Embrace the Chaos: Scott Rolen

Or, How the writer came around on a guy who until about two weeks ago had no chance of making his ballot. Embrace the Chaos, this time looking at Scott Rolen.

I never liked Scott Rolen.

Perhaps it was that he was on good Cardinals teams when my Brewers were really bad. But I never looked at Rolen and thought, There’s a Hall of Famer. Some people live and die by the eye test. Some people also put pickles in ice cream.

But the Hall of Fame isn’t about players we like or dislike — Adam Dunn wasn’t my paragon of baseball greatness, despite a thousand words over the weekend championing his cause — it’s not even about the best players at their positions to have played the game when they did. Somehow, only 17 third basemen have been elected to the Hall. (I think of Jim Thome as a third baseman. That’s my problem, I guess.) You can probably come up with a good number of them: Brooks Robinson, Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Wade Boggs, Chipper Jones, Ron Santo, Paul Molitor, Mike Schmidt.

The list after that drops off in notoriety: Frank Baker, Pie Traynor, Jimmy Collins, George Kell, Deacon White, Freddie Lindstrom (Bob Costas, so apoplectic with the notion of a big Hall, instinctively reaches for his prybar to remove his plaque from the wall). Then we have the awesome Negro Leaguers, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, Jud Wilson.

For a premium position where we’ve seen and come to expect big power and great defense, it certainly doesn’t show in the numbers: your career average Hall of Fame third baseman slashed a pretty good .298/.366/.453/.819. (Sadly, we don’t have definitive numbers for Negro Leaguers.) Only three of them collected 3000 hits; only two hit 500 HR. We tend to crap on second basemen, but third base’s relative regard against all-time talent leaves a chasm. Brooks Robinson was a pretty crummy hitter but is regarded as the greatest defensive third baseman of all time (we’ll see if Nolan Arenado catches up to him at some point. It’s a good bet, really).

Scott Rolen, by the numbers: .281/.364/.490/.855. Eight Gold Gloves, seven-time All-Star. 2077 hits, 316 HR, 517 doubles, almost as many runs scored as batted in (1211, 1287). A good player on five postseason teams, including an unconscious 2006 World Series when he raked .421/.476/.737/1.213. (Let’s not mention his opening round that year.)

Rolen also only had one lost season to injury. This was a very good player who kept being very good for a long time and, like another underdog candidate, he kept finding his way onto teams with legitimate postseason aspirations. It’s not Fred McGriff‘s fault he was in demand with clubs wanting to win and had a Hall of Fame-worthy resume to boot. The same could be said for Rolen.

Well-regarded by hometown fans and peers alike, Rolen was never a superstar and was never held with enough esteem by the writers to be seriously considered for MVP outside of 2004 (and certainly not while his corner infielder counterpart was Albert Pujols). During a nine-year peak, he exceeded his career average slash: .285/.368/.497/.865. A 70.2 bWAR places him comfortably within the scope of another unappreciated Hall of Fame snub, Graig Nettles (bWAR 68) and Santo (70.5), also a long-time snub until he was elected by committee in 2012.

And perhaps the reason why Rolen isn’t viewed more favorably is because he was a player out of time, more suited to the bridger generation of the ’60s and ’70s third basemen — and perhaps an evolutionary Stan Hack in better situations. (Hack is also an overshadowed great of a bygone era.) But if we put Rolen’s numbers up against those who manned the hot corner in the ’60s and ’70s, we see that he has more hits than everyone except Santo and Robinson and is comfortably ahead of Sal Bando, Nettles and Don Money; only Santo had more home runs. (Mathews is an obvious outlier, and did most of his damage in the ’50s.) Rolen, on the other hand, was stuck in the shadow of the new generation of third basemen arriving just before he did, mashers like Vinny Castilla, Robin Ventura, Chipper, Matt Williams, Gary Sheffield, Thome (such as the latter two’s time at 3B were).

Rolen’s numbers and metrics are all-time great by virtue of the position’s recent offensive prominence. And baseball writers, people professionally tasked to fallow the greatest game, created and have inhabited a flawed ecosystem lacking nuance and depth. While third basemen are putting up bigger power numbers with the shifted paradigm, it does not follow that those who consistently played above historical averages but less than league-leading in their own time are somehow less qualified for the Hall of Fame.

The standard is the body of work against the body of work of those who have been enshrined before. Those who lead the league a bunch of times are obvious choices. It takes work to evaluate a player on his merits against those who have gone before. One would think members of the BBWAA would be more judicious with the task and space in rural New York they hold so sacred.

For this reason, the rest of us get riled up over snubs.

For this reason, Scott Rolen earns my vote. I didn’t even have to like him to respect him more than the writers will.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. All stats courtesy Baseball Reference. 

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