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Scott Rolen is getting shafted by the BBWAA

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The third baseman deserves to make the Hall of Fame. Instead, he’s in danger of falling off the ballot.

Scott Rolen

The Hall of Fame voting rarely makes sense. Sometimes, BBWAA members ignore the all-time greats simply because of their links to performance-enhancing drugs (or their backne). Other times, they judge some players for their off-the-field transgressions while giving others a free pass. Even in these cases, though, there’s usually some reason for a player’s exclusion, no matter how arbitrary or stupid it might be.

Then there’s the case of Scott Rolen, who’s getting a cold welcome on his first trip through the voting. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable tracker, the former third baseman has garnered a measly 10.3 percent of public votes. An elite defender and a dependable hitter, Rolen inexplicably finds himself not that far from the 5 percent threshold for being dropped off the ballot entirely.

Here’s the Sparknotes version of Rolen’s case for Cooperstown:

Scott Rolen’s all-time ranks

PAs rWAR rWAR rank fWAR fWAR rank WARP WARP rank
PAs rWAR rWAR rank fWAR fWAR rank WARP WARP rank
8518 70 67th 70.1 58th 70.4 39th
Rankings among position players. rWAR/fWAR: 1871-present; WARP: 1949-present Data via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus

With the bat, Rolen always held his own. He was an above-average hitter in 12 of his 17 big-league seasons, as his gap power and discerning eye made up for some minor troubles with strikeouts. Overall, he slashed .281/.364/.490 in 8,518 plate appearances, which translates to a .368 wOBA and 122 wRC+. That put him firmly in the “good-not-great” category on offense.

With the glove, Rolen put himself in the “totally great” category. During the first six years of his career, he saved the Phillies 46 runs at third base, according to Total Zone. Over the next 11 years, he was worth 114 runs by DRS and 109 runs by UZR, putting his lifetime total at more than 150 runs in both regards. By UZR/150, he’s still the sixth-best defender at third base since 2002. Rolen manned the hot corner for 17,479 13 innings in his career, and he made the most of that time.

To put these statistics in context — and really get a grasp on how ridiculous this is — let’s look at a few current Hall of Famers with similar career numbers to Rolen:

  • Ivan Rodriguez — 10,270 PAs, 68.4 rWAR, 68.9 fWAR, 57.3 WARP
  • Tony Gwynn — 10,232 PAs, 68.8 rWAR, 65.0 fWAR, 63.3 WARP
  • Willie McCovey — 9,691 PAs, 64.4 rWAR, 67.4 fWAR, 62.4 WARP

No matter which metric you use, all three of these men accumulated fewer wins above replacement than Rolen, despite receiving more playing time. Now let’s look at their vote share from their first ballot:

  • Rodriguez — 76.0 percent (2017)
  • Gwynn — 97.6 percent (2007)
  • McCovey — 81.4 percent (1986)

Yup — not only did these three make it into Cooperstown, they got in on their first try. Yet here we are, less than a month away from the Hall’s class of 2018 announcement, and Rolen is somehow trailing the likes of Fred McGriff (15.0 percent) and Gary Sheffield (11.2 percent). Why? What’s motivating the BBWAA to snub an all-time great like this?

Rolen got some recognition during his playing days — he made seven All-Star teams and took home eight Gold Gloves. He spent most of his career in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, none of which is a massive media market, but all of which offer decent national exposure. And for the #ringz-obsessed voters, he also won the World Series in 2006 with the Cardinals.

Really, Rolen’s poor showing in the Hall of Fame vote boils down to three things:

  1. Traditional statistics. Rolen’s recipe for offensive success — doubles and walks, with some taters thrown in for taste — won’t appeal to old-school Triple Crown fans. With a career .281 batting average, 316 home runs, and 1,287 RBIs, he can’t win over these Luddites. Compare that to Vladimir Guerrero, who hit .318, went yard 449 times, and brought in 1,496 runs. Despite trailing Rolen in rWAR (59.3), fWAR (54.3), and WARP (63.9), Vladdy’s gotten 94.4 percent support on public ballots.
  2. Longevity. While Rolen stuck around for 17 years, he didn’t have all that much playing time: His 8,518 plate appearances rank 197th in MLB history. By contrast, Jim Thome went to the dish 10,315 times over 22 seasons, which allowed him to rack up some shiny counting stats (612 dingers! 1,747 walks!) and has earned him 95.3 percent of public votes thus far.
  3. Reputation. Look at Omar Vizquel, who’s also on his first ballot. By TZ, DRS, and UZR, Vizquel was an inferior fielder to Rolen (albeit at a tougher position). Yet the shortstop won 11 Gold Gloves and was generally regarded as a great teammate and “locker room presence.” That’s the main reason Vizquel has 28.0 percent of public votes and could make it to Cooperstown at some point, even though he was a really, really bad hitter.

In all likelihood, Rolen will be enshrined eventually. It took 10 years for Tim Raines to make it, but eventually he got past 75 percent. (Raines, I should note, has less rWAR and fWAR than Rolen, and is a few decimal points above him in WARP.) For this year, though, Rolen will have to suffer the indignity of watching from the sideline as players like Guerrero get their busts in Cooperstown.

Making baseball writers the gatekeepers for the sport’s most hallowed institution has always been a bad idea. It allows petty grievances and outdated ideologies to taint membership, keeping deserving players out and letting undeserving players in. Unlike Rodriguez, Gwynn, and McCovey, Rolen won’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, not because of any shortcoming on his part, but because of the BBWAA’s failings.