If Scott Rolen is destined for the Hall of Fame, as his rapid rise in the polls suggests, his candidacy will be unlike anything seen in 56 years under the Baseball Writers Association of America’s current voting rules. It’s a reflection of the way he played the game: with subtle subtlety.
Rolen only received 10% support the first year on the ballot. It’s been up rapidly since then: 17%, 35%, 53% and 63% last year, making him the player on this ballot most likely to break the 75% threshold needed for an election. The lowest first-year percentage by a candidate eventually elected by writers under current voting rules is 17% by Duke Snyder in 1980. It took him 11 attempts to get elected. (The current maximum years on the ballot is 10.)
Since 1967, there have been 670 players who received less than 15% support in their first year on the ballot. None of the writers were elected. Why is Rollin the guy who can break the 0-for-670 streak, 56? Modern metrics have taken a crack at gauging the exact skills Roland thrived on: defense and the ball.
Start with his crime. Injuries (broken bones, a bad back, a bad shoulder, a concussion, etc.) limited Rollin to 8,518 plate appearances. Baseball writers would prefer to see more volume. They have elected only two players who made their post-1947 debuts with fewer than 9,000 games to the plate: Kirby Puckett and Larry Walker.
Rolen’s slash (.281/.364/.490) is similar to Aramis Ramírez’s (.283/.341/.492). Compared to other major players (at least 75% of their games are in position), his traditional offensive numbers are very good but not great:
Rollin’s rank among the third basemen
Rollin’s argument doesn’t stop at longevity. It is better if he has a high top. And he does:
Most qualifying seasons, OPS+125 or greater, third base
This is a rare company. Even Chipper Jones and Adrián Beltré, who is going next year, didn’t make this list. Only four third basemen have ever had more qualifying seasons with OPS+125 or greater. Rollin happened to do it for three different teams (Phillies, Cardinals, Reds), so his climax is unforgettable.
The biggest reasons Rolen is on the Cooperstown Highway are his defense and base skill. Rolen was committed to play basketball at Georgia before he signed with Veles as a second-round pick in 1993. The combination of size (6’4″, 245 lbs.), strength, and athleticism made him a full-time pick. He won eight Gold Gloves. He is one of only five baserunners to reach 300 home runs and steal 100 bases, the others being Schmidt, Beltrey, Jones, and Brett.
If you value game play, not just hitting stats, Rolen played it like a Hall of Famer. The sweet beauty lies in how he does theatrics while running at third base or the perfect cut around base as he goes first to third or second home.
Remember that comparison with Ramirez? Take another look, this time with wit and defense:
Last year’s regular major league player scored 30% of the time he reached base and grabbed extra base 41% of the time. Rollin was a great first baseman, especially considering his position. Only three first basemen in the Hall of Fame have had extra base hits at a higher clip than Rolen: Pie Traynor (60%), Brett (54%) and Freddie Lindstrom (54%). Even with his injuries, he ranks fourth in doubles (517).
Rolen’s WAR has outstanding defense, and is the eighth best among third basemen. All seven in front of him are in the hall or will be Belter. Only three third basemen have been in more 4-WAR seasons than Rolen has:
Most seasons, +4 war, third base
Injuries limited Rolen to just three qualifying seasons in his 30s. He has only received MVP votes four times, and has finished in the top 10 only once. He did not lead the league in offensive category. 220 in 39 postseason games. His first-year support of 10% in 2018 is the result of not having any great seasons or stats, as well as a crowded poorer-vote ballot (nine players had more than 50%).
But as the ballot thinned, and as writers contemplated his primary and defense, Rollin was climbing to Cooperstown. At this rate, Rolen will replace the Duke of Flatbush at the top of this list:
Minimum first year Pct. Of those elected by the BBWAA (since 1967):