The time to discuss the baseball Hall of Fame has once again been thrust upon us. Amidst an arctic blast that is chilling most of the nation, we at least have debates about JAWS, WAR, and the players of yesteryear to keep our hearts warm. Well, we have that and arguments about steroids.
Avoiding the latter (I hope), today we take a look at Scott Rolen. A dramatic figure well-known for wearing out his welcome in two American cities before being exiled traded to Toronto.
Rolen’s career path was a tenuous one and he ends up on a ballot filled with candidates that will likely make for a rock-star introduction this summer. Rolen is unlikely to join them for a variety of justifiable reasons.
Scott Rolen, for all his good qualities, of which there are many, did not excel in any particular category, and therefore, does not deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown. Rolen is the prototype ‘Hall-of-Very-Good’ player, whose career is the consequence of doing everything well, but nothing great. Combined with a curmudgeonly reputation and not distinguishing moments of glory, his fate is sealed.
What is most striking about Scott Rolen’s baseball reference page is not the shiny career batting average, the nice on-base percentage, or the bevy of GGs (gold gloves). What is most striking about Rolen’s baseball-reference page is the simple fact that he never led the league in anything. Ever. Over the course of 17 years, Scott Rolen always played at best, second-fiddle to someone else in literally every statistical category listed.
Not only did Rolen never lead the league in any one stat, he was rarely the best player on his own team! Over a 17-year career, Rolen led his own team in bWAR only three times. Despite a seemingly strong .281 career batting average, and ten years of 20+ homers, Rolen never finished in the top ten in hits, home runs, or batting average ---- a testament to the powerhouse offensive environment in which he played. His only top ten finishes in any statistic at all are one each in walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage; he finished in the top ten in OPS+ only twice in 17 years and managed to finish in the top ten in bWAR only four times. Hardly exemplary.
Rolen won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1997, though even this was more coincidence and fortuitous timing than anything else. In his would-be rookie season of 1996 he finished one at-bat short of disqualifying for rookie status after being hit by a pitch in mid-September. He spent the rest of the year recuperating and resetting his rookie status in 1997.
The numbers above outline the credentials of a very good player. A player who would be a strong addition to nearly any roster. Unfortunately for Rolen, Cooperstown is about more than that, it’s about distinguishing moments and characteristics. Rolen may have had a nice average, but he wasn’t an average machine. He may have hit over 20 home runs a lot, but he was not a prolific home run hitter. In addition, while the Hall does (and should) reward statistical performance, there’s another aspect to the narrative of a Hall of Famer that Rolen lacks: discernible impact.
Generational talents and great players show discernible impact on the stats page as well as with the eye-test. These are players that fans and analysts view as the best in the game while they are playing; the types of players that people go out of their way to see when they come into town, and the types of players that are talked about years after they retire.
These types of players evoke emotional responses and nostalgic daydreams ----- stories that are told to the next generation. These types of players nearly always find their way into moments of greatness; these moments however, always alluded Rolen.
Scott Rolen ended his postseason career with a .220/.302/.376 slash line, including going hitless in both the 2004 NLDS and World Series. His greatest chance of distinction was in the 2006 NLCS, but Endy Chavez ended that dream with an amazing catch; today, the batter is barely remembered.
With this context, it is unsurprising that management and ownership never viewed Rolen as a franchise player. In fact, for interpersonal reasons, Rolen was viewed as the complete opposite of a franchise cornerstone, since it’s impossible to build around a team around a roster piece who can’t get along with any of his bosses.
Rolen feuded with Phillies’ manager Larry Bowa and Senior Advisor Dallas Green in Philadelphia, earning himself a reputation as a content, lazy player. Green is quoted as saying that Rolen was content being a “so-so player” implying that Rolen wasn’t interested in improvement.
While this can be passed off as just one executive’s opinion, Green was hardly on an island, and after only five and half years in St. Louis, Rolen clashed with manager Tony LaRussa. Again, with bridges burned in the background, Rolen fled town demanding to be traded (according to a 2014 interview with then-General Manager John Mozeliak).
This type of behavior certainly is not disqualifying for entry into the Hall of Fame, but it gives some context as to why Rolen never earned the reputation as a franchise player. It’s why he is not really viewed as a true ‘Philly’ or ‘Cardinal’, but rather a highly credentialed journeyman.
Rolen had an excellent career, one that is certainly better than most, but he does not fall into that elite one percent who deserve enshrinement in baseball immortality.
On a crowded ballot, it makes it nearly impossible for Rolen to break through for election into the Hall. Viewed against a backdrop of many peers whose reputations are solidified, and in some cases, vilified, Rolen is highly unlikely to make it in via the BBWAA, and that’s just fine.