Will Rolen reach Hall of Fame on 5th try?

December 22nd, 2021

With the Hall of Fame election announcement about a month away, a group of MLB.com writers gathered to discuss the candidacy of third baseman Scott Rolen, who is on the ballot for the fifth year.

Alyson Footer, moderator/editor: Let’s start with the vote total jump Rolen made from 2020 to ’21. He passed the 50% threshold last year, garnering 52.9% -- a 17.6-point increase. Things are looking good for him, agree?

Jon Paul Morosi, reporter, MLB.com and MLB Network: Rolen belongs in the Hall of Fame, and he'll eventually get there. He's benefiting from a ballot that should become less complicated in the next several years, and his power and defense combo at a scarce position is very appealing to voters.

Mark Feinsand, MLB.com executive reporter: Definitely. Guys trending in that direction often get to 75% eventually, and with some of the controversial names set to come off the ballot after this year one way or another (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, etc.), I think Rolen gets a big bump this year or next.

Bill Ladson, MLB.com reporter: Based on the analytic voters, the answer is yes. But my feelings are mixed as far as Rolen being a Hall of Famer. When I first heard that Rolen was gaining ground in the Hall of Fame voting, my initial reaction? “No way. He didn’t do enough.” He was often injured during the latter part of his career and didn’t play enough games during that period to even warrant Hall of Fame considerations. From 2005-12 [ages 30-37], he averaged 105 games.

Morosi: Bill, you make some very fair points about his injuries. However, I think surpassing 2,000 career games is a meaningful benchmark and gives him a sufficient body of work for Hall consideration.

Will Leitch, MLB.com columnist: It’s clearly trending in the right direction. This is partly a stat head thought, I think, as well as the general understanding that third basemen are underrepresented. But I also wonder if there’s something else going on.

There are so many characters on the ballot who require some sort of bending-over-backward. You have the PED guys (suspected and otherwise). You have Schilling’s, uh … polarizing nature. You have all other off-field issues. But Rolen is widely perceived (by people other than Tony La Russa, anyway) as a “put his head down and play the game the right- way” guy.

Voting for him doesn’t make you have to swallow hard. I think that’s helping him too.

Feinsand: Rolen’s WAR from 1997-2004 was higher than any player in the Majors aside from Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. So it was higher than Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Larry Walker and Derek Jeter. That’s something. 

And an eight-season sample size is hardly a small one.

Ladson: Then I looked at his stats closely two weeks ago, and I said, “Whoa! I guess he deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame.” I was surprised his WAR [70.1] was as high as it was. It was higher than Hall of Famers such as Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar and Harmon Killebrew.

Footer: As we move further into deeper metrics to examine one’s Hall candidacy, Rolen’s case may never be stronger. As referenced above, according to FanGraphs, his career WAR is 70.1. The average Hall of Fame third baseman’s is 68.4. Is that one of his strongest arguments? What stands out to you? 

Morosi: The WAR number is incredibly compelling and puts some statistical backing to what we observed with his eight Gold Gloves.

I love when the Hall welcomes players who (a) showed unique skill during their careers and (b) played on teams that were consistently relevant during the postseason. Rolen did both. There are simply not many third basemen in history who brought the skill set Rolen showed over 17 years in the Major Leagues.

Feinsand: I think Rolen’s combination of stellar defense and outstanding overall offense made him one of the most complete players in the game during his prime. He wasn’t flashy, but the guy just produced every year.

Ladson: The answer is yes if you based it on 70.1, but the injuries bother me.

Feinsand: The fact that he compiled a 70.1 WAR even with those injury issues tells you just how good he was.

Leitch: Yeah, injuries are the only reason Rolen isn’t a slam dunk: Really, the only reason he isn’t in already. But we’ve seen the last few years more guys with not inherently amazing counting stats, but great slash lines, have a clearer path in. And the defense was just so terrific.

Morosi: And he did this while appearing in the postseason on five occasions, including the World Series title in 2006.

And I'll say this: Rolen was one of the most respected players of his time, to the extent that a veterans committee would be very likely to elect him if the writers don't. To be clear, I'm not saying writers should base their decisions on what the committee might do. But my point is that he is perceived as a Hall of Famer by a great many people around the sport.

Leitch: That helps, particularly because of the position being so underappreciated by voters in the past. But the nice thing about Rolen, perhaps the thing that people noticed the most about his play, was his defense. And while defense is baked into the WAR numbers, there’s a perception that it’s still somehow undercounted. Which makes people probably give him more credit for his defense than maybe even those numbers do. That totally helps, too.

Feinsand: His four-year voting trend is 10.2%, 17.2%, 35.3%, 52.9%. I don’t know if he’ll get in this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he sails in a year from now.

Morosi: I remember talking with people in Cincinnati around the time the Reds acquired him, and players there could not be more effusive in their praise about how Rolen changed that team when he arrived in the trade from Toronto.

Ladson: Rolen was the third-best defensive third baseman I ever saw, behind Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles. Rolen’s eight Gold Gloves were well earned. So, yes, I expect him to gain more ground when the results are revealed in January, based on his defense.

Leitch: It’s funny, too, because another thing in his favor is that he won a World Series in 2006, even though the subplot to that entire postseason was how much he and La Russa were fighting. He kept getting benched that postseason: It wasn’t until his near-homer against the Mets, the Endy Chavez catch, that he finally got going.

Feinsand: The Bonds/Clemens voters who have had 10-man ballots will have at least two open spots next year. For those who don’t vote for Rolen, he likely will get more consideration.

Morosi: To Will's point, I am eager to see Rolen elected because I want to hear what he will say about La Russa during his speech!

Around the time of the Rolen-Cardinals split, I theorized to a mutual friend of both Rolen and La Russa that their biggest problem is that both had (a) similar stubbornness and (b) comparable love and passion for the game. My friend laughed and said, "You are exactly right."

Leitch: We hate what is most like ourselves. (It’s why Brad Pitt and I are always arguing.)

Feinsand: Seven All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year Award, five postseason appearances, a World Series ring, (with a 1.213 OPS in that World Series) … this is a pretty impressive résumé.

Footer: We do need to acknowledge the traditional stats, which fall short of Hall standards. 2,077 hits, 316 homers. He did have a career on-base percentage of .364, though. In the postseason, he slashed .220/.302/.376 in 39 games.

BUT, his career OPS+ is 122, and he has -- and this is the kicker -- the eight Gold Gloves. He made seven All-Star teams.

Feinsand: Rolen’s traditional counting stats aren’t what we think of when it comes to the HOF. But the fact he was such a difference maker at third base has to balance some of that out. And it wasn’t like he was an automatic out. He was a very productive player who, despite his lack of eye-popping stats, was a seven-time All-Star.

Morosi: The eight Gold Gloves and seven All-Star selections are meaningful metrics. While it's important to remember that there's plenty of subjectivity in measures like that, at some point the accumulation becomes meaningful. Eight and seven are big numbers in those categories.

Feinsand: I’m going to steal a stat I used in last year’s roundtable: During his career, Rolen’s WAR ranked behind only A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Bonds, Chipper Jones and Jeter. Quite a list.

Morosi: Mark, my friend, that is what I describe as an argument-ending stat!

Leitch: Well … except only two of those dudes above him are in the Hall!

Feinsand: Pujols will be a HOF when he’s eligible. And we know the reason A-Rod and Bonds aren’t in. (A-Rod is in his first year of eligibility, but he’s headed to no man’s land.)

If Rolen moves closer to 60% this year, voters who left him off will start taking a closer look. I don’t want to say it’s a slam dunk, but he has six more tries to get those 25%. I think it happens in 2023 or 2024.

Morosi: When you combine all of those elements -- the WAR numbers, the All-Star Games, the Gold Gloves, the postseason appearances, his sustained relevance to the sport during his career -- Scott Rolen is a Hall of Famer.

Ladson: Does the eye test matter anymore? Just asking. I must have watched a different game when it comes to Rolen.

Morosi: I do think the eye test still matters. But it's only part of the equation. A player doesn't need to "wow" us to be considered a Hall of Famer. Alan Trammell wasn't flashy. Nor was Barry Larkin, for that matter. They are both Hall of Famers.

Feinsand: The eye test is nonsense. When you watch a player every day, it may matter, but honestly, how many times a year did you actually watch Rolen? Five? 10?

Ladson: A lot more than that, Mark. I don't count when I watch baseball.

Leitch: I have found the eye test less effective every year, but to be fair, I’m getting older and my eyes don’t work as well as they used to.

Feinsand: There were nights when I watched Rey Ordonez and thought he was the best fielding shortstop I had ever seen. He passed the eye test on those nights. Clearly, there were plenty of nights when he was not.

Morosi: Adrián Beltré, who has an even stronger Hall of Fame case than Rolen, wasn't necessarily a top-five superstar during the era in which he played.

Footer: Good point on Beltré. You think his path to the HOF will be shorter/quicker than Rolen's?

Morosi: I do. Beltré is an absolute slam dunk.

Feinsand: I just think that unless you’re watching a player 130 times a year, the eye test is tough. When you’re just seeing highlights, it’s difficult. Beltré is a lock.

Leitch: Beltré had an advantage Rolen didn’t, in that he stayed healthy for most of the back half of his career. His case is stronger now, but after the first 10 years of their career, I bet Rolen’s was just as strong, if not stronger.

Feinsand: I agree with Will. I assume Beltré will be a first-ballot guy.

Morosi: The 3,000 hits and close to 500 home runs make Beltré a certainty.

Ladson: Shorter on Beltré. He had a great career. No doubt.

Footer: Let's wrap this with one easy question: Rolen makes it past 75 percent in 2023? 2024?

Feinsand: I think he gets to about 60% this year and gets in a year from now, 2024 at the latest.

Morosi: Rolen will be on the dais in the summer of 2024.

Ladson: Neither year.

Footer: Bill, do you think he won't get in?

Ladson: No. He doesn't deserve it. My opinion.

Leitch: 2023 seems like the right call to me. Feinsand’s point about having Bonds and Clemens off the ballot, one way or another, loosens up enough voters. Plus, it becomes a feel-good vote at some point: You get to feel like you’re a part of the movement. I think this is the last year he falls short.