It all started when a Reddit user discovered that Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame page was different than the rest of the nominees. Before the results were announced, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/rolen-scott was a functioning URL. The rest of the nominees, and most relevantly at the time, Todd Helton, produced a Page Not Found error.
That’s not where it all started though. It started on August 1st, 1996, when a fresh-faced 21-year-old Scott Rolen made his MLB debut. He wasn’t very good in his first two months of play, he wasn’t terrible either. But the next season, he was good. Despite his eventual reputation in the field, he was merely above average that season, and it’s his bat that carried him to the Rookie of the Year vote in 1997 for the Phillies.
The Phillies had a losing record in Rolen’s first five seasons, with a high of 77 wins and a low of 65 wins. He was on a perpetual losing machine and it couldn’t be less of his fault as he batted .286/.378/.518, which was good for a 128 wRC+. But his bat is not what garnered attention. His glove broke out in a big way in 1998, placing 2nd in Total Zone in 1998, 1999, and 2000 among third basemen. Appropriately enough, he was rewarded with two Gold Gloves in those three seasons.
That period from 1997 to 2000 reflected two things that held true about Rolen for his career: that he was massively underrated as a hitter and that injuries were always a problem. In 1999, he was limited to just 112 games and the next year, just 128 games. It didn’t stop him from almost accruing 5 fWAR in each season though. And he won his second Gold Glove in 2000 despite the games played, after winning his first in 1998.
In 2001, he finally was on a team that had a winning season. He did not however make the playoffs, as 86 wins was not enough to either win the NL Wild Card or win the NL East. But in the midst of that season, Rolen was not happy about not feeling welcomed in Philadelphia. During a 126 wRC+ season, Larry Bowa claimed Rolen was “killing us in the middle of the lineup” after an 0 for 3 day. A Phillies adviser said in a radio interview that Rolen can be greater but his personality won’t let him. Over the offseason, Rolen rejected a contract extension because he didn’t feel the team was committed to winning.
Nearing the trading deadline, with a 49-55 record and no hope of retaining Scott Rolen, the Phillies traded him to the Cardinals (in what was actually a good trade for the Phillies, contrary to popular opinion: Placido Polanco was quite good and they gave up two months of Rolen for him).
Maybe what was holding him back from being greater was being on a winning team. He had a 139 wRC+ for the rest of 2002, compared to a 121 wRC+ with the Phillies that year. He nearly matched that for a whole season in 2003, with a 137 wRC+. But he had perhaps the greatest season of the MV3 in 2004, when everything came together: He had 9 fWAR thanks to a 157 wRC+ and his unbelievable defense. The most unbelievable part? He only played in 142 games that year.
His 2005 was unfortunately nearly completely lost to injury as he only played in 56 games, missed the playoffs, and frankly wasn’t even that good in the games he did play. But to give you an idea of how good his defense was, he had an 88 wRC+ that year and 1.1 fWAR. In other words, he was still a 3 fWAR player while having an 88 wRC+.
He bounced back in 2006 with a 5.5 fWAR season and a huge postseason. Well, sort of. He started very slow in the 2006 postseason, while his teammates picked him up. Through Game 5 of the NLCS, he had a .167 average with a .494 OPS. But by Game 6, he had already broken through his slump. He was hitting the ball hard. He hit a double and Game 6 and nearly hit a homer to give the Cardinals the lead in Game 7, but Endy Chavez had other ideas.
If the trajectory of a slump is “fail to hit anything, fail to even hit it hard” to “hit it hard, but finds gloves” to “hit it hard, misses gloves” well he found the third stage in the World Series. In the 2006 World Series, he batted .421 with three doubles and a homer. To this day, my dad will argue that Scott Rolen deserved the World Series MVP over David Eckstein that year.
That is more or less where Rolen’s Cardinal career highlights end, and I do not have much interest in talking about the end of his career, though I will note it is much better than you probably think. He made back-to-back All-Star games in 2010 and 2011 with the Reds. Obviously, he left the Cardinals on acrimonious terms with Tony La Russa and the Cardinal organization, but time heals all wounds.
Rolen was a no brainer Hall of Famer who had no business taking this long to make it. He was one of the best defenders of all time at 3B. Strictly by the numbers, he is at worst a top 5 defender of all-time at the position. His +180.3 defensive value on Fangraphs ranks 4th, although ahead of him is two players who had a lot more defensive chances in Buddy Bell and Adrian Beltre, and if you give both players Rolen’s career plate appearance total, he’s ahead of them. Though he is behind Clete Boyer, who played in even less games than Rolen. Brooks Robinson is clearly #1.
But as I said above, defense wasn’t his only game. He was massively, massively underrated as a hitter and I think still is. From 1997 to 2004, Rolen was a 132 wRC+ hitter. In that time period, he was the 28th best hitter in baseball. With his defense. Which was 6th in baseball during that time in defensive value, but easily 1st among 3B. He was behind two catchers, a shortstop, and two centerfielders, all positions where they understandably get a boost from positional adjustment. More of a boost than 3B in any case.
Rolen had some big postseason moments. In the 2004 NLCS, he hit a home run off Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS to break the 2-2 tie in a game the Cardinals eventually won.
He also hit two homers in Game 2 of the NLCS that year. And when the Cardinals immediately fell behind 1-0 in Game 1 of the World Series, Rolen countered with a home run of his own.
But really, what good am I as a writer if I share a post extolling the virtues of Scott Rolen and his Hall of Fame resume without sharing some defensive highlights. Unfortunately Rolen played the majority of his career before Youtubers would really share extensive highlight videos, but there are a few that aren’t well-seen and only scratch the surface of what made Scott Rolen a great defender.
Scott Rolen was a vacuum, sucking up any ball hit his way, and it didn’t matter what position he was in, his arm was strong enough to get it to first base before the runner got there in most cases. I’m sorry to Nolan Arenado, and I’m sorry to Adrian Beltre, but Scott Rolen was the best 3B defender I’ve ever seen in my life.
Scott Rolen is a Hall of Famer. Finally.