Former Reds / Hall of Fame

Is Scott Rolen a Hall of Famer?

With a painfully slow and dull free agency, much of the offseason focus in baseball has centered around the Hall of Fame and which players are worthy of election. While candidates like Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Vladimir Guerrero are locks to achieve baseball immortality, there are a number of intriguing players who don’t stand much of a chance. One of the latter players is former Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen.

Rolen spent only three-and-a-half of his 17 seasons in Cincinnati, but he’s the Reds’ best hope at having a Hall of Fame player until Joey Votto retires. So let’s talk about him!

More specifically, is he worthy of election?

The first thought that pops into your head when you think of Scott Rolen may not be “hall of famer,” “superstar,” or “elite.” It’d be easy (though lazy) to dismiss him as a Cooperstown candidate based on that alone. And if you only look at the traditional counting stats, like many voters still do, you may be inclined to dismiss his candidacy altogether. Rolen hit 316 home runs (124th all-time), knocked in 1,287 (120th), and batted .281 (617th) while spending time with the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Reds. All impressive, above-average marks, but not elite when compared to other superstars of his era like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Fair enough — but those numbers don’t come close to telling the whole story.

Some, like Steven Martano at Beyond the Box Score, say Rolen is not worthy because he never led the league in any major offensive categories.

“What is most striking about Rolen’s baseball-reference page is the simple fact that he never led the league in anything. Ever. Over the course of 17 years, Scott Rolen always played at best, second-fiddle to someone else in literally every statistical category listed.”

While this argument isn’t incorrect, it is, again, incomplete. If the Hall of Fame only granted entry to the biggest of superstars, it’d be a fraction of the size it is now. Fortunately, leading the league in a few select categories or the three big traditional offensive stats (AVG, HR, RBI) aren’t prerequisites for being voted into the Hall of Fame. If they were, players like Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Bill Mazeroski probably wouldn’t have a spot.

What pushed those players into the Hall of Fame was defense, and that’s where Rolen stands out from the crowd. He complemented his solid, middle-of-the-order bat with some of the best glove work the third base position has ever seen. Like a vacuum, he sucked up nearly every ball that came his way at the hot corner, and his strong arm allowed him to throw out baserunners whether he was on his knees or on the foul side of the third base line. And few other third basemen have ever made the charging, barehand play on bunts and dribblers look so easy.

Since 2002, when many of today’s go-to defensive metrics began being tracked, Rolen trails only Adrian Beltre in defensive runs saved (114) and ultimate zone rating (109.0), while sitting in fourth in ultimate zone rating per 150 games (13.3) behind Manny Machado, Corey Koskie (!?), and Beltre. And keep in mind these numbers don’t account for the first six years of Rolen’s career. He gained the respect of his peers and coaches for his defensive work, earning eight Gold Glove awards during his career, including one with the Reds. Only Brooks Robinson (16) and Mike Schmidt (10) have more among third basemen.

Defensive metrics and awards don’t tell the whole story, of course, but even if you’re a believer in the eye test alone, you can’t deny Rolen’s wizardry in the field.

(Of note: poor Jerry Hairston Jr. got robbed twice by Rolen in this video.)

Let’s not pretend Rolen was a slouch with the bat, though. Plenty of great defenders have never sniffed the Hall of Fame because they were lousy hitters. Rolen does not fall into that category. He topped 20 home runs 10 times and broke the 30 threshold thrice. He hit for average. He demonstrated discipline at the plate (10.6 BB%). He didn’t strike out much (16.6 K%). He sits just outside the top-50 in career doubles (517). All makings of an above-average hitter (122 wRC+) that pitchers weren’t looking forward to facing on a nightly basis.

Here’s how he compares to his peers at third base:

Solid numbers, to be sure, but not necessarily Cooperstown-worthy on their own. That being said, Rolen’s career marks compare very favorably to former Cubs third baseman Ron Santo — who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee in 2012 — as FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards pointed out.

Add it all up and Rolen’s well-rounded game was worth 70.1 fWAR in his career, 10th among third basemen in MLB history and 58th all-time. Per Jay Jaffe’s JAWS rankings, which incorporates Baseball Reference’s calculation of WAR — in which Rolen ranks 98th all-time — the former all-star is also 10th at his position. Every third baseman ahead of him in both WAR and JAWS is either already in the Hall of Fame (Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Santo, Robinson, Paul Molitor) or will likely be (Rodriguez, Jones, Beltre).

At the end of the day, Rolen’s position will heavily play to his advantage if he’s enshrined in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery. Of the Hall of Fame’s 257 players, only 16 of them were primarily third baseman, the fewest number of inductees at any position. That, perhaps, lowers the bar required for entry.

If you like accolades, Rolen has plenty of those, too. In addition to his Gold Gloves, he was voted NL Rookie of the Year in 1997. He made seven all-star appearances, including two with the Reds. And he had a fourth-place finish in the 2004 NL MVP balloting, a season in which he was worth 9.0 fWAR. Not many players have a season that good and finish fourth. He also received MVP votes three other times.

So where does all that leave Rolen in terms of Hall of Fame worthiness? While he isn’t a no-doubt, slam-dunk candidate, he has a compelling case as one of the most complete players to ever man third base. The voters who look at benchmarks like 500 home runs, a .300 batting average, and 3,000 hits probably won’t ever check the box next to his name, which is a shame but not particularly surprising.

As more writers who embrace sabermetrics start to earn votes, however, Rolen should gain steam. As of this writing, he’s only polling at 10.7 percent among 174 public ballots, per Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker. He has no shot at election this year or next year or (probably) the year after that because of the silly 10-vote limit causing a backlog of worthy candidates. But if he can stay above the 5 percent threshold required to stay on the ballot, perhaps he’ll gain momentum in the coming years, just like Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez have in recent elections.

48 thoughts on “Is Scott Rolen a Hall of Famer?

  1. It is borderline, but I think Scott Rolen is a Hall of Famer. He was a great player, but not an elite one. It would be a travesty though if he went in with a Cardinals hat on.

    • …which is why I’m not climbing the walls to see him elected, quite frankly. #thereisaidit

    • It’s not called “The Hitting Hall of Fame,” though. There have been very few players at any position who could match that defense and, as Matt points out, he was no slouch with the bat.

  2. Top 10 all time 3B and top 100 overall player in the history of the game as measured by defense + offense = yes.

  3. Yes based on numbers compared his contemporaries (not as good as Jones or Beltre but suprising better than Cabrera) but probably will have to wait at least another 5-10 years before moving up voting percentage. Baseball HOF tougher to get in due to BBWAA seem to look for any trivial reason not to put a guy in. Larry Wayne Jones Jr should be a first ballot guy but i doubt if he will.

    • Really? Based on the publicly known votes, he’s at 98%. He, Thome, and Guerrero look like almost sure bets to get in this year.

      • Let me re-phrase my last sentence because wrong choice of words on my part. On paper Jones should be first ballot but wouldn’t surprise me if he is not based on if BBWAA will hold the era he played against him like Piazza also might be a push to vote Hoffman, Guerrero, & Martinez in and if Bonds or Clemens will receive more votes.

  4. Hmm. Was that strikeout against Romo in 2013 a Hall of Fame swing???

    Maybe I’m bitter, but I say no.

      • Miguel Cabera will be a HOFer and stood like a statue against Romo to end the WS but I admit having the same thought along with error in Game 3.

      • Aging veteran… The error was the bigger deal but the guy was such a good defender throughout his career that the one play shouldn’t detract from that. It’s possible that without Rolen, the Reds wouldn’t have been in a position to even play that post-season game. What happened, happened. It’s a shame we’re going to remember him for his two post-season failures and not for what was overall a very, very good career.

        HoF player? That will take a lot more time and research on my part to decide. My gut says he falls just short but I need to put in the time and energy to determine if I’d vote for him if I had a vote on the matter.

      • I was there for that game and I can still see him making that error… It happened in the 10th with Broxton pitching.

  5. I have a recency bias to HOF stats and WAR that many who actually vote do not.

    It goes something like this: WAR is win above replacement. Well how many talented people were vying to replace Scott Rolen? And how many were vying to replace Eddie Mathews?

    Thus 1 WAR now is more “valuable” now versus when brooks Robinson and Matthews played. This is also an argument to keep counting stats as a part of the discussion because a double is always a double (unless you have Pete Incaviglia or ManRam out there).

    Bottom line— he is a borderline HOFer at a position that clearly makes it hard for enshrinement. It’s called the Hot Corner for a reason. I think he belongs.

    • I’m not sure I follow. I understand, minus some nuance, that the “replacement” part of WAR refers to a statistically normed random Joe that anybody could get from AAA and how a particular player plays above or below that expectation…. not theoretical “how many people were taking his job”

    • If I understand your argument, you are missing an important point: There weren’t as many players during Mathews’ era, but neither were there as many teams. Furthermore, baseball was probably attracting a greater percentage of elite athletes then, given its importance and popularity compared to football and basketball.

  6. You certainly make a compelling argument, but I still think he is just under the bar. Certainly however he deserves more than a little over 10% of the vote. Another travesty on the ballot is Billy Wagner running at about 10%. This guy was a monster shut down closer. I don’t know how many blown saves he had over his career but it could not have been many. The problem with the HOF vote is there is way too much room for bias or plain laziness among those voting. I would rather see a much more statistical based system. I don’t think it should be the traditional big three but there should be some sort of hallmark to make a more factual decision.

  7. I liked Rolen. A lot. His career was very good. He belongs in a Hall of the Very Good, not the HOF.

  8. I wouldn’t be upset if he got in, but I don’t think I’d vote for him. WAR figures are skewed by longevity, which I don’t like as an argument. He did have several great seasons, but ultimately, the “Fame” part of HoF just doesn’t scream Scott Rolen to me.

    • Yeah, for the same reason, I wouldn’t be too upset if he didn’t get in. I totally understand why people think he isn’t worthy. But compared to a lot of players already in the Hall, I think he’s deserving. Of course, lowering the bar the standards of some HoFers would allow you to say many, many more players should be in, so I understand the flaw in that argument. But I think Rolen was elite enough defensively and good enough offensively to justify getting voted in at an underrepresented position.

    • @Chad: You say “…defense. If it weren’t for the sheer brilliance of Brooks Robinson, there is a very good argument that Beltre and Rolen would be the two best fielders ever to man the hot corner.” My not. My impressions and memories, with no stats to back them up, is that Graig Nettles was much better than Rolen with his glove at the hot corner–and it’s not that close. Graig was nearly Brooksie’s equal with the glove. Hey, my vague memories even lead to to believe that Mike Schmidt was a better glove man than was Rolen!

      • Missing one there.
        The best of all time (at least a major candidate) is Nolan Arenado.
        Living in the front range of the rockies I can see him play a lot.
        OMG is good on the D. Why a long way to go in his career to be called the best.
        He is on that path.
        If you add his D, he may be better then Harper or Trout.
        *note, his splits are comparable with .Joey and Goldschmidt
        I think Scott is just under the bar.

      • Nettles was terrific, but when you’re discussing fielders of this caliber, the differences among them are somewhere between small and minute. It often comes down to style points, doesn’t it?

  9. Thanks Matt…loved reading this post and I appreciate your research! I especially appreciated the defensive highlights video clip (really fun watching some of those incredible plays and it was fun remembering how strong his arm was at third). Combining his defense with his offensive stats…my vote is “yes” for the HOF.

  10. I think Scott Rolen might be the third base equivalent of Bobby Grich at second base, that player that was one of the best of his period at his position that didn’t quite get the big counting numbers to get into Hall of Fame. Davey Concepcion has a similar case.

    Ron Santo eventually got into the Hall of Fame, Rolen might too.

  11. Rolen is the third base version of Gary Carter. Good offense , great d. Also his prime was smack dead in the middle of the steroid era. He was clean so I think that should count for something as well.

  12. We may hear some contract terms for 2018 announced today for 4 Reds players. The deadline for MLB teams to exchange salary arbitration figures with their arbitration-eligible players is today at 1pm ET.
    Reds have DeSclafani (arb-1), Scooter Gennett (arb-2), Billy Hamilton (arb-2), and Michael Lorenzen (arb-1, S2) all arbitration eligible. Maybe we hear something on all 4 this afternoon.

  13. Based on advanced metrics (especially WAR) Rolen should clearly be a HOF’er. However Rolen’s case has some obstacles: 1) HOF has been reluctant to admit 3rd basemen, probably because the position is viewed too offensively instead or as a hybrid defense/offense position and; 2) A good percent of Rolen’s WAR comes from his defense as measured by defensive WAR which has less visibility to less analytically inclined; 3) he never lead the league in any offensive category. I doubt that he gets elected any time soon. His case will have to build support over time from the analytics crowd.

  14. Very good, but not quite there IMO.

    My only issue is not with him, but with the myth making the Reds do on his behalf. On a team loaded with young talent that was going to win regardless, this notion that Rolen somehow ‘taught them how to win’ or whatever makes me roll my eyes.

    • Roll you eyes, by all means, but didn’t some of those young players (like Votto) credit Rolen with that?

  15. Yes, though probably on 3rd ballot. Low number of HOF 3B is one main reason I see him going in. He was a good all-around player at 3B.

    Maybe I’m biased since he’s part of my username? 🙂

    Also, I’m not sure he wouldn’t go in as a Red. The Phillies seem to hate Rolen and I seem to remember that he had an iffy relationship with Cardinals when he left. Probably either Cards or Reds though.

  16. Kinda ridiculous argument. He has every metric needed to be a HOF, period. Very likely not 1st ballot. The only issue is he forced his way out of several teams so there may be a negative vibe he has to overcome.

  17. Is Scott Rolen an HOFer?

    LOL, hope not. If he is an HOF player, then half the players that ever played are HOF players. Might have to open the biggest building on the planet to fit in all these mediocre player plaques.

  18. HoF player? That will take a lot more time and research on my part to decide. My gut says he falls just short but I need to put in the time and energy to determine if I’d vote for him if I had a vote on the matter. Ron Santo is a good comp, but I was wishy-washy on rather or not Santo should be in when the veterans committee voted him in.

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