The Hall of Fame Case for Scott Rolen

Nov 27, 2017 by Adam Darowski

I’m going to cut right to the chase—Scott Rolen is on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Chipper Jones (170 Hall Rating, 53rd all time, 6th among 3B) and Jim Thome (137 Hall Rating, 96th all time, 10th among 1B) are the high profile newcomers and seem good bets to be inducted in their first year. Rolen’s statistical resume (142 Hall Rating, 85th all time, 8th among 3B) should put him in that conversation as well. However, I’m afraid he won’t reach the 5% of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot for a second year (a fate recently experienced by Hall of Stats inductees Kenny Lofton and Kevin Brown).

Why do I think Rolen will struggle?

Cooperstown generally doesn’t know what to do with third basemen. Out of 220 players in the Hall of Fame, only 12 are third basemen. The Hall of Stats adds six third basemen while removing three. Until recently, even Adrian Beltre was only considered a Hall of Famer by the saber-slanted observer, though his demolition of the 3,000 hit milestone and impending 500th home run seem to be changing the perception there.

It takes a lot of talent in many different areas to last at third base. There aren’t many “bat only” third basemen who are complete defensive liabilities. Only two full-time third basemen in history—Eddie Yost and Bill Madlock—were were worth 100 or more runs below average at third base (per Baseball-Reference). Both of them hit well enough to make up for it (Madlock won four batting titles and Yost led the league in on-base percentage twice). Similarly, you don’t see too many glove-only third basemen like you see at shortstop. Aurelio Rodriguez and Clete Boyer come to mind, but both of them had some pop that kept them in the lineup in addition to their great gloves.

The best third basemen are the ones who do everything well—and those are precisely the types of players Cooperstown struggles to induct. That’s hardly a third baseman issue. Many of the 68 players added to the Hall of Stats were both excellent hitters and fielders. Scott Rolen is, of course, one of those players.

Why is Scott Rolen’s Hall Rating so high?

This is a very important question to ask. Never take a player’s Hall Rating (or WAR) blindly and argue he belongs in the Hall of Fame. It’s crucial to know why a player’s rating is so high. I’ve done this with players like Rick Reuschel, Larry Walker, and Jack Glasscock. Let’s do the same for Rolen.

The reason Rolen’s Hall Rating is so high (142) is because his WAR total from Baseball-Reference (70.0) is so high. WAR contains several components covering many areas of a player’s value, such as batting, fielding, baserunning, and the value of the position he played. In order to decide if we trust Rolen’s WAR total, we must trust his components individually. So let’s take a look at them.

And let’s get the easy ones out of the way first.

Positional Adjustment: +34 runs

If you’re not familiar with WAR’s positional adjustment, I recommend you dig more into it on Baseball-Reference. But the gist is this—an average player at shortstop (or catcher, etc.) is more valuable than an average player at first base (or a corner outfield spot) because players who fill those roles are harder to find. I don’t think that’s rocket science, but if it is you can probably feel free to stop reading now.

Baseball-Reference says that third basemen get an adjustment of two runs per 1,350 innings played. This feels very fair to me, if not a tad low. For comparison, catchers are +9, second basemen +3, shortstops +7, center fielders +2.5, corner outfielders –7, and first basemen –9.5. Rolen played 17,479⅓ innings at third base and… nowhere else (how incredible is that?). He ranks 12th all time in games played at third base. His positional adjustment adds up to +34 runs. That passes the sniff test for me.

Baserunning and Avoiding Double Plays: +9

Nine runs in the grand scheme of things is so small that there’s not much of a reason to dwell on this one. But if you consider that in addition to his great power, patience, and fielding that Rolen even stole 118 bases while only being caught 49 times, this one passes the sniff test as well.

Fielding: +175

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. A large amount of Rolen’s value comes from his defense. But was he as great a fielder as WAR suggests?

He ranks third in Baseball-Reference’s fielding component among full-time third basemen with 175 runs. Beltre is second with 230 and first is (of course) Brooks Robinson. Defensive prowess is a hard thing to prove statistically if you don’t trust the advanced metrics, but let’s see if we can find reasons to believe (or reason to doubt) Rolen’s rating.

Rolen also happens to have won the third most Gold Gloves at third base in history with eight. Robinson is first with sixteen, but Mike Schmidt sneaks ahead of him with ten. WAR also loves Schmidt’s defense, giving him 127 runs above average. After Rolen, three players have six Gold Gloves. Buddy Bell is right behind Rolen in fielding runs too (with 174). Robin Ventura isn’t far behind with 155. The only anomaly is Eric Chavez, but Chavez won all of his Gold Gloves in his 20s and then proceeded to see his career decimated by injuries.

The correlation between Gold Gloves and fielding runs among third basemen seems surprisingly high.

For fun, let’s see how Rolen looks by some old school fielding metrics. We already noted that he’s 12th all time in games played at the hot corner. Rolen ranks 37th all time in putouts, though very few modern players appear ahead of him. Among his contemporaries, he led the league in assists twice and finished in the top five four other times. He’s 11th all time in assists, leading the league twice and finishing in the top five six other times. Errors are strange to use because they were given much more frequently in the game’s early days, but Rolen ranks 95th among third basemen in that category. Only eleven more third basemen turned more double plays. If you’re into fielding percentage, Rolen ranks in the top twenty all time. Several player ahead of him never won a Gold Glove, though.

If there’s reason to be skeptical of Rolen’s WAR fielding numbers, I don’t see it.

Batting: +234 runs

That’s right, as good as Rolen was with the glove, he was worth more at the plate. Let’s see if that holds up to scrutiny.

Rolen collected 2,077 hits, 316 home runs, 517 doubles, and 899 walks. Those are not overwhelming numbers, I’ll admit. Yet only 23 other players have achieved them and only 16 are eligible for the Hall of Fame. Of those 16, 12 are Hall of Famers. Of the four who didn’t make it, three are only on the outside because of connections to PEDs (Bonds, Palmeiro, Ramirez). The other is Luis Gonzalez. “Ah ha!” you say. “Rolen is no better than Luis Gonzalez and he’s no Hall of Famer!” But was Luis Gonzalez one of the 2–5 best fielding third basemen of all time? He was not.

Let’s look at Rolen’s rate stats:

Rolen’s offensive numbers sneak up on you similarly to how Jim Edmonds’ did to me. Neither Rolen nor Edmonds were at the very top of the league offensively, but they were that very next tier. But let’s also remember that many of the players from that top tier are missing out on Cooperstown because of PED connections. Maybe it’s time we showed more respect to the second tier that was never connected.

I don’t need much more convincing, but let’s look at some other players with similar batting run totals to Rolen. In that 230–240 batting run range, we’ve got players like Ryan Klesko, Harold Baines, Andre Dawson, Danny Tartabull, and George Foster. There’s only one Hall of Famer in that group, but that’s not the reason I’m showing you those names. Those players didn’t have the rest of the resume that Rolen has. My reasoning is this—is it reasonable that Scott Rolen was as good of a hitter as them? I think it totally is. That seals it—I believe his hitting component of WAR.

So, is Scott Rolen worthy of the Hall of Fame?

Absolutely. What do you think?

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