Let's take this head-on: There are only nine position players, nine total players, who have 70 or more Wins Above Replacement in both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs configurations and are not in the Hall of Fame.Two of them are active: Jose Pujols and Adrian Beltre. They should both enter Cooperstown on
Let's take this head-on: There are only nine position players, nine total players, who have 70 or more Wins Above Replacement in both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs configurations and are not in the Hall of Fame.
Two of them are active: Jose Pujols and Adrian Beltre. They should both enter Cooperstown on the first ballot; Pujols in particular will probably be a vote or two away from unanimous.
So that leaves seven. Two of those are not yet eligible: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Jeter will sail in first ballot and, like Pujols, will likely get 99 percent of the vote. Rodriguez, well, he has some issues to face, so we will see how his voting goes.
We're down to five. Three of the five would absolutely be Hall of Famers -- and would have been elected a long time ago -- had it not been for a scandal that tarred their reputations and crushed their chances. We all know Barry Bonds' story. Rafael Palmeiro failed a drug test and so, despite 3,000 hits and 500 homers, he fell off the ballot. And Pete Rose never even made it on the Hall of Fame ballot after he was permanently banned from baseball for betting on games.
That leaves two.
One is Chipper Jones, who will sail in this year with one of the highest vote totals in Hall of Fame history.
The other, as you gathered from the headline, is Scott Rolen.
How in the world does Rolen -- a player who was rarely thought of as one of the three or four best players in the game, a player with mildly interesting, but hardly revolutionary, offensive numbers, a player who was often not the best on his own team -- how does he have 70 WAR? This is precisely the sort of thing that makes so many people skeptical of WAR as a statistic. Rolen has a higher WAR than Tony Gwynn, Ernie Banks, Ichiro Suzuki, Duke Snider, Dave Winfield and dozens of other Hall of Famers.
How is this possible? Was Rolen that good of a player, or is this a blip in the system? Well, it's easy to tell you why Rolen has 70 WAR, and then you can decide from there what you think about it.
Rolen was a terrific high school athlete in Jasper, Ind. He was actually the runner-up for Indiana's coveted "Mr. Basketball" award. He signed to play basketball at Georgia for Hugh Durham, the Bulldogs' legendary coach.
"He could have played for us right away," Durham said.
But the Phillies drafted Rolen in the second round in 1993 and kept pushing up their offer until they convinced him to play baseball instead.
"This is what I've always wanted," Rolen told the Evansville paper. "It's kind of a dream come true. Right now, anyway."
It's that "Right now, anyway" tag at the end of the quote that defined Rolen. He always seemed to have a sort of, "Hey, this all could come crashing down tomorrow"-vibe about him. I do wonder if that is why he never quite got the mad love that his play deserved.
Before getting into the WAR calculations: There is something quirky and funny about his National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1997. Rolen was actually called up in '96 and got 146 plate appearances, which at first glance seems to make him ineligible for the award -- the rule says that a player can only be considered a rookie if during the previous seasons he has not exceeded 130 at-bats.
But the key part of that is the phrase "at-bats." It's not plate appearances. On Sept. 7, 1996, Rolen started for Philadelphia in a game against the Cubs. In the first inning, he had his 130th at-bat; Steve Trachsel struck him out. Then, Rolen came up in the third for what would have been his 131st at-bat (exceeding rookie limits) … only Trachsel hit him with a pitch. As you know, a hit-by-pitch does not count as an at-bat. Rolen was taken out of the game the next half inning, did not play the rest of the season and finished with exactly 130 at-bats.
That freed Rolen up to be a fully-qualified rookie in 1997. He hit .283/.377/.469 with 21 homers, 92 RBIs and 93 runs, winning the Rookie of the Year Award unanimously.
Rolen was a very good player in Philadelphia. He won four NL Gold Glove Awards, drove in 100 runs twice and put up an MVP-type season in 1998, though he ended up finishing 20th in the voting.
Actually, 1998 is a good year to break down why Rolen's WAR is so much higher than you expect. The MVP that year was Sammy Sosa, who hit 66 home runs, scored 134 runs and drove in 158 runs. He had 6.4 WAR that season. Rolen, who hit .290 with 31 homers, 110 RBIs and 120 runs scored, had a 6.7 WAR.
How did Rolen have a higher WAR when his offense was so much less impressive? Well, as you guessed, Sosa contributed many more runs with his offense (54 WAR Runs Batting, or Rbat, to 33, a substantial 21-run lead).
There wasn't a huge difference in Rolen and Sosa's baserunning and runs lost with double plays. Rolen gained zero runs, while Sosa lost five runs. So, that makes it 49 to 33 for Sosa.
But then comes defense. Rolen had a good defensive season that year (and, more or less, every year) and added 12 runs to his total. Third base is a difficult and important defensive position, so he also gets a two-run positional adjustment. That gives him 47 runs above average.
Meanwhile, Sosa gained three runs for his defense, but because he was a right fielder, his positional adjustment is minus-six. That gives him 46 runs above average, and thus, Rolen is just ever so slightly ahead, even though Sosa had a much better offensive season.
This is instructive for why Rolen's career WAR is so high. Let's dig deep here. Rolen was a very good hitter over his career. He hit .281/.364/.490 with 517 doubles and 316 home runs. You're probably not blown away by that -- especially in the days after we talked about Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield -- but his 234 Rbat is a good total. It compares well with Hall of Famers (Andre Dawson, Robin Yount, Kirby Puckett) and non-Hall of Famers (Harold Baines, Danny Tartabull, George Foster). Just so you know: The average WAR for players with between 230 and 240 Rbat is 49, which is a very good career.
But obviously, Rolen's 70 WAR is way above that. Why? Because Rolen was good at a lot of things. He was a good baserunner for his career, so you add 13 runs there. He hit into more double plays than average, so you take away four of those. That gets us to 243 runs above average.
Add the positional adjustment: That's 34 runs for playing third base. Now we're up to 277. And then, add his brilliant defense. By defensive WAR, Rolen ranks as the third-best third baseman in baseball history, behind only Brooks Robinson and Adrian Beltre. His defense is worth almost as much as his offense: 175 runs.
That puts him at 452 runs above average and 720 runs above replacement level.
That's a 70 WAR.
That is a flat-out Hall of Fame-level WAR.
So now we have to ask: Does any of that pass the smell test? Rolen was a seven-time All-Star, which is good, but not extraordinary. He only once finished in the top 10 in MVP voting (2004), and that year he was a pretty distant fourth, having received one first-place vote. He never led the league in any offensive category and, because of injuries, played in just 2,038 games -- 14 players on this year's ballot played in more games than Rolen. He just doesn't strike anyone as a gut-level Hall of Famer.
But the counterargument is this: Players like Rolen, who do everything well -- hit with power, get on base, run the bases and play great defense -- are destined to be underappreciated. It's part of Bill James' first rule of overrated and underrated.
Specialists and players who do two or three things are overrated. Players who do several things well are underrated.
Rolen did several things well. He never hit 35 home runs, but he hit between 25 and 34 seven times. He hit 30 or more doubles in a season 10 times. He never led the league in anything, but he finished second in doubles once, second in triples once and second in RBIs once.
Rolen moved around, playing for four teams (Bill James rule No. 10: "A player who has a good career with one team will be thought of more highly than a player who does the same things, but with several different teams") and was a superb third baseman for all of them. He helped his team in many different ways.
Rolen should stay on the ballot and have his Hall of Fame case thoroughly discussed. Early voting suggests he has a good chance of getting the 5 percent necessary to stay on the ballot, but it will be close. I had one last vote to give after voting for my nine definites, and there were several excellent players to choose from. I decided to give that vote to Rolen. I think he was a great player, greater than many remember.
Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.