, if a player is up for Hall of Fame consideration, they probably played 15-20 years, and the last eight of those seasons were likely out of that player’s prime. As we are now more than 15 years away from Scott Rolen’s prime, it is possible misconceptions and incorrect narratives are forming around the type of player Scott Rolen was when he played. He was dominant in his prime, but beginning his career on a team averaging 90 losses the first four seasons of his career and then moving to a team with Albert Pujols in a league with Barry Bonds tended to obscure Rolen’s dominance. His value as an all-around performer further hid his greatness.

While Rolen has taken a major step forward this season in Hall of Fame voting, he still needs another boost before he gets elected, so it is worth clearing up any misconceptions about his career. Looking at Rolen’s overall body of work, it’s not hard to see that he was a consistent performer at an All-Star level. As Jay Jaffe noted in his examination of Rolen’s case:

Rolen cracked the league’s top 10 in WAR a modest four times, but had six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, tied for 10th at the position, and 11 of at least 4.0 WAR, tied for third with Boggs, behind only Schmidt and Mathews. That’s particularly impressive considering his career length. Take away his cup-of-coffee 1996 season, his injury-wracked 2005, and the two at the tail end of his career; in 11 of the other 13 seasons, he was worth at least 4.0 WAR, which is to say worthy of All-Star consideration. Only in 2007 and ’08 did he play more than 92 games and finish with less than 4.0 WAR.

Using FanGraphs WAR, Rolen actually has five top-10 finishes in league WAR. Those six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR help paint the consistently good picture, but it leaves a little out of the story. Let’s take a look at Rolen’s prime, which we’ll start with his first top-10 finish in WAR and go through his best season in 2004.

Scott Rolen’s Prime: 1998-2004
Season WAR NL Rank
1998 7.0 7
1999 4.8 19
2000 4.6 20
2001 5.6 13
2002 6.5 6
2003 6.2 9
2004 9.0 3

Rolen’s six five-win seasons are impressive as are his 11 four-win seasons in building up his case for the Hall of Fame, but his four seasons of at least six wins, including that nine-win season in 2004, might set him further apart. The only position players in history not in the Hall of Fame with at least four six-win seasons including a career single-season high of nine wins are Barry Bonds, Joe Jackson, Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Trout. Now let’s see where Rolen’s WAR ranked among players from 1998-2004.

Averaging six wins a season for seven years isn’t consistently good, it’s consistently great. Rolen finds himself behind only two of the greatest baseball players in history. He’s just barely ahead of Andruw Jones, whose Hall of Fame case is built on his great early prime as he faded much more quickly than Rolen. There are five Hall of Famers below Rolen and a likely sixth in Derek Jeter. Looking at Rolen’s best seven seasons in a row can be a bit misleading as not every player above was in the middle of their primes like Rolen. One quick approximation is to look at players over similar ages. Here’s a table showing the best WAR over the last 50 years from age 23 through age 29.

WAR Leaders Since 1970: Ages 23 Through 29

That’s a list of dominant players. The only ones not in the Hall of Fame are Bonds, Jones, Posey, Pujols, Rodriguez, Rolen, and Trout (who still has two more seasons to go). To further make the point, I took a look at every seven-year stretch since 1970 to work in all ages and find the players who averaged six wins per season over a seven-year stretch. Some players accomplished the feat in multiple seasons, but this is the list of players who have done it with their high-water mark.

Players with 7-Year Stretches Averaging 6 WAR
BBWAA HOF below threshold: Edgar Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Craig Biggio, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez, and Robin Yount.

The only non-Hall of Famers on the list are Bonds, Cabrera, Jones, Pujols, Rodriguez, Rolen, Trout, and Utley. A great number of Hall of Famers over the last 50 years never put up seven-year stretches close to Rolen. While the stellar third baseman was more good than great in his 30s, averaging closer to three wins per season, that solid play is what separates him from a player like Andruw Jones, who also has a good case for the Hall.

Maybe the seven-year stretch is too long of a period if we wanted to measure dominance. Maybe six wins a season is still in some minds more of a consistent really, really good. Let’s up the ante over a shorter period of time by looking at Rolen’s three-year stretch from 2002-04 in which he put up 21.8 WAR. Here’s a list of players who have averaged at least seven wins per season over any three-year stretch since 1970 with their highest total listed.

Players with 3-Year Stretches Averaging 7 WAR
BBWAA HOF below threshold: Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Tim Raines, Frank Thomas, Ivan Rodriguez, Craig Biggio, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Carlton Fisk, and Tony Perez.

Given the smaller sample size of seasons, this list isn’t quite as impressive as the last one. One might argue that Andrew McCutchen, Jason Giambi, and Josh Donaldson all appearing ahead of Rolen hurts the latter’s case, but given all three won MVPs during the times in question, it’s actually harder to argue against dominance for Rolen given similar numbers. There are numerous Hall of Famers below him and so few ahead of him. Injuries ruined Grady Sizemore’s career, but he was certainly great for a few seasons. Rolen’s 2002-04 was better than any three-year stretch from Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.

Scott Rolen put together a great career with a lot of very good seasons, but he had a great stretch of play that matches up well with many no-doubt Hall of Famers. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Rolen’s case, as I previously discussed the standards third basemen have been held to in Hall of Fame votes. Rolen was as good a hitter as Jeff Kent, but was a stellar third baseman instead of being average at second base, yet there are many voters including Kent on their ballots and not Rolen. The Hall of Fame vote has been very encouraging for Rolen as many recognize his greatness on the field as both a hitter and defender, but it’s going to take one more push to get him elected. He wasn’t Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols, but he dominated everyone else in his era and deserves to get the call next season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

I have to wonder if Rolen also suffered from beginning his career playing for the same team that had been graced with the best 3rd baseman ever, just one generation earlier.

4 years ago
Reply to  tz

That might affect how he’s perceived in Philly, but I don’t think anyone else would care.

4 years ago
Reply to  tz

I think he suffers from a different problem. Rolen was a great defensive player and a really good hitter. He didn’t end up with tremendous counting stats, so older voters don’t really get how good he was. Had he been a great hitter, but just a really good fielder, he wouldn’t have any problem getting into the HOF.

4 years ago
Reply to  j_co88

I think voters of all ages can legitimately question how much weight defensive metrics should play in determining player value, particularly for players before statcast. Jay Jaffe is even quoted as calling them “largely estimates”.

Offensive metrics, traditional or otherwise, are not largely estimates. Offensive production is quantifiable and fundamentally more trustworthy.

Rolen derived ~40% of his career value from defense. No one should apologize for questioning the legitimacy of his fWAR totals when they’re so heavily weighted on his “largely estimated” defensive value.

This being FanGraphs, I understand that player value will often be framed around fWAR. It’s the site’s chief product. That said, I found these charts redundant. We all understand how well he measures in fWAR. But what about when we look at wRC+? Or OPS+? Or wOBA? I suspect the names are less favorable.

Since I expect that I’ll garner troves of downvotes for anti-Rolen blasphemy anyway, I’ll close with this: Rolen finished with a lower career OBP than Derek Jeter. Batting average matters. Deal with it.

4 years ago
Reply to  Craig Edwards

Forgive my back of the napkin math. I was citing the Off (250) and Def (180) numbers on his player page to get to 40%.

Regardless, is there an argument against the mushiness of these statistics outside of the anecdotal reputation / eye test or otherwise scoffed at Gold Gloves? Because referencing those factors as evidence would seem to make an argument from the desired conclusion. Derek Jeter has Gold Gloves and passed the eye test for many, after all.

As I referenced below, he was only about the 30th best hitter in baseball during his prime. That I’m confident in. Whether or not he was a Top 3 defender is a bit more ambiguous. But, alas, we must assign a number, or else the formula will error out, so we do our best. But we can at least acknowledge that our best is just an estimation.

A more convincing argument for him could be made around his offensive value being obfuscated by that of his peers who were cheating. I could maybe get behind something like that.

4 years ago
Reply to  oozyalbies1

Stand-out defensive players are super fun and generally don’t get enough credit compared to great hitters. I hate the idea that we should tip the scales even more toward hitters.

Plus, when the stats and the eye test agree to this extent it’s pretty dumb to just discount them just because. Rolen’s range was insane… he was great to his left and his right, he was awesome at bare-handing slow rollers up the line. His defense changed the feel of the game. Throwing out half of the game just because the measurements aren’t perfect is pretty stupid.

4 years ago
Reply to  Craig Edwards

I was under the impression that political adjustments are not allowed on this site outside of Sheryl Ring articles

kick me in the GO NATSmember
4 years ago
Reply to  oozyalbies1

Rolen finished his career as a better hitter than Ozzy Albies will likely finish his career. Izzy is a glove first player as well!

4 years ago
Reply to  oozyalbies1

Even without defensive metrics, Rolen was known as easily the best defensive 3B of his generation and arguably on a similar level to Mike Schmidt as one of the game’s all-time best defensive 3B just from watching him play.