Last Thursday, the VEB staff voted on the Hall of Fame. They voted in eight players, which included Scott Rolen. Two days ago, the people who read VEB voted in three players, which included Rolen. It’s probably safe to say that the writers and readers of this Cardinal site think Scott Rolen should be in the Hall of Fame. Apologies for making so many posts on Rolen deserving to be in the Hall of Fame, but however many ways I can support him, it still won’t be enough, because his national support is abysmal and shameful.
Rolen was born in Evansville, Indiana in 1975. He grew up in Jasper, Indiana and attended Jasper High School. While at Jasper, baseball was not Rolen’s only sport. Last year on March 21, Rolen became a member of the 2018 Silver Anniversary Team, a team honored by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. The Silver Anniversary Team comprised 18 members and the honored members displayed exceptional skill 25-years ago as high school seniors.
He scored 27.1 points per game that senior season, made the 1993 Indiana All-Star team, set several school single-game records, including points in a game (50) and points in a sectional (47), and was the 1993 Tri-State co-player of the year. He was offered basketball scholarships to UCLA, Oklahoma State, Georgia, and other basketball programs. He even committed to Georgia to play basketball.
Lucky for us, he was also good at baseball. While he was runner-up to Indiana Mr. Basketball, he was Indiana Mr. Baseball. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1993 MLB Draft out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies. He was committed to play basketball at Georgia, but the Phillies convinced him to play baseball instead with a $250,000 signing bonus.
Rolen advanced through the minors quickly. Upon being drafted, he was sent to the Appy League, where he displayed little power, but batted .313 with a .429 OBP in 25 games. He started the 1994 season in Single-A at the age of 19. He played the whole season there, batting .294/.363/.462 in 138 games played. With this performance, he made his first appearance on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects as the 91st prospect in baseball.
He kept getting better. The Phillies needed to only see him in 66 games at High A before promoting him to AA. In a sign for what’s to come, he only played in 86 games all year due to a broken hamate. But with promising defensive skills and an .800 OPS at both High A and AA, he became the 27th best prospect in baseball before the 1996 season. With only 20 games played in AA, he started 1996 there as well, absolutely destroying the league. He batted .361/.445/.591 before a promotion to AAA in the middle of the season. He was less impressive there, OPS’ing .786, but with a .376 OBP. The Phillies had seen enough and he was also promoted to the MLB for 37 games. At 21, he had seen his last minor league action.
Prior to the 1997 season, he was rated as the 13th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Rolen’s cup of coffee in 1996 hadn’t gone that well with an 89 wRC+, but he only played in 37 games. 37 games was all he needed to adjust for the majors. In 1997, Rolen was worth 4.2 fWAR and 4.5 bWAR, winning the Rookie of the Year. He then proceeded to be worth at least 4 WAR for every season until 2005, when he played in only 56 games. That is eight straight seasons.
Rolen was a great hitter throughout his career, with 10 seasons with a 120 wRC+ or better and 12 seasons as an above average hitter. He was a below average hitter during his aforementioned first 37 games in 1996, his 2005 when he missed over half the season, an injury-plagued 2007, and the final two years of his career. In other words, his most games played in a season where he was a below average hitter was 112. He was a great hitter.
But... that’s not the first thing Cardinals fans think of when they think of Rolen. That shouldn’t be the thing anybody thinks of first who has ever watched Scott Rolen play baseball. Rolen has a very good case for being the second best defender at 3B ever. (Brooks Robinson is the first) He’s certainly in the top 5.
Gold Gloves are not the best stat for judging defense. There are too many examples of bad choices and the numbers not lining up with the eye test. That is not an issue for Rolen. The defensive reputation of Rolen exactly lines up with the numbers. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves in his career, and the only reason he didn’t win more is injuries. He won every year from 1998-2006, with the exception of a year where he played in 112 games and a year where he played in 56 games. After 2006, the most games he played in was 133 games, and he won in that year.
If you want to use Gold Gloves as a measure for his defense, Rolen is third all-time behind Robinson and Mike Schmidt. Schmidt won 10, and I am certain Rolen would at least match his Gold Gloves were he able to stay healthy in more seasons. Robinson has 16 Gold Gloves, so you know, I’ll give Robinson the edge over Rolen there.
That’s the traditional argument though. By Fangraphs defense, Rolen saved the fifth most runs among 3B, behind Robinson, Adrian Beltre, Clete Boyer, and Buddy Bell. Boyer appears to be one of the most underrated defenders of all-time, and Bell has a higher value because he played in way more games. Beltre and Rolen is certainly a good debate. Rolen has a higher UZR/150, but Beltre also played in his late 30s, which probably didn’t help his numbers. But again, I’m comparing a surefire Hall of Famer to Rolen defensively. Rolen was a better hitter for his career than Beltre.
There’s a good chance that he might be a bit underrated defensively by these numbers as well. According to Hardball Times, defense at shortstop peaks between the ages of 22-24. (I realize he plays 3B) It is generally accepted that defense and running peak earlier than hitting. Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR, was first adopted in 2002. Rolen was far from an old guy at that point, but he was already 27 and had played five full seasons.
From 2002-2007, Rolen was a +16.3 UZR/150 defender at 3B, which I assure is an insane number if you’re not familiar with UZR. As a comparison point, Anthony Rendon has pretty much been the best defender at 3B for the past three seasons, and he has been a +9.6 defender. Rolen prior to 2002? Since UZR had not yet been implemented, Fangraphs is forced to use Total Zone. Total Zone had him as a +10 defender for the previous five full seasons of his career. Based off what we know about how defense ages, it seems somewhat unlikely Rolen was a full six runs worse as a defender from 22-26.
Baseball-Reference used Total Zone up until 2003, when it switched to Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs saved above average. They still calculated Total Zone past 2003 too though, which gives us a good idea that TZ was likely underrating Rolen’s defense. By BIS, Rolen was +13.6 on defense per season from 2003-2007. By TZ, he was worth +9.6 runs on average. Thus, when you see Rolen’s defensive number on B-R or Fangraphs, there’s a good chance it’s underrating him, since more modern, better defensive stats have him as a superior defender to what he is credited as in the beginning of his career.
Rolen is the 11th best 3B of all-time by Fangraphs and the 10th best 3B of all-time by Baseball-Reference. This is a counting stat. It takes into account his frequent injury problems. The nine members ahead of Rolen on B-R are all Hall of Famers, plus Beltre. The average 3B HOF player by bWAR has 68.4 bWAR. Rolen was worth 70.2 bwAR. By Fangraphs, it’s similar. FG counts Alex Rodriguez as a 3B, so in addition to Rodriguez, there are seven HOFers, Beltre and, uh, Miguel Cabrera (who is definitely more of a 1B). FG has a lot looser definition of a third basemen than B-R, but he has 69.9 fWAR and is right ahead of Paul Molitor and Harmon Killebrew.
With his injury problems and the fact that he still ranks roughly in the top 10 by WAR, you know Rolen’s peak is not a problem. Rolen’s seven-year peak by fWAR is 44.6 fWAR. That is an average of 6.4 fWAR per season. He has four other seasons with 4+ fWAR, meaning he has 11 seasons with 4 fWAR or greater. His bWAR peak of 43.7 ranks 13th all-time among 3B peaks. He is behind eight HOFers, Beltre, Ken Boyer, Dick Allen, and Sal Bando. There is a strong case all of those guys belong in the Hall of Fame as well.
JAWS, which combines career production with a seven-year peak, places Rolen 10th all-time with 56.9 WAR. The average HOF WAR? 55.7. All nine members above him are in the HOF and also Beltre. Rolen has the peak and he has the career numbers to belong in the Hall of Fame. He’s not even borderline. This is a no doubt Hall of Famer.
The crazy thing about Rolen is that he could have had a better career. Think about how good he was that he put up these numbers despite playing in 140+ games only seven times. He had a 9 fWAR season in 142 games played. He was incredible. His is probably the best defensive 3B Cardinals fans will ever see. He was a career 122 wRC+ hitter. He is easily a Hall of Famer.