The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is loaded with a plethora of talented players. Some may seem like more sure things than others, while there are some cases that are certain to inspire furious debate. In the first of a series, we’ll explore some of these non-locks who are making their first appearance on the ballot and dissect their cases piece by piece. Let’s start with third baseman Scott Rolen.
The right-handed hitter was seen as a virtual can’t-miss prospect, who debuted at the age of 21 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996. Following a cup of coffee, he put his first full major league season under his belt in 1997, hitting .283 with 21 home runs; taking home that year’s National League Rookie of the Year Award. It’s important to not forget his immediate impact with his glove, as he was a shut-down defender, even from a young age.
He went on to play a total of 17 seasons in the majors with four teams. He hit a combined .281 with 2,077 hits, 517 doubles, 316 home runs and 1,287 RBIs. He won seven Gold Gloves and made seven All-Star teams. He would have had an even more cluttered mantel if not for having played in a golden era of third baseman, when he was regularly manning the same position as the likes of Chipper Jones, David Wright and Ken Caminiti. Ironically, his last All Star appearance was in 2011 with the Cincinnati Reds when he hit just .242 with five home runs in 65 games.
Rolen’s career War of 70.0 matches up well with Hall-of-Fame comparisons. Ron Santo at 70.4 and Brooks Robinson at 78.4 are right in the same neighborhood. Because he was such a solid player across the board his impact may not have been as apparent while he was playing. However, much like Santo, one can truly appreciate his impact by examining his stats and how he lines up all time and during the era in which he played.
Advanced statistics cannot be relied on exclusively, nor can they be assumed to be 100 percent accurate. However, they do have value and help measure player worth in new and exciting ways that may not have always been evident by the eye test. One of the most comprehensive measurement systems is Jay Jaffe’s JAWS, which measures numerous facets of player performance. By his reckoning, Rolen ranks as the 10th best third baseman of all time.
The wide scope of Rolen’s overall talent is what really makes him a viable candidate. His offensive numbers are very good but even the most optimistic fan would be hard-pressed to describe him as a superstar hitter. He exceeded 30 home runs twice, 100 RBIs four times and never led the league in any major offensive statistical category. Yet, his 162 game averages of .281, 25 home runs and 102 RBIs reflects his consistency as a star. His 876 career extra base hits place him 74th all time and his 30.9 WPA (Win Probability Added) is 104th.
However, defense is what helps push Rolen over the top. His 20.6 career defensive WAR is sixth all-time among players who spent the bulk of their career at third base. He is 11th all time in assists, sixth in Total Zone Runs and 12th in double plays turned. His superior range was perhaps only outdone by his cat-like reflexes. Often playing hurt, it’s both fun and sad to wonder what level he could have brought his production to if not for the physical deterrents.
The nagging injuries that kept popping up ended up playing a significant role in Rolen’s career. In the 15 years he played following his initial call-up, he missed a total of 429 games, which equates to over two and a half full seasons. Having back that missed time would have padded his career totals nicely. Of course injuries are part of the game and one can only speculate on what might have been, but it is an especially important part of this third sacker’s story.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where Rolen sails into the Hall on the first ballot. There are too many persnickety voters who possess a thousand agendas and criteria. That being said, the third baseman has a strong case for his inclusion and given the body of evidence, it would be an injustice if he is not one day given a plaque.
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