- Scott Rolen was arguably the best third baseman of his generation and one of the game's most consistent hitters. He won't get in anytime soon, but he makes a strong case for the Hall of Fame.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
“A hard-charging third baseman” who “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” “A no-nonsense star.” “The perfect baseball player.” Scott Rolen did not lack for praise, particularly in the pages of Sports Illustrated at the height of his career. A masterful, athletic defender with the physical dimensions of a tight end (listed at 6’ 4”, 245 pounds), Rolen played with an all-out intensity, sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield. Many viewed him as the position's best for his time, and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25 to 30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.
There was much to love about Rolen's game, but particularly in Philadelphia, the city where he began his major league career and the one with a reputation for fraternal fondness, he found no shortage of critics—even in the Phillies organization. Despite winning 1997 NL Rookie of the Year honors and emerging as a foundation-type player, Rolen was blasted publicly by manager Larry Bowa and special assistant to the general manager Dallas Green; the latter called him "a so-so player." While ownership pinched pennies and waited for a new ballpark, fans booed and vilified him. Eventually, Rolen couldn't wait to skip town, even when offered a deal that could have been worth as much as $140 million. Traded in mid-2002 to the Cardinals, Rolen referred to St. Louis as "baseball heaven," which only further enraged the Philly faithful.
In St. Louis, Rolen provided the missing piece of the puzzle, helping a team that hadn't been to the World Series since 1987 make two trips in three years (2004–06), with a champion in the latter year. A private, introverted person who shunned endorsement deals, he didn’t have to shoulder the burden of being a franchise savior.
But as the toll of Rolen's max-effort play caught up to him via chronic shoulder and back woes, he clashed with manager Tony La Russa and again found himself looking for the exit. After a brief detour to Toronto, he landed in Cincinnati, where again he provided the missing piece, helping the team return to the postseason for the first time in a decade and a half.
Though he played in the majors for 17 seasons (1996–2012), Rolen was just 37 when he walked away. Due to injuries and early retirement, he didn't stick accumulate the milestones that would have bolstered his Hall of Fame case. But thanks to the combination of his solid offense and his defensive prowess—validated both by the eye test and the metrics—his overall value places him among the top 10 third basemen in history. Convincing voters of that will be another matter, particularly while ballot space is scarce. He's a candidate who will likely have to wait awhile to get his due.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||Hits||HR||SB||Avg/OBP/SLG||OPS+|
|Avg. HOF 3B||67.5||42.8||55.2|
Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1975 to a pair of schoolteachers. Rolen grew up in Jasper, a town of 10,000 roughly an hour away. As a youngster, he excelled at both basketball and baseball. On the court, he was a 6' 4" point guard versatile enough to play shooting guard or forward as well. He made the 1993 Indiana All-Star team and was the 1993 Tri-State co-player of the Year among other honors. Heavily recruited by colleges, he was offered scholarships by UCLA, Oklahoma State, Alabama and Georgia. He played all around the diamond and even pitched in relief before moving to third base full time. During his senior year, he was voted Mr. Baseball, the top high school player in the state (he was runner-up in Mr. Basketball).
Though Rolen committed to Georgia for a basketball scholarship, he reconsidered when the Phillies chose him in the second round of the 1993 draft and offered a $250,000 signing bonus. After 25 games in rookie ball, he hit .294/.363/.462 with 14 homers as a 19-year-old in the A-level South Atlantic League in 1994, a performance that placed him at No. 91 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list in the spring of '95. He climbed to No. 27 in 1996 despite being limited to 86 games due to a broken bone in his hand, and after hitting a combined .324/.416/.515 split between Double-A and Triple-A in 1996, he was recalled on August 1 by the Phillies, who were in the midst of a 67–95 season. He went 1-for-4 in his debut, collecting a double off the Cardinals' Donovan Osborne. With incumbent third baseman Todd Zeile traded to the Orioles later that month, the 21-year-old Rolen played 37 games down the stretch, hitting .254/.322/.400 with four homers in 146 PA. His season ended on September 7, however, when a pitch by the Cubs' Steve Trachsel fractured his right ulna.
The injury carried a silver lining, in that Rolen's 130 at-bats left him barely eligible to be considered a rookie for 1997. He got his money's worth out of the designation, climbing to number 13 on the BA list and hitting .283/.377/.469 with 21 homers, 16 steals and 4.5 WAR. He was a unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year, beating out 2018 BBWAA ballot-mates Livan Hernandez, Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero. The Phillies, however, went just 68–94 under first-year manager Terry Francona, their fourth straight losing season since winning the NL pennant in 1993.
After signing a four-year, $10 million extension in the spring of 1998, Rolen broke out bashing 31 homers, driving in 110 runs and stealing 14 bases while hitting .290/.391/.532 for a 139 OPS+. Stellar defense (+12 runs according to Total Zone) earned him the first of his eight Gold Gloves and pushed his WAR to 6.7, good for eighth in the NL. The Phillies climbed to 75 wins, and then 77 in 1999 before falling back to 65 in 2000. While Rolen hit a combined .284/.369/.539 for a 124 OPS+ and 9.1 WAR in the last two years, he missed 84 games due to a lower back strain (which ended his 1999 season on August 25) and a left ankle sprain. The team’s regression cost Francona his job.
Avoiding the disabled list for the first time in three years, Rolen put together another strong season (.284/.375/.511, 25 homers, 107 RBIs, 5.5 WAR) in 2001, but under the hood, things were far from typical. The Phillies tried to hash out another extension with Rolen during spring training, but talks broke off due to the third baseman's concerns about the team's payroll, which had ranked 20th in 2000; despite their large market, the Phillies received significant help via revenue sharing. Under Larry Bowa, the team improved to 86–76, but the new manager did his part to alienate Rolen. In June, Bowa called him out after a series loss to the Red Sox, saying, "If the number four guy [Rolen, the cleanup hitter] makes contact in either Boston loss, we sweep the series. He's killing us." Rolen was incensed. In August, senior advisor Dallas Green said during a radio interview, "Scotty is satisfied with being a so-so player. He's not a great player. In his mind, he probably thinks he's doing OK, but the fans in Philadelphia know otherwise. I think he can be greater, but his personality won't let him."
"I don't feel as welcome in this organization as I have in the past," said Rolen in response. In November, he rejected a seven-year, $90 million extension that with options and incentives that would have elevated the total package to 10 years and $140 million, saying, "I’m simply turning down an opportunity to negotiate and reserving the right to wait and see … "I’ve been with the organization for nine years with my eyes open, and there are many issues that are unresolved." In December, Orioles owner Peter Angelos scuttled a tentative nine-player deal to the Phillies upon learning the potential cost of an extension.
When Rolen came to spring training, he elaborated on his discontent with the Phillies even while saying that he might have been "an idiot" for passing up such a lucrative deal. "I’m tired of promises that come up empty ... There’s a lack of commitment [from ownership]. "I’m not sure their number one goal is to put a winner on the field. This is the [fourth-largest] market, but I don’t feel they act like it." A livid Bowa was caught on camera profanely telling general manager Ed Wade that Rolen should be traded; the footage never aired, but it was leaked and became sports talk radio fodder. Still a Phillie, Rolen was voted the starting third baseman on the NL All-Star team even as he was being booed and portrayed as a clubhouse cancer, though a conciliatory Bowa called him ''the best third baseman in the NL,'' adding, "He's earned that free-agency right. That's the process, and he has earned it.''
Finally, on July 29, the Phillies traded Rolen, a Triple-A reliever and cash to the Cardinals for third baseman Placido Polanco, starter Bud Smith and reliever Mike Timlin. “I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven," Rolen—who grew up going to games in both St. Louis and Cincinnati—told ESPN's Peter Gammons. His numbers picked up after the trade (from 123 OPS+ with 17 homers in 100 games to 139 OPS+ with 14 homers in 55 games) and he finished the season with 6.5 WAR. Before doing that, he signed an eight-year, $90 million extension for 2003–10.
Rolen's post-trade performance helped the 97-win Cardinals run away with the NL Central. He got his first taste of postseason action, and hit a decisive two-run homer off the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson in the Division Series opener. Unfortunately, via a collision with pinch-runner Alex Cintron in Game 2, he suffered sprains in four regions of his shoulder and collarbone "including a severe hyperextension of the three ligaments supporting his clavicle." Though the Cardinals advanced to the NLCS (where they lost to the Giants), the injury ended his season.
Fortunately, the injury didn't carry over to 2003. Rolen played 154 games, his highest total since 1998, made his second All-Star team and hit .286/.382/.528 with 28 homers, 13 steals and a 138 OPS+. While the advanced metrics gave mixed reviews on his defense (-4 Defensive Runs Saved but +8 Ultimate Zone Rating), he won his fourth Gold Glove. The Cardinals missed the playoffs, but rebounded to win 105 games and the NL pennant in 2004. Rolen turned in a career-best 9.2 WAR (third in the NL behind Barry Bonds and Adrian Beltre), outdoing hot-hitting teammates Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds thanks to his +30 DRS, though he did set across-the-board career highs by batting .314/.409/.598 with 34 homers, 124 RBIs and a 158 OPS+. He won another Gold Glove but finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, sandwiched between the aforementioned teammates as Bonds won.
In a July 12, 2004 article in Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci described Rolen's appeal:
When he's not flipping middle infielders like flapjacks, Rolen, 29, is playing the best third base of his generation, piling up more RBIs than Mike Schmidt did at the same age and carrying himself with such humility that even his teammates have to strain to hear him when he does speak. "Rolen's the perfect baseball player," Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost says. "It's his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there's no fanfare with him."
Rolen’s October was spotty; he went hitless in both the Division Series against the Dodgers and the World Series sweep by the Red Sox, but bashed three homers and went 9-for-29 in the NLCS against the Astros, with a pair of homers in their come-from-behind Game 2 victory and a two-run blast off Roger Clemens that put the Cardinals ahead to stay in Game 7.
While the Cardinals won 100 games and reached the NLCS in 2005, Rolen was limited to 56 games due to surgery to repair a tear in his left labrum, suffered when he collided with the Dodgers' Hee-Seop Choi on May 10; after missing 34 games, he returned and attempted to play, but five weeks of hitting .207 without a homer made clear that he needed to go under the knife.
Rolen was back to form in 2006 (22 homers, 126 OPS+, 5.8 WAR, the last sixth in the league), making the All-Star team for the fifth straight year and winning his seventh Gold Glove. The Cardinals weren't nearly the powerhouse squad that they'd been in 2004-05, barely winning the division with an 83–78 record, but they went on a roll in October. Rolen, however, was hampered by left shoulder fatigue and was benched twice by manager Tony La Russa—who felt he wasn't being forthright in conveying his condition—for Game 4 of the Division Series against the Padres and Game 2 of the NLCS against the Mets. To that point, he was just 1-for-14, but upon returning, went on a 10-game hitting streak through the rest of the postseason. Though famously robbed of a homer by Endy Chavez in Game 7 of the NLCS, he homered off the Tigers’ Justin Verlander in the World Series opener, and went 8-for-19 overall.
The Cardinals won in five games, but the relationship between Rolen and La Russa was strained. It would continue to worsen in 2007, Rolen's final year in St. Louis. The 32-year-old third baseman hit a meager .265/.331/.398 with eight homers in 112 games. Outstanding defense (+12 DRS) still bolstered his value, but continued left shoulder woes ended his season in late August; he underwent a bursectomy and the removal of scar tissue. After the season, Rolen told general manager John Mozeliak that he wanted out. La Russa was unsympathetic. "There's absolutely no intention to accommodate Scott," said the manager at that year's winter meetings. "If he doesn't like it, he can quit."
Five weeks later, Mozeliak traded Rolen to the Blue Jays straight up for Troy Glaus; later, the GM hinted that spite may have played a role in the north-of-the-border destination, and conceded that the move weakened the team, calling Rolen "the only player I regret trading." Rolen, for his part, was rather cryptic when asked later about his frosty relationship with La Russa, saying, "We’re different people with different morals … That’s as politically correct as I can say it, I guess.”
The trade may have relieved the third baseman of that conflict, but before he debut for the Jays, he broke a knuckle on his right middle finger and had the fingernail completely ripped off due to a mishap during a fielding drill. He missed the first 23 games of the season, and later missed another 13 due to left shoulder soreness that again sapped his power. He finished with a .262/.349/.431 line and just 11 homers in 115 games, though again, stellar defense (+9 DRS) made him a solid value (3.4 WAR).
Despite his sizzling showing in the first four months of 2009 (.320/.370/.476), Rolen and the Blue Jays were bound for nowhere. He asked for a trade for "personal reasons," according to Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, including a desire to be closer to home. On July 31, he was sent to the Reds—whose general manager, Walt Jocketty, had traded for Rolen as the Cardinals' GM in 2002—for Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart. Jocketty desired Rolen's leadership as much as his ability, saying, "He will bring a lot to this ballclub that's been lacking."
(While today, the move appears imbalanced because Encarnacion, a defensively challenged 26-year-old third baseman at the time, wound up blossoming into an All-Star slugger, that wouldn't happen for another three years; in fact, the Jays lost him to the A's on waivers in November 2010 and then re-signed him after he was nontendered.)
Rolen suffered a concussion in his second game as a Red after he was hit in the head by a pitch. After sitting for two days, he homered in his first plate appearance back, but post-concussion syndrome soon sent him to the disabled list. "I'm just in La-La Land out there," he said. "I have headaches I can't shake." Despite the injury, Rolen finished the year with a 116 OPS+, 17 DRS and 5.2 WAR, his highest total since 2006. In December, he agreed to a contract restructuring and extension, converting an $11 million salary into a three-year, $24 million deal.
The deal paid off in 2010. Despite suffering lower back spasms, at age 35 he made his sixth All-Star team, won his eighth and final Gold Glove, hit a Rolenesque .285/.358/.497 with 20 homers, a 126 OPS+ and 4.1 WAR, and drew praise for his clubhouse leadership. The Reds, who hadn't finished above .500 since 2000 and hadn't made the playoffs since 1995, went 91-71 and won the NL Central. They were quickly dispatched in the Division Series by the Phillies, whose Roy Halladay no-hit them in the opener. Rolen went just 1-for-11 while striking out eight times.
Rolen spent two more seasons with the Reds, but further injuries—including protruding discs in his lower back and problems with both shoulders, culminating in offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fragments from the perennially troublesome left one—limited him to a total of 157 games, 13 homers, an 86 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR. The Reds won the NL Central again in 2012, but squandered a 2–0 lead in the Division Series against the Giants, who beat them in five games and went on to win the World Series. Though he collected two hits in Game 5, Rolen struck out with two men on base in the bottom of the ninth against Sergio Romo, ending the Reds' season. Afterwards, he conceded that he was mulling retirement, but hadn't made up his mind. Teammates again lavished him with praise, with Ryan Ludwick saying, "A Hall of Famer, in my opinion, no doubt about it. I played with him in St. Louis, too, and he's a gamer, a guy that goes about his business the way you want to teach a 3-, 4-, 5-year-old kid. He's a grown man and he plays the game every out, every pitch at max intensity."
Rolen remained on the fence about retirement. Both the Dodgers and Reds showed interest that winter, but he never did play again, putting the wraps on his stellar 17-year career.
Will it culminate in a berth in Cooperstown? At first glance, Rolen's case, while respectable, isn’t overwhelming. Despite his eight Gold Gloves and seven All-Star appearances, his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 99 is a whisker below "a good possibility," and his postseason line (.220/.302/.376 with five homers in 159 PA) offers little help outside of his stellar 2006 World Series performance. Regular season-wise, he finished with 316 homers and 2,077 hits, numbers that don't scream instant enshrinement, though at least he's on the right side of "The Rule of 2,000." Neither BBWAA nor committee voters have elected a post-1960 expansion era players with fewer than 2,000 hits, with Ron Santo's 2,167 the lowest mark among non-catchers—and Santo wasn't elected until 2011, a year after his death at age 70. Gulp. Santo is actually a reasonable comparable for Rolen, as a player who was in the majors in his early 20s but was done by his mid-30s. Both had keen batting eyes, augmenting their power with good on-base percentages, though Rolen was by far the more valuable defender.
First, let’s evaluate the offensive side. Rolen was a model of consistency, rarely putting up extreme numbers or making a splash on the leaderboards. He never ranked among the league's top 10 in hits, homers or batting average; did so just once in walks, OBP and SLG; and in OPS+ twice. Nonetheless, his numbers stand out relative to his position. His .490 SLG is fifth among players who spent most of their careers at the hot corner, but that's a reflection of playing in a high-scoring era; contemporaries Aramis Ramirez and Matt Williams are fourth and sixth, and nobody's stumping for their election.
Adjusting for the environments in which Rolen played, his 122 OPS+ ranks ninth at the position; the list is topped by five Hall of Famers (Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Wade Boggs and Santo) plus Chipper Jones, though none of the other players in the top 15 (Bob Elliot, Bill Madlock, Ron Cey, Darrell Evans, Richie Hebner, Sal Bando, Stan Hack and Heinie Groh, all with an OPS+ between 118 and 124) are enshrined. Via batting runs, the offensive component of WAR, Rolen’s 16th at 234, behind a mix of Hall of Famers, perennial All-Stars, and 19th century obscurities. Among his contemporaries, Jones (who's first at 558), David Wright (284) and Adrian Beltre (262) are the only ones who outrank him.
It's Rolen's combination of strong offense and elite defense that's his true selling point. He's considered by many to be the best defensive third baseman of his era, and has both the hardware and the advanced metrics to bolster that claim. His eight Gold Gloves are more than any third baseman besides Brooks Robinson and Schmidt, and he's third at the position in fielding runs, 175 above average via a combination of Total Zone (1996–2002) and Defensive Runs Saved (2003–12), with only Robinson (293) and Beltre (230) ahead. Rolen had 11 seasons where he was at least 10 runs above average in the field, including three of at least 20 above average.
Rolen cracked the league's top 10 in WAR a modest four times, but he had six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, tied for 10th at the position, and 11 of at least 4.0 WAR, tied for third with Wade Boggs, behind only Schmidt and Mathews. That's particularly impressive considering his career length. Take away his brief 1996 season, his injury-wracked 2005, and the two at the tail end of his career; in 11 of the other 13 seasons, he was worth at least 4.0 WAR, which is to say worthy of All-Star consideration. Only in 2007 and ’08 did he play more than 92 games and finish with less than 4.0 WAR.
Thanks to that consistency, Rolen ranks 10th at the position with 70.0 career WAR, behind seven Hall of Famers plus Beltre and Jones, all of whom played at least 200 more games than he did. He's 2.5 WAR above the standard at the position. His 43.5 peak WAR is a more modest 14th, but still 0.7 above the standard at the position, and ahead of six enshrined third basemen including Paul Molitor (who spent more time at DH). Rolen's 56.8 JAWS ranks 10th, 1.6 points above the standard. Particularly at a position that's drastically underrepresented in the Hall—there are 13 third basemen, but 24 rightfielders, and 19 to 21 at every other position besides catcher—that's a player who belongs in Cooperstown.
It won't be easy for Rolen to get there, at least anytime soon. The crowded ballot features two candidates who nearly missed election last year (Vlad Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman) plus nine players besides Rolen who exceed the JAWS standards at their position. That count includes Jones, a direct contemporary with superior traditional and advanced numbers (2,725 hits, 468 homers, 85.0 WAR, sixth in JAWS). The count also includes Edgar Martinez, who spent 28% of his career at third, is in his ninth year of eligibility and could be elected next year.
One of my biggest fears heading into this election cycle was that Rolen might suffer the indignity of falling off the ballot with less than 5% of the vote, cast into oblivion like Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Kenny Lofton and others. His fate actually might not be that dire, as he's already received seven votes (14.9%) from among the 47 ballots published at the @NotMrTibbs Ballot Tracker; he's roughly one-third of the way to the minimum needed, with nearly 400 pending ballots to be cast.
Still, that puts him in Alan Trammell/Jeff Kent territory. Trammell, the great two-way shortstop for the Tigers, debuted at 15.7%, didn't reach 20% until his ninth year, or 30% until his 11th (time Rolen doesn't have, given the truncation of candidates’ eligibility to 10 years) and topped out at 40.9%; the good news is that the Modern Baseball Era Committee just elected him. Kent debuted at 15.2% in 2014 and hasn't climbed higher than 16.7% in four cycles. The lowest percentages received by any first-year candidates elected by the writers are Duke Snider's 17.0% and Bert Blyleven's 17.5%, and they needed 11 and 14 years, respectively—too much time to offer a template for Rolen.
But down-ballot oblivion at least keeps a candidate's case in circulation, holding out hope for a late surge such as Trammell's; Larry Walker, who debuted at 20.3% and hasn't gone higher than 22.9% in seven years, is at 39.1% in the Tracker, hoping to follow Trammell's path, more or less. Walker deserves better, and so does Rolen, but getting his due will take some time.