Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Rolen: Getting an Early Start on the 2018 Hall of Fame Push

After months of anticipation, the Hall of Fame voting results were finally announced on Wednesday. We got a three-person class for 2017, featuring Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez, and all are extremely deserving of the honor. Their inductions makes for twelve total electees in the past four years, tying the Hall’s record set from 1936-9.

Of course, the interesting thing about Hall of Fame voting is that, with their induction, we can already begin looking forward to the next cycle. We know who all will be appearing on the ballot, and we know all the relevant stats we could need to discuss their inductions already; nothing will change in the interim. And so, it’s looking like the Hall will easily shatter their five year record of thirteen*.

*This is sort of fudging things; the Hall of Fame didn’t actually hold elections in 1940 or 1941, meaning that their “five year” record was actually spread out from 1936-1942. Only Rogers Hornsby made it on the first year back, although every other player in the top 30 of total votes would eventually make it to Cooperstown.

Trevor Hoffman only fell five votes short, while Vladimir Guerrero fell fifteen short. That makes them seem like safe bets to make it in on the 2018 ballot. But at the same time, we’ll also be seeing an incredible class of freshmen, headlined by likely first ballot picks Chipper Jones and Jim Thome as well as Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, and Johan Santana. And that’s on top of the rest of the returning class, which is incredible strong as well, and featured nine players with 50% of the vote or more (tied for the most all-time).

Clearing out three players looks good, but going forward, it might not have been enough. Which makes me incredibly nervous that Scott Rolen is going to be lost in the shuffle. Maybe he’ll get something in the low 20%, which is as good as not going anywhere, but I’m even worried about him getting the 5% minimum required to stay on the ballot. We’ve lost some deserving players that way in the past, including (most recently) Kenny Lofton and Rolen’s former teammate Jim Edmonds.

So, what can be done about it? How do you make someone see that a player is deserving of induction? I think the best cases are the ones that you can reduce to one simple, straight-forward concept. Voters work better in one dimension than two; it’s why they have an easier time inducting “milestone” guys, or ones who were the best at one thing rather than very good at a bunch. Maybe you can use two points if they work together well and you can get them repeated a lot (like some advocates have done in the past with Raines or Bert Blyleven). But those points have to distill down the larger case for the player.

So let’s work in reverse. Let’s start with the broader question, “What makes Scott Rolen worthy of the Hall of Fame?”, then from there reduce it to a list of highlights, and then from there see if we can narrow it down to a one-sentence “elevator pitch”-type case.

The Basic Numbers
Scott Rolen played third base (exclusively; not an inning elsewhere) for parts of seventeen seasons for four different teams*. He was the 1997 Rookie of the Year and a seven-time All-Star**, and perhaps most importantly, and eight-time Gold Glove winner (more on that in a minute). He peaked at fourth place in the MVP vote in 2004, and only received votes in three other seasons, so you can see how he might have been just a little underappreciated at the time. He wouldn’t be the first Hall of Famer where that was the case, though, at least.

*And as a fan of one of those teams, I’d love to see the Cardinals retire his #27. But if they haven’t even done it for Jim Edmonds’s #15, I’m not sure how likely it is. Maybe an active Hall case would help? Again though, we saw how that went for Edmonds…

**Although he probably should have had more than that; he weirdly didn’t make his first one until 2002, the year he was traded to St. Louis. He had 25.5 career bWAR going into that season, an average of over 5/season. It’s also worth noting that, for two of those years (1999 and 2000), he was pretty likely kept off by the one-player-per-team rule, as Ed Sprague and Jeff Cirillo were their team’s only representatives with worse stats. And of course, if the rosters were as big as they are today, he almost certainly would have a handful more.

Now, back to that whole “eight Gold Gloves” thing: in case it didn’t jump out at you, that’s a lot. It’s third All-Time among third basemen, behind only Brooks Robinson (16) and Mike Schmidt (10). Of course, as you may have heard, Gold Gloves aren’t exactly a perfect way to determine exactly how good someone was at fielding. But at the same time, clearly people seemed to think Rolen was a good fielder at the time. Sure, on occasion you’ll see underserving players get a couple of them on name recognition, but generally there’s at least some sort of correlation between fielding abilities and Gold Gloves. We’ll come back to that in another minute, though.

His counting stats also look pretty decent, with 2077 hits, 316 home runs, and 517 doubles. The 2000/300 club isn’t as exclusive as some others, but it’s still decent. Only 92 players have ever reached both milestones. Of course, 55 of those 92 retired in the 1990s or later, so it’s fair to question how much of that is offense inflation. But at the same time, adding 500 doubles on top of that is pretty rare*; that trifecta has only been managed 34 times. And among third basement, those numbers are 11 and 4, so it seems like Rolen is in the running for one of the best hitters at third base in history.

*The all-time doubles leaderboard isn’t as well-memorized as the hits or home runs lists, but it’s worth noting that Rolen is 51st all-time.

But, I acknowledge that arbitrary cutoffs can be misleading. So let’s look at those two groups and ask “Who are the worst players to hit each mark?” Are they really as exclusive as they sound, or am I trying to pull a fast one on you? Well, let’s just go by Baseball-Reference’s WAR:

Worst 2000/300 players: Ruben Sierra, Joe Carter, Raul Ibanez, Lee May, Alfonso Soriano (median players: Dwight Evans, Duke Snider)

The medians are solid, but there are some definitely stragglers in this group. But what about when we add in the doubles?

Worst 2000/300/500 players: Dave Parker, Luis Gonzalez, Tony Perez, Jeff Kent, David Ortiz (median players: Ken Griffey Jr, Rafael Palmeiro)

Now that group looks a little more special. When the absolute worst members in a club are a Hall of Famer, a likely Hall of Famer, and three guys with solid cases, you know it’s at least a fairly decent arbitrary cutoff. Not to mention that, as much as I love Dwight Evans and Duke Snider, Ken Griffey and Rafael Palmeiro make for much better median players.

If you’d prefer the rate stats, Rolen’s .281/.364/.490 batting line translates to a 122 OPS+, eighth all-time among third basement with 7500 or more plate appearances (Rolen has 8500). No matter how you slice it, Rolen is one of the best hitters at his position in history, and we haven’t even tried to quantify his glove.

But let’s do that now. There’s a lot of uncertainty on fielding stats, but there are also a decent number of them, meaning we can look at a wide variety of them to get the general feel for them and see if there’s a consensus. For example, in Total Zone Runs, Rolen is 19th all-time with 150. Only four third basemen rate above him: Brooks Robinson, Buddy Bell, Robin Ventura, and Clete Boyer. You may notice that none of them are better hitters than Rolen.

What about the defensive component of WAR? Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs are slightly different in how they calculate this, but both put him fifth all-time, with Robinson, Adrian Beltre, and Bell the only ones unanimously ahead of him (B-R says Graig Nettles was slightly better, while Fangraphs says it was Clete Boyer again).

We keep getting slightly different names across each one, but every one of them keeps putting him fifth. We can probably call him one of the five best fielding third basemen of all-time, right? At the very least, he’s probably no worse than sixth or seventh, but "top five" seems pretty accurate, and he actually hit like a Hall of Famer before you even consider that.

All said and done, it’s no wonder he rates well with WAR; he’s a wonderful all-around player. B-R’s version gives him 70 even, while Fangraphs’s puts him just a smidge over. Both consider him in the all-time top ten for the position, and considering there are thirteen* Hall of Fame third basemen (not counting Negro League stars), being top ten seems more than good enough.

*A weirdly low amount given the numbers in at other positions, but we’ll let that slide for now.

Overall, that seems like a pretty decent one-line summary for his case, no? “One of the all-time top ten players at his position”. It’s a shame that this also applies to Chipper Jones; it might consign him to Tim Raines status’ against Jones’ Rickey Henderson, but at the same time, Raines did just get inducted…

And what would his “expanded”, non-advanced stats case look like, in order to hook in a wider range of voters? Maybe something like “One of best fielding third basemen of all time, who then hit 300 homers and 500 doubles on top of that”. Or “the best at his position on both sides of the game”? Or “One of the most well-rounded players of all-time”? The first one is probably the best, but the others are good to have around as well. Either way, Scott Rolen is clearly deserving of a call to Cooperstown. Here’s hoping he gets off to a good start on the ballot next year.

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