Scott Rolen will appear on Hall of Fame ballots in 2018. Rolen played professional baseball from 1996 – 2012, and was a premier third baseman whose value was largely underrated due to the fans’, writers’ and even some teams’ lack of acceptance of advanced metrics. In this piece, many of these metrics, along with a few traditional ones, will be used to describe the value that Rolen produced at the plate and at third, a value that is deserving of the Hall of Fame.
Third base has long been a position of heavy hitters, and in the high-powered offense era during which Rolen played most of his career, this may have caused fans to overlook him because he only broke 30 home runs three times in his career. However, we’ll examine Scott Rolen’s worth as a hitter as compared to other players who played the slugger-heavy position of third base. Rolen has 8,495 plate appearances. According to baseball-reference.com, among third basemen with at least 7,000 plate appearances, Rolen ranks 5th in OBP, 6th in SLG, 5th in Runs Created and 6th in Runs Produced. In all of these categories, Rolen ranks behind players like Chipper Jones, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Adrian Beltre. It is worth noting that he actually ranks ahead of Brooks Robinson in Runs Created, even though Robinson is generally known for setting the gold standard as a third baseman defensively, not offensively.
Again according to baseball-reference, from 1997-2007, the majority of Rolen’s career, he was 1st in Runs Created, hits, stolen bases, and times on base w/o ROE among third basemen with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that time span. He was 2nd in walks drawn, 3rd in HR, and 7th in OBP in that same period. Scott Rolen played in an era with some of the best third basemen at the plate- Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Aramis Ramirez, Adrian Beltre- and was consistently one of the best during his career. According to FanGraphs, for third basemen with at least 3000 PA during the entire span of Rolen’s career, he has 119 wRC+, a .360 wOBA, 0.357 OBP, and 148.5 wRAA. That puts him at 7th in wRC+, 6th in wOBA, 5th in OBP, and 5th in wRAA. Furthermore, his 128 wRC+ is higher than Hall of Famer Paul Molitor’s 122, and Molitor made the majority of his plate appearances as a DH.
We can see that Rolen consistently put himself on the short list of the most valuable offensive third basemen during his era, even if he was never considered to be the outright best at the plate. But Scott Rolen added most of his value on defense. During his career, he had four seasons in the top 10 in defensive WAR. According to FanGraphs, his 182.2 Defensive Runs Above Average rank 5th among 3B all time. He led the league twice in putouts and assists, with six seasons in the top 10 for putouts and eight seasons in the top 10 for assists. Wade Boggs, of course a Hall of Fame third baseman, was 95 Total Zone Fielding Runs above Average for his career. George Brett, inducted in 1999, has 54 in 17 seasons. Scott Rolen has 150 Total Zone Fielding Runs above Average for the same number of seasons. Scott Rolen ranks 2nd among 3B behind Adrian Beltre from the seasons of 2002 to 2012 in UZR (109), Defensive Runs Saved (114) and Range Rating (80.5). During 10 of his 17 seasons, he was in the top 10 in Total Zone Runs and Range Factor/9 innings. He also led the league twice in both of those categories. Maybe Rolen was a ‘good-not-great’ hitter, but his defense was nothing short of absolutely stellar.
If you happen to care about certain seasonal awards in Hall of Fame considerations (I certainly don’t, but HoF voters seem to), Rolen was a Rookie of the Year, a Silver Slugger, a seven-time All-Star, and an eight-time Gold Glove winner.
Immensely more important are Scott’s player-value numbers, which make his Hall of Fame case impossible to ignore. FanGraphs gives him a WAR of 70.1, which ranks 10th among 3rd basemen in the history of baseball. He played finished in the Top 10 for defensive WAR four times in his career, and three times in overall WAR. The average WAR for a Hall of Fame third basemen is 67.5. If you aren’t familiar with the JAWS score, developed by statistician Jay Jaffe, it measures whether or not a player is deserving of the Hall of Fame by comparing him to other players in the Hall who played his position. This score also accounts for the different offensive eras throughout the history of the game using advanced metrics, and produces a score that combines a player’s career WAR and his seven-year peak WAR to compare him to current Hall of Famers. The average JAWS score for third basemen in the Hall of Fame is 55.2. Scott Rolen’s is 56.8.
So why does Scott Rolen’s name rarely come up among casual conversations about some of the best third basemen ever? For one, these defensive metrics in which Rolen excelled were not widely accepted or even widely understood during most of the time that he played. Another reason may be that Scott Rolen only appeared in 39 postseason games, and did not play particularly well in those postseason appearances. Postseason appearances, especially when there is such a small sample size in the case of Scott Rolen, should not be a make or break factor in Hall of Fame consideration; but, there are still a decent amount of voters who look for that.
Whatever the reasons may be, Scott Rolen’s case is more than strong with the application of advanced statistics. The Hall of Fame is strangely lacking in third basemen, holding only 16 currently. To put that in context, there are 10 umpires enshrined and 23 players from the other corner of the infield. Hopefully, the BBWAA can begin to fix this imbalance, and they could start by inducting Scott Rolen, truly one of the greatest third basemen of the last two decades.