Will Rolen make HOF? Experts debate

January 13th, 2021

On Jan. 26, the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce which players, if any, were elected to the Hall of Fame Class of 2021. In this roundtable debate, MLB.com staffers gathered to discuss former third baseman , who is in his fourth year on the ballot.

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Most of the Hall of Fame candidates we’ve discussed this offseason fall below typical Hall standards, but Rolen’s case is different. For example, according to FanGraphs, Rolen’s career WAR is 70.1, and the average Hall of Fame third baseman’s is 68.4. That’s something. In your opinion, what about Rolen stands out to you, that warrants election?

Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): His glove. He’s one of the three or four best defensive third basemen in history … and he could actually hit, too!

Matthew Leach (@MatthewHLeach, editor, former Cardinals beat reporter): It's what he was at his best. Our friend and colleague, T.R. Sullivan, likes to say that if you can't make a player's case in one sentence, he's not a Hall of Famer. And I don't necessarily agree with that. But the point is, I can make Rolen's case in one sentence.

Will Leitch (@williamfleitch, columnist): I tend to take a positional aspect for a lot of this stuff. Third base, famously, is an underrepresented position in the Hall. That’s always struck me as strange, considering how important it is -- nobody sticks the scrawny kid who can’t play at third base. A third baseman makes such a huge difference; it’s so odd that, of all positions, it’s the one we undervalue.

Mark Sheldon (@m_sheldon, Reds beat reporter): I think your first point is the most compelling as far as numbers. But his glove was magnificent, and one other thing that doesn't show up as much in numbers, he was a great base runner.

Leach: Even on a team with maybe the greatest right-handed hitter of the last 40 years (Albert Pujols), and with one of the great all-around center fielders we've ever seen (Jim Edmonds), Rolen was the guy I'd buy a ticket to watch play. He was the one guy most likely to do something to make you say “wow” in a given game.

He was a superb hitter, with power and strike zone judgment. He was both a spectacular and effective defender. And he was a great baserunner.

Sheldon: Another important aspect, Rolen made his teammates better.

Leach: And to me, that's the case. At his best he was everything a baseball player can be. Offense, defense, baserunning, teammate. All of it.

Feinsand: I’m typically not a huge WAR guy. That said, Rolen’s WAR from 1997-2004 was higher than any player in the Majors not named Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. That means it was higher than Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Larry Walker and Derek Jeter.

Feinsand: And during his career, his WAR ranked behind only Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Bonds, Chipper and Jeter. That’s pretty good company.

Footer: Traditional stats would suggest he falls short of Hall standards -- 2,077 hits, 316 homers; a slash line of .281/.364/.490. He also didn’t excel in the postseason, where he hit .220/.302/.376 in 39 games. His career OPS+, however, is 122. And he has eight Gold Gloves and made seven All-Star teams.

Leach: Yeah, don't sell short that .364 OBP. That's a big part of the case.

Leitch: Rolen himself was universally and unreservedly considered the best defensive third baseman in baseball essentially from the beginning of his career to the end. I never take one or two Gold Gloves into account, but I do tend to take five or six or more. That shows that everybody saw and everybody knew, thus accounting for changes in how we read the metrics on defensive performance. Rolen was the best defensive third baseman in the game for at least a decade, and I’m not sure that’s even that debated.

Leach: He wasn't just the best. He was one of those guys who becomes the standard.

He's a guy people still hesitate to make comparisons to. "I don't want to say that was Rolen-like, but ..."

Sheldon: Injuries played a part in some of his lesser numbers, at least in the regular season. His shoulder likely barked for most of the second part of his career.

Leach: If not for the collision with Hee-Seop Choi, he's already in and we're not having this conversation. I believe that with all my heart. He was never the same.

Feinsand: I find it interesting that so many people believe Adrián Beltré is going to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but not Rolen. Very similar players.

Leach: That's the health. Beltré got to have that late-career renaissance that Rolen did not.

Footer: Interesting, Feinsand. You think Beltré's 3,000 hits is the difference?

Feinsand: I suppose. But it shouldn’t be.

Leach: And the 160 homers.

Feinsand: Beltré: .286/.339/.480. Rolen: .281/.364/.490. Don’t get me wrong: I think Beltré IS a Hall of Famer.

Leitch: I think it’s notable that hardly anyone considered Beltré a Hall of Fame guy when he was, say, 31. (Or, at least, only hardcore stat guys were making the case that he might have a chance.) It was all about the back half of his career, that he kept doing it over and over and over. If we reward the back half of Beltré’s career (and we totally should), we should reward the first two-thirds of Rolen's.

Leach: And, also, Scott himself would tell you that hitting was INCREDIBLY hard for him. He would laugh if you told him he made anything look easy.

Again, I'm a shameless Rolen honk. But Beltré, to me, has very little bearing on his case.

Feinsand: I may refer to Leach as “Shameless Rolen Honk” from this point forward.

Leach: You wouldn't be the first.

Leitch: To Leach’s point, one of the great things about watching Rolen every day -- when he wowed you like that -- is that it always seemed sort of unexpected. He was so steady and so unassuming -- I loved how he’d launch a homer and just put his head down and sprint toward first, like he’d just deposited a check at the bank and needed to get home in time to finish the laundry -- and then suddenly out of nowhere he’d make the most ridiculous, insane play in the field. And he’d do it in that same steady motion, like it was the easiest thing in the world when it quite obviously wasn’t. I think that’s what was best about watching Rolen all the time: He was so good, he tricked you into thinking being that good was totally normal.

Leach: Yeah, I love that point, Will. Because he was this weird combination of not at all showy but incredibly watchable.

Leitch: Also, it is worth remembering that Philly part of Rolen’s career, as great as it was, was underappreciated because everyone in Philadelphia hated him (because everyone in Philadelphia is a little bit crazy).

Leitch: In retrospect, having Larry Bowa completely hate you isn’t necessarily the most damning indictment ever.

Sheldon: Or Tony La Russa, Will.

Feinsand: I honestly believe Rolen has a shot to get in. Not this year, but he’s trending in the right direction. As a voter, I can tell you that I didn’t vote for him in 2018 or 2019 because my ballot was full. I did vote for him in 2020, when he jumped from 17.2 percent to 35.3 percent. That type of jump usually makes voters look at him closer.

Leach: I definitely think he has a shot. And what's funny is when I covered him, and when he played, my thought was always, "Man, it's a shame that injuries are going to keep him out."

Sheldon: And the end of his career was played in small market Cincinnati. But while he was there, Rolen helped the Reds reach two division titles and Votto was the 2010 NL MVP. Rolen was the unquestioned leader of the team despite not being that rah-rah kind of dude.

I asked Votto about Rolen in April. Here’s what he said: “You watch a great player with a fantastic track record perform in front of your own eyes, you think, ‘Whoa, this guy is really darn good.’ Then you get to play with him and watch how he works and his demeanor and all of a sudden, it changes your perspective. You say, ‘Wow, I want to be more like that.’ Playing with Scott was perfectly timed for a lot of our team.”

Leach: He was a personal favorite of mine, as a guy I covered. Smart, funny. But I never thought he had a real shot until the last couple years.

It is, as an aside, very weird to me that Rolen is pushing toward enshrinement while Jim Edmonds is already off the ballot. Those are similar profiles, but I'd argue that Edmonds' is better. But very similar profiles.

Feinsand: Edmonds is a prime example of a guy who dropped from the ballot because it was so crowded. It’s a shame.

Leach: If he hangs around two more years, he might be not only still on the ballot, but climbing.

Leitch: I don’t disagree with Leach one bit on Edmonds. As much as I’m making the argument for Rolen, I would have voted for Edmonds first. And I bet, if Edmonds had stayed on the ballot, he’d be getting a lot of this Alan Trammell-esque finishing kick that Rolen is getting.

Feinsand: That problem won’t be as much of an issue going forward.

Leitch: I think the thinning of the ballot should be very beneficial for a lot of people, but specifically guys like Rolen. Rolen is definitely the sort of player who grows on you once you get past the splashier guys.

Leach: I do think Rolen’s a really good example of the old Bill James point: The further we get from a player's career, the more that the numbers hold sway over the narrative.

We remember Rolen's later years as kind of broken down, a bit of a shell of what he was. And he did have a year where that was true. But he was a very good player, even if somewhat limited playing time, in his mid-30s.

Sheldon: His 2010 line was .285/.358/.497 with 20 homers. Not great, but pretty damn good.

Leach: Let’s look at this three-year stretch:

2008: .262/.349/.431, 3.4 WAR.
2009: .305/.368/.455, 5.2 WAR.
2010: .285/.358/.497, 4.1 WAR.

That's really good. and I think as we get further away, we look at that and say, "Man, that was really good!" and move away from what I think a lot of people thought at the time, which was, "Man, it's sad that he's not the guy he used to be."

Footer: Rolen has gained support over the years, and Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs points out, Rolen could be like Trammell -- barely registering in his first year of eligibility but climbing steadily. He’s got several more years on the ballot. There’s plenty of time to make up ground.

Feinsand: I can tell you as a voter that it’s far less stressful to fill out a ballot when there aren’t 14 or 15 guys you want to vote for. And when you have an open spot or two or three, it allows you to really dive into the guys who may have just fallen short a year or two earlier.

I wanted to vote for Rolen in 2018 and ’19, but he fell 11th or 12th on my 10-man ballot. In 2020, I was finally able to.

Footer: You are confident it's crowded ballot more than anything why he's wasn't getting more support in past years?

Feinsand: More support? Yes. Enough support to be elected? No.

He reminds me of Mike Mussina. I expect his support to build and build, and he could be elected in his sixth or seventh year.

Leitch: I am a big Hall person. I do not have a Hall vote -- I shouldn’t even be allowed to weigh in on lunch -- but my general rule is that I try to max out my theoretical ballot at 10 every year. Five years ago, that meant I had to leave people off that I would have loved to have on there. Now? Now it means really, really talking myself into Andruw Jones. This can only help Rolen, too. (And another reason it’s such a shame about Edmonds.)

If he gets to the 50 percent mark this year, that will be huge.

Feinsand: Rolen made a big jump last year. If he makes a similar jump this year, that will be a good sign.

Footer: Does Rolen pass Omar Vizquel this year in balloting?

Leach: Maaaaan I hope so. To me, clearly both a better player and a stronger case. And that's before the really ugly recent news.

Feinsand: Unless Vizquel’s off-the-field issues cause some of his support to fall, I think he stays ahead of Rolen. But not by much.

Leach: Per the great Ryan Thibodeaux, Vizquel is slightly down relative to last year, while Rolen is up a good bit.

Leitch: Yeah, it seems like Vizquel was always going to be a guy who needed squishy, Jack Morris-esque factors to get in. (You had to see him! Teammates loved him! He played forever!) But I would have to think the off-field stuff would get rid of most of that squishiness.

Footer: Time for the grand finale! Yes or no -- does Rolen get in to the Hall of Fame before his eligibility runs out?

Leach: A year ago, I did not think so. I do now.

Feinsand: Yes. I’ll go with 2024.

Sheldon: I think he gets in for 2023.

Leitch: I think he gets in. He still has five more years to do it, and the four guys ahead of last year are either on their last year or likely to fall behind him. It would certainly like the path is clearing.

Looking at the ballot over the next few years, there really aren’t a lot of slam dunks. David Ortiz? Probably. A-Rod? No. (Sadly.) Carlos Beltrán? Might take a year or two. If Rolen doesn’t get in over the next three years, will ANYONE get in?