Bernie: It Won’t Happen This Time Around, But Scott Rolen Is On Track For Cooperstown

When the 2020 Baseball Hall of Fame class is announced late Tuesday afternoon (5 p.m.) St. Louis time, former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen will come up short in the voting.

I don’t write this as some sort of breaking-news revelation; if you’ve paid any attention at all to the Hall voting in 2018 and 2019 then you already know candidate Rolen received modest support and had established little traction.

But that seems to be changing. On his third year on the ballot, Rolen will likely take a major leap in percentage of votes received. As of 10 a.m. Tuesday the Baseball Hall of Fame Tracker — based on 205 ballots made public — had Rolen getting the check mark from 47.4 percent of the voting baseball writers.

Generally speaking the percentages on the early returns are inflated. Voters who decline to publicly share their choices in advance tend to be more conservative, and less generous, in the number of candidates that receive approval. The Tracker is a valuable and welcome barometer, but the in-progress voting percentages almost always run higher than the final percentages.

That said, Rolen should probably end up with 40 to 45 percent. That’s well below the necessary 75 percent of the vote to gain induction into Cooperstown, but that isn’t the story here.

The level of pro-Rolen support is growing … and quickly. In his first year (2018) of eligibility, Rolen was checked off on only 10.2 percent of the ballots. Last winter Rolen’s total moved up to 17.2 percent, which left him a very long way from the doorsteps of Cooperstown.

Given the scarcity of support during Rolen’s first two years on the ballot, it would be a huge jump for Rolen to reach the 40-percent mark his third trip. And the pattern bodes well for his Hall of Fame chances. And after this round, Rolen still will have seven years remaining on the writers’ ballot. He’s on a more positive trajectory now and is likely to make it to the Hall.

Just don’t ask me to predict the year. But he’s moving in the right direction. Why?

Two reasons:

1. The baseball writers voting delegation is getting younger each year, is more open-minded about advanced metrics, and less inclined to obsess over baseball-card counting stats. In short: it’s a more enlightened group, as evidenced by the groundswell of support that lifted the likes of Bert Blyleven, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Tim Raines into Cooperstown. All three benefited from the increased emphasis on advanced metrics to evaluate a player’s career.

2. The ballot has thinned out, leaving more room for guys like Larry Walker and Rolen to make sudden advancements in their votes-received percentage. Over the previous six years, 17 players got voted via the writers’ balloting. The Hall of Fame classes included obvious choices such as Mariano Rivera, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Chipper Jones, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Roy Halladay. But also voted in were players that required two, three or more years to garner the necessary 75% support — including Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Trevor Hoffman.

Looking into the next several years, Rolen should have room to move up. The ballot congestion will ease; there are fewer worthy/deserving candidates among the new names on the horizon.

There’s only one “automatic” on the writers’ ballot this year: Derek Jeter. The list of first-time eligibles in 2021 is, shall we say, unimposing. (With all due respect, of course, to the St. Charles lefty, Mark Buehrle.) After a powerhouse but controversial first-year list in 2022 — why hello, David Ortiz and A-Rod! — there isn’t an obvious call until Adrian Beltre enters the ballot for the first time (for the 2024 class.)

— Well, I suppose there’s a third reason: Rolen is a Hall of Fame-caliber player.

And not just the Cardinals Hall of Fame, either. He was inducted into that particular shrine last summer, but is qualified for an even more substantial honor.

The Cooperstown Case for Scott Rolen:

— Rolen’s career WAR (wins above replacement) of 70.2 is the 9th best among third basemen in MLB history. If you count Paul Molitor, who played only 29 percent of his career games at third base, Rolen would rank 10th. But Molitor wasn’t remotely close to being a full-time third baseman.

— The 3B position is woefully and strangely overlooked in the Hall, with only 15 third basemen enshrined.

— In a related note: the average WAR for the 15 Hall of Fame third basemen is 68.8., so Rolen clears the bar.

— Among MLB third basemen who played at least 75 percent of their career games at the position, Rolen ranks sixth in Defensive War and 10th in Offensive WAR and rates eighth best in the base-running metrics.

— In Wins Above Average (WAA) Rolen ranks seventh among third basemen in MLB history.

— Rolen is an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner at third base; only Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt won more GG.

— Only two third basemen in MLB history have a combination of at least eight Gold Gloves and 300 career homers: Mike Schmidt and Rolen.

— Rolen was a 7-time All-Star

— And the 1997 NL Rookie of the year.

— Rolen was on the short list of the best players in baseball, at any position, during his eight-season career peak, which began in 1997 and lasted through 2004. Over those eight years, Rolen’s WAR of 46.3 was the third best among MLB position players, behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Unlike Bonds and A-Rod, Rolen was never implicated in a PED scandal during his playing career.

— During Rolen’s eight-year peak, he won six Gold Gloves and his work on offense was topped by only one other third baseman, Chipper Jones. (I could list all of the stats, but please take my word for it.) Considering that Chipper was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, there’s no reason to downgrade Rolen’s Hall of Fame candidacy just because he was a strong No. 2 to Jones during an extensive eight-season stretch.

— In his five-plus seasons with the Cardinals, Rolen was a huge part of a team that made the playoffs four times, winning two NL pennants and the 2006 World Series. With the score tied, Rolen hit the go-ahead homer to catapult the Cardinals to a Game 7 victory over Houston in the 2004 NLCS. And he batted .421 with 1.213 OPS in the 2006 World Series. As a Cardinal Rolen won five Gold Gloves, and was named to four All-Star teams, and finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2004.

— Despite having his power reduced and his career interrupted and shortened by shoulder injuries, Rolen still compiled seven seasons of 25+ home runs, five seasons of 100+ RBIs, and had five seasons in which he produced at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs. And even with the power shortage caused by injuries that occurred through no fault of his own, Rolen’s entire-career offense came in at 22 percent above the league average.

The Negatives: 

–Short on counting stats.

— Never led his league in any major offensive category.

— Never finished higher than 4th in the annual league MVP vote. His showing in 2004 was the only Top 10 MVP recognition in Rolen’s career.

— Rolen was often overshadowed by prominent teammates including Albert Pujols and, to a lesser extent, Jim Edmonds. But that shouldn’t be a factor.

The Closing Argument: 

Rolen should be measured against other third basemen instead of every other player from all positions. He was an elite defender, a very good base runner, and regularly provided high dosages of OBP and slugging until the chronic shoulder miseries drained his power.

But consider this: even with the statistical damage caused by the shoulder injuries, Rolen had 316 homers with a 122 OPS+. And that’s prominent.

Among the many men who primarily played third base during their MLB careers, only five had that combination of 316 homers and a minimum 122 OPS+. Their names: Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Ron Santo, Eddie Mathews and Scott Rolen.

If you’re one of the 10 greatest players at your position in the history of the game, then that makes you a Hall of Famer. And sure enough, Rolen’s career WAR is higher than seven Hall of Fame third basemen.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie