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The far-too-early Hall of Fame case of Scott Rolen

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Scott Rolen will be a candidate for the Hall of Fame in 2018. He may face an uphill climb, but he warrants serious consideration.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Leading up to the unveiling of the inductees for the National Baseball Hall of Fame for 2016, many at Viva El Birdos, notably Craig Edwards, advocated for former St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds to make it into Cooperstown. Although the arguments were compelling and he almost certainly deserved a closer look than he actually received, Edmonds was listed on just 2.5% of Hall of Fame ballots, receiving just half of the votes necessary just to remain on the ballot in 2017.

Next season, barring something truly unbelievable, Scott Rolen, one-third of the vaunted “MV3” of the early-2000s Cardinals along with Edmonds and Albert Pujols (who, while I never say that anybody is guaranteed a spot in Cooperstown, as I once believed that Roger Clemens would sail in on his first ballot, is as close to a shoo-in as any active MLB player), will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. And although making the Hall of Fame has become increasingly difficult over recent years, Rolen belongs in Cooperstown.

Scott Rolen will probably receive less support locally for the Hall of Fame than Jim Edmonds for one completely understandable reason—unlike Edmonds, who took 55% of his career MLB plate appearances and accumulated 63% of his career Wins Above Replacement in a Cardinals uniform, Rolen’s Cardinals-specific credentials are a bit lower, at 32% of plate appearances and 37% of WAR, while trailing to the Philadelphia Phillies in both categories.

But while Edmonds, who had 60.3 career WAR per Baseball Reference and 64.5 FanGraphs WAR, had a decent Hall case which ultimately fell on deaf ears, Rolen’s is even stronger by player value metrics—70 career Baseball Reference WAR; 70.1 career FanGraphs WAR.

Jim Edmonds was a great example of a player being excluded from the Hall of Fame because of a loaded ballot and a 10-player limit—he ranked tied for 12th on last year’s ballot by bWAR, 13th by bWAR7 (a sum of the player’s top seven seasons by WAR), and 22nd by the Bill James Hall of Fame monitor. Despite being the 14th best center fielder in history by bWAR, it was perfectly defensible to leave him off the ballot altogether. Derrick Goold has admitted that he voted for Edmonds largely on the grounds that he did not deserve to fall off the ballot—a defensible strategic vote, but itself a pretty jarring referendum on the maneuvering and politicking which has become commonplace during an increasingly silly election process, one in which some voters don’t even consider voting for any players necessary.

Scott Rolen would rank 7th on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot by bWAR, and will likely rank third among next year’s first-time candidates, but this doesn’t quite do justice to how strong of a Hall of Fame case the first Cardinals third baseman has relative to the Hall of Fame as we know it. Among players who played at third base for over 50% of their career games, Rolen ranks 9th in career WAR. Six of the eight men ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. Another, Adrian Beltre, is still active, and the eighth, Chipper Jones, will be joining Rolen on the Hall of Fame ballot next year.

(As a brief aside, while “Adrian Beltre is a Hall of Famer” is a common trope among sabermetrically inclined baseball fans, it’s pretty jarring by just how much of a margin Beltre is a Hall of Famer. Like, Adrian Beltre has more career WAR than George Brett. If he duplicates his 2016 this season, he will surpass Eddie Mathews, Carl Yastrzemski, Jimmie Foxx, Cal Ripken, Roberto Clemente...how am I just realizing this? Okay, back to Rolen before I quit VEB to wander out into the woods to keep a log of my Adrian Beltre ruminations.)

Jim Edmonds may have been hurt somewhat by the fact that his (better overall) positional contemporary, Ken Griffey Jr., appeared on the ballot with him, and Rolen too may face a similar hurdle in Chipper Jones. But Rolen has the advantage of being vastly superior defensively to Jones—while Edmonds has an edge on Griffey in career defensive metrics (albeit, the size of the gap is largely the byproduct of the latter’s steep post-peak decline), Griffey’s Gold Glove advantage (10 vs. 8) demonstrates that, at least reputationally, it was at worst a push. Meanwhile, Rolen holds an 8-0 Gold Glove lead among next year’s top tier third basemen, while Chipper Jones was considered at best replaceable at the hot corner (he was relegated to left field mid-career for 34 year-old Vinny Castilla, who also never won a Gold Glove).

Defensive metrics across generations are somewhat unreliable, although by Defensive Runs Saved, Scott Rolen ranks as the fifth greatest defensive third baseman ever. #1 is a Hall of Famer (Brooks Robinson), #2 will be (Beltre), and #3 was far too poor of a hitter to ever stand a chance (Clete Boyer). #4 is a player, Buddy Bell, who (like Rolen) played for several different teams and was a good hitter and elite fielder and when it came down to Hall of Fame voting, did not come even close to the Hall (1.7% in his only year of eligibility) despite a reasonable case by player valuation metrics (66.1 career bWAR). This may give some pause to Rolen Hall supporters, but 1. A lot has changed about how baseball media evaluates fielding since 1995, when Bell was on the ballot; 2. Rolen was the superior player.

In fact, Rolen has a higher career wRC+ than any of the four third basemen who out-rate him defensively. If you trust these metrics as reasonable barometers of player ability, they say that no third baseman in history has combined offensive and defensive prowess quite like Scott Rolen. He was often compared to Mike Schmidt, and while this was an unfair comparison and Schmidt is ultimately the better player, Rolen did things Schmidt couldn’t do. Rolen did something, by definition, that every player couldn’t do.

Scott Rolen is not, to be clear, an inner-circle, upper-crust Hall of Famer. But if we are to accept the Hall of Fame as the institution that it purports to be—a compilation of players which meet the standards of the players they have been inducting for over 80 years—he meets those criteria. Jim Edmonds did not get a fair shake, whether we want to chalk that up to circumstance or being truly, historically underrated (I think it’s mostly the former, but partially the latter). Scott Rolen deserves, at the bare minimum, consideration.