Third base is the most underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. Every position aside from third base has at least 19 representatives. There are just 14 third basemen.
This presents an issue for Scott Rolen, who played third base for his entire career. Due to the fact that there are so few third basemen enshrined Cooperstown, third basemen making their case for Cooperstown are often held to an exceptionally high standard. Rolen is no exception.
Regardless, Rolen was undoubtedly one of the best third basemen to play the game and certainly deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame on his own merits. The problem is that, as it stands now, Rolen would be either the worst third baseman elected since WWII or the best third baseman excluded from the Hall, should he not get in.
The question, though, is not whether he is better than the other Hall of Famers. It is simply whether he is worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame. Still, voters often like to compare potential inductees to those already in the Hall of Fame, so let’s do exactly that:
Rtot is a Baseball Reference stat that attempts to quantify the number of runs a player was worth based on the number of plays made.
All of the above players are third basemen which makes it easier to determine who is who. Player A, who has the highest Rtot of any player to ever take the field is 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson. Player B is Ron Santo, who was inducted by the Veterans Committee after the BBWAA denied him entry, which leaves our guy, Scott Rolen, as Player C.
None of Rolen’s above numbers necessarily jump off the page; his WAR numbers are the lowest but not by much, he had the best raw triple-slash of the group but due to the fact that he played in such a high-offense era, Santo still has the better DRC+, and though he played fewer games, his run and RBI totals are comparable to those of both Robinson and Santo.
Now, why is it that Rolen is not getting any love from the Hall of Fame voters? Part of it might be that the 10-man limit is not doing him any favors. Regardless, let’s start at the very beginning.
Rolen was an excellent all-around athlete in high school. He received multiple Division I offers to play basketball but the Phillies selected him in the 1993 MLB Draft and he decided to try his luck as a baseball player. On August 1st, 1996, after three seasons and change in the minors, Rolen earned himself a call to the big leagues, where he triple-slashed a good-not-great .254/.322/.400 with 4 HR over 37 games. His 130 at-bats left him just one at-bat short of losing his rookie eligibility, meaning that he was eligible to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1997 (spoiler alert: he won).
Rolen’s 1997 was very respectable; he triple-slashed .283/.377/.469 with 21 homers, 16 steals, and 4.5 rWAR, nothing eye-popping but nonetheless impressive from a 22-year-old. He continued to be a steady force in the Philadelphia lineup over the next few seasons while also steadily improving on defense—he posted more than 1.0 defensive rWAR in three of his five full seasons with the Phillies. Midway through the 2002 season, though, Rolen voiced his displeasure with the personnel decisions that management had made and requested a trade.
The Phillies’ front office granted his wish and sent him to St. Louis, where he would stay for the next six seasons after signing a contract to stay with the team in free agency. In St. Louis, it was more of the same for Rolen; he triple-slashed .286/.371/.505 during his five full seasons with the Cardinals, eclipsed 20 homers three times, took home three Gold Gloves, and even won a World Series. It was the same story, though, after 2007: Rolen requested a trade due to his disagreements with then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
Once again, Rolen’s wish was granted. The Cards sent Rolen north of the border to Toronto, where he had two of his worst offensive seasons before he was traded again, this time to Cincinnati, where he would finish out his career.
Rolen helped the Reds return to the postseason in 2010 for the first time in a long time, but played poorly as the Reds took an early exit from the playoffs. His regular season numbers in his final four seasons in the big leagues were perfectly adequate when he was on the field, but injuries limited him to under 100 games in both 2011 and 2012, his final two seasons as a professional baseball player.
When all was said and done, Rolen finished his career as one of the best defensive third basemen of all-time who also carried an above-average bat for the majority of his career. The trouble is that Rolen was never seen as a team leader, and never led the league in any statistical categories. For voters that are all-in on triple crown stats, Rolen’s leave something to be desired—his 2077 hits would be the lowest total of any third baseman enshrined since World War II and his run and RBI totals are good, but nothing spectacular. Additionally, his reputation as a “clubhouse cancer,” as some teammates in Philadelphia referred to him, is doing him no favors.
Still, though, it is impossible to ignore the simple statistical excellence Rolen displayed while he played. I don’t like to look to Gold Gloves as a measure of a player’s defensive ability but in Rolen’s case, they actually do him justice; he won eight Gold Gloves and was the top defensive third baseman of his era. He never won a batting title or an MVP award, but his seven-year peak was just about as good as any other Hall of Fame third baseman’s—the Hall of Fame average seven-year peak for third basemen is 43.0 rWAR, Rolen posted 43.7. He’s also slightly above average in JAWS and career rWAR among Hall of Fame third basemen, although his critics will be quick to point out that among third basemen inducted since World War II, he would likely be the worst inductee. Statistically, that’s true, but it also ignores the fact that he was still one of the best third basemen to ever play the game.
For voters and fans alike, Cooperstown represents a place where players belong if they had outstanding careers, swatted mammoth homers, and came up big in clutch situations. Though Rolen was certainly not the flashiest player on offense and didn’t post any eye-popping offensive numbers, he was an elite defender and one of the better hitters in baseball for a solid period of time, which certainly deserves recognition. There’s something to be said for the Andruw Joneses of the world who have insane peaks and then fall off quickly, but Rolen, whose peak was good and was also a model of consistency, deserves praise as well.
Plus, it’s no fault of his own that the standard for third basemen in the Hall of Fame is so high. It’s unlikely that Rolen gets in this year or next, or even before 2022—he is currently polling at 19.2% with 37.9% of the electorate having revealed their ballots—but he should get there eventually. Rolen was underappreciated because fans and writers of the era in which he played did not use the types of advanced metrics we now have that show he was such a valuable contributor. For Rolen, I do not think it’s a matter of if he gets into Cooperstown but simply when.
(Image Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)