Tom Verducci's Hall of Fame Ballot: Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner Make the Cut

Reconsidering the cases of Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner, while wondering what every other voter is missing about Jeff Kent.
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Alexander Cleland was a Scottish immigrant who knew very little about baseball, but he essentially came up with the idea of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1934. He did know about the type of ballplayer who deserved to be honored there.

The Hall’s first executive secretary, Cleland was instrumental in the origins of the election process. For the initial class of 1936 he asked baseball writers to consider “ability, character, and their general contributions to base ball in all respects,” according to an August 1944 memo from Hall of Fame treasurer Paul Kerr. That year, the Hall formalized the rules for election, instructing writers to consider candidates “on the basis of playing ability, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the teams on which they played and to baseball in general.”

Playing the game fairly and honorably is right there in the origin story of the Hall. Cleland didn’t have to be an expert on baseball to understand that fundamental concept of what makes a great playing career. With Cleland in mind, here is my 2021 Hall of Fame ballot:

Jeff Kent

His Hall of Fame bona fides should need to go no further than this: Kent hit more home runs, had more 100-RBI seasons and batted cleanup more times than any second baseman in history.

If you need more: He was a career .290/.356/.500 hitter who was even better with runners in scoring position: .300/.385/.512. He won an MVP and finished in the top 10 four times—more than Ryne Sandberg and Craig Biggio.

So why do an astonishing number of writers fail to vote for him? They treat WAR as a definitive value when it is an approximation with flawed defensive formulations. Kent has about the same career WAR as Ian Kinsler.

Kent for most of his career was an average defender. In his late 30s, as to be expected, he was not. Here’s what voters should understand when they don’t vote for Kent because of a WAR “number” that is skewed by ever-changing defensive “metrics”: He played 88% of his career games at second base. He ranks 11th all time in games at second base.

Major league teams do not hand out jobs for charitable or frivolous reasons. If they don’t think a player is good enough to play the position, they move him off that position and get somebody else. Winning teams kept Kent at second base year after year. Why? He hit and slugged like a corner player while playing good enough defense at second base. That evaluation means more than defensive metrics. Kent was an elite outlier at his position. That’s a Hall of Famer.

Scott Rolen

I had not voted for Rolen because of what I considered a lack of elite volume. Rolen took 8,518 plate appearances. Until last year the baseball writers had elected only one infielder or outfielder who debuted after 1947 with fewer than 9,000 PA: Kirby Puckett, whose career was cut short by glaucoma.

Then last year the writers elected Larry Walker—with only 8,030 PA. Only four times did Walker play 140 games in a season. Rolen came to bat almost 500 more times than the newly minted Hall of Famer and played 140 games in a season seven times.

Walker had 2,160 hits—far below the previous low among right fielders elected by the BBWAA: 2,584 by Reggie Jackson. You don’t have to bring up Harold Baines (elected by special committee) to see how the doors of Cooperstown are opening wider in recent years. Ron Santo spent 15 years on the writers’ ballot in the 1980s and 1990s without ever getting more than 43% of the vote. Santo was better than Rolen: more hits, homers, RBIs, All-Star Games and top 10 MVPs and a better OPS+.

I was introduced to tougher voting standards three decades ago. The writers elected only eight players in my first seven years of voting. In the previous seven years entering this one, we have elected 22. The Hall is getting bigger, so I gave Rolen another look from the new context, especially as it relates to volume. If Rolen’s volume is a bit light, the next question is this: Was his peak great enough? He finished higher than 14th in MVP voting only once in his career, so it was never a great peak that put him often in conversations about the best players in the game.

But when I put Rolen in the context of his position, third base, this grabbed my attention:

Most Qualified Seasons, OPS+ 125 or Greater, Third Basemen

Player

Seasons

1. Mike Schmidt

12

2. Eddie Matthews

11

3. George Brett

10

4. Wade Boggs

9

T5. Scott Rolen

8

T5. Ron Santo

8

T5. Home Run Baker

8

That blew me away. Though Rolen may not have great career volume, his volume of elite seasons is among the best ever at his position. He has more 125 OPS+ seasons than Chipper Jones and Adrián Beltré.

Notice I didn’t yet get to his fielding (outstanding; he won eight Gold Gloves) and baserunning (also outstanding). Here’s another look that puts Rolen in a small universe of players at his position—in this case, third basemen who hit for power and ran well.

Third Basemen with 300 HR and 100 Stolen Bases

HR

SB

Mike Schmidt

548

174

Adrián Beltré

477

121

Chipper Jones

468

150

George Brett

317

201

Scott Rolen

316

118

Rolen was a terrific all-around third basemen who fits in the company of no-doubt Hall of Famers. He belongs in Cooperstown.

Curt Schilling

I have voted for Schilling each year he has been on the ballot. He is a) Don Drysdale with a better postseason record, b) the greatest strikeout-to-walk pitcher since the pitching distance was set at 60 feet, six inches in the 1800s, c) in the company of only Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson with three 300-strikeout seasons, and d) the only pitcher to start five postseason elimination games and lead his team to victory in every one of them. Schilling was 4–0 with a 1.37 ERA in those must-win games. He changed history.

Since he retired, he has expressed views on social media that are abhorrent and divisive. I can recognize the greatness of his playing career while condemning his rhetoric in retirement. Some can’t. I get it. But those voters also should take another look at their support of candidates who as active players were charged with domestic violence.

Billy Wagner

For five years I had Wagner as a borderline candidate barely on the wrong side of the line. What bothered me was he didn’t pitch enough and when he did, he never changed history, as all-time great closers should do.

Wagner was a specialist’s specialist. He ranks 141st in saves of more than one inning. He did so only 36 times, fewer than Armando Benitez or Frank DiPino. Nothing remarkable there.

His postseason sample size is small (11 2/3 innings) and also unremarkable (10.03 ERA; his teams were 1–7 in postseason series). He received only five Cy Young Award votes (one for second place, four for third). Trevor Hoffman, for instance, received 53 Cy votes.

More than half (55%) of his saves came with a lead of two runs or more. Essentially, Wagner mostly spent his career starting an inning clean and getting three outs before the other team scored twice. That’s not heavy lifting. His 903 innings would lower the Hall of Fame bar by 13% from the current low (1,042 by Bruce Sutter).

Still nothing remarkable … until you look how difficult he was to hit. 

Wagner Career Ranks, Min. 750 Innings

Rank

Trails

Strikeout Percentage 

33.2%

1st

Strikeouts Per 9 IP

11.92

1st

Batting Average

.187

1st

OPS+

49

2nd

Mariano Rivera

ERA+

187

2nd

Mariano Rivera

WHIP

0.998

2nd

Addie Joss

ERA

2.31

3rd

Rube Waddell, Rivera

Slugging

.296

3rd

Rivera, J.R. Richard

There have been 1,652 men who threw 750 innings in the major leagues. Wagner ranks among the most difficult pitchers to hit. Ever. Even now, with a proliferation of strikeouts in the game. I thought a vote for Wagner might also open the floodgates to closers such as Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Nathan, but Wagner is an outlier when it comes to being so difficult to hit.