There hasn’t been an official announcement yet, but each day further along the season gets, the less likely it gets that Scott Rolen will play in 2013. He was flip-flopping on whether to hang his cleats up all winter, with even the last news from him being uncertain (although leaning towards retirement). Unless the Dodgers or some other team realizes that their third base hole is worse than they thought midseason, he’ll probably be sitting this year out. It is somewhat fitting though, if upsetting, that one of the best and most underrated players ever can’t even be the best third baseman to retire this season.
In the same offseason that baseball lost Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen also apparently decided to hang up his cleats. Retiring with Chipper would overshadow almost anyone, but for Rolen, it seems like more of the same. He played 16 of his 17 seasons in the same National League as Chipper, most of them at the same position. Lining up with one of the all-time greats does tend to cover one up. And Chipper was definitely one of the all-time greats; among players who were primarily third basemen, he’s third all-time in home runs (468), fourth in hits (2726), first in OPS among players with 3000 plate appearances (.930), and fourth in weighted runs created+ (141).
Jones was no Brooks Robinson with the glove, but he held his own. And that, combined with a great bat, made him incredibly valuable. If Wins Above Replacement is your thing, Fangraphs has him fourth at his position all-time with 85.1 Wins (behind Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Wade Boggs), while Baseball-Reference has him fifth with 85.2 (those three again plus George Brett). No matter how you want to look at it, Chipper Jones is in rarefied territory.
Unfortunately, if looks like Jones will be the next to play the role of Hall of Fame spoiler: the Cal Ripken to Rolen’s Alan Trammell, or the Rickey Henderson to his Tim Raines; that one player who was so unusually exceptional that he kept a Hall-talent from ever being recognized as the best of his position. And rest assured, Rolen was a Hall of Fame talent.
First, a quick game: name ten third basemen better than Scott Rolen. I mean, you obviously have Schmidt, Brett, Boggs, Mathews, and Jones. There’s five right there. Brooks Robinson is another Cooperstown inductee, and he definitely beat Rolen with the glove, although Rolen was far and away the better hitter. We'll be pessimists and say Robinson is definitely better for now. Ron Santo should have made it in before being passed to the Veterans Committee, so we’ll throw him in, too. Who else is there?
Alex Rodriguez will finish with more games as a third basemen, but his best years were mostly at shortstop, and that seems to be enough to count Ernie Banks at the position instead of first base. So no A-Rod. Pie Traynor is the only other third basemen elected through the standard process, but his case seems to have not aged well; no one would put him on the level of the players already discussed. Who else is there?
I’ve discussed the best players not in the Hall a lot, but I’m not sure you can argue that any of the third basemen I’ve covered is better than Rolen. Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell have higher counting numbers, but they each hung around much longer than Rolen without reaching his peak.
The point is, it’s very tough to argue a scenario where Rolen isn’t one of the top ten at his position all-time. That may surprise you, but it was very easy to miss what made Rolen good. He hit well, but didn’t stay healthy enough to make a serious run at 3000 hits (he sits at 2077, nineteenth at the position, and a .281 batting average). He brought with it a good eye (899 walks, .364 OBP) and more power than you would expect. Yes, his 316 home runs are only fourteenth all-time (although it’s only one behind George Brett), but he also brought along a ton of doubles power-his 517 doubles are only behind Brett, Boggs, and Chipper (and 45th among every position player). His OPS ranks tenth all-time at the position (.855), and even accounting for the higher scoring era, he managed a 122 wRC+, tied for 13th all-time at the position.* No matter how you want to look at it, Rolen is one of the ten to twelve best hitting third basemen ever.
*And one of those players ahead of him is Deacon White, who was inducted last year as a catcher; bare-handed catchers needed a lot of time off, apparently.
But his hitting prowess wasn’t his only attribute; it wasn’t even his most well-known. Rolen is best remembered for his sure-handed glove work, his bare-handed pick-ups, and his diving snags (not to mention his cannon of an arm and his uncanny reaction time; he could also jump pretty well). It’s sort of a wonder that he only has eight Gold Gloves, although that still puts him third all-time for third-basemen (behind Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt).
If you’re into one of the more advanced fielding metrics, Rolen cleans up there too, in more or less every category. Total Zone Rating has him at 150 runs saved, or about a full win for every season he played just from his fielding. Ultimate Zone Rating only goes back to 2002, meaning we miss Rolen’s first five seasons (which were probably some of his best), but he still saved 109 runs. Fangraphs has him as the sixth most valuable fielding third-baseman ever, while Baseball-Reference’s version of defensive value has him third. Even outside of his position, he still ranks among the all-time greats; Total Zone has him nineteenth all-time in runs saved, while Fangraphs has him as the twenty-first most valuable fielder ever.
It’s also worth noting that no third basemen rank above him in both hitting and fielding. All together, it’s good for a ridiculous amount of value; both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs rate him as a 70-win player for his career. Unfortunately (and tellingly), that places him right at the level of Ron Santo, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell-on Baseball-Reference’s scale, at least. Fangraphs rates Raines and Trammell a little lower, so maybe Rolen’s greatness will be more apparent (although he is still more or less tied with Santo again). We’ll know for sure in five years, and I hope he gets his due recognition. But for a player who’s been so chronically underrated, his retirement hasn’t done much to change his status so far. Maybe he’ll come back one more time, if only to get appropriately recognized when he leaves.