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    Sunday, February 5, 2023

    Scott Rolen's Hall of Fame Resume, and the Larger Context of Third Base

    I’m not sure if it came through in my discussion of the Hall of Fame election results (or just in general, over my years of writing), but I’m actually a really big fan of Scott Rolen! He’s on the short-list for my favorite players of all-time, no worse than third on any given day. He is a pretty big reason this site is called “Hot Corner Harbor”, and I grew up watching his play in awe and wanting to play third base as well as he did.

    Actually, let’s just put a few more highlight videos here first, for emphasis:

    In the wake of his election, it’s been good to see so many people celebrating a great player that I loved growing up! I’ve also seen some people tie it into how third base has been kind of ignored in Hall of Fame voting, a point I’ve touched on in the past and that I’ve been thinking about again.

    Of course, there’s also been some discussion from people who can’t appreciate Rolen’s greatness. I wrote up several words reminding everyone of just how strong his case was during the last few days before the announcement, when it looked like he might fall short. Thankfully, I don’t need to use it as a persuasive piece, but I think it could still be a lead-in to another point I wanted to make. If you don’t feel the need to revisit that, feel free to skip, but for anyone who wants to see it again:

    First, there’s all of the basic, flashy stuff; Rolen is a 7-time All-Star and 8-time Golden Glove winner (fourth-most for third basemen). He managed 2077 hits and 316 homers, as well as 517 doubles (that mark is 52nd all-time). He won a Rookie of the Year Award in 1997 and a World Series in 2006 (I still think he deserved World Series MVP in that one over David Eckstein, with his .421/.476/.737 slash line). If you like Wins Above Replacement, Rolen has 69.9 according to Fangraphs and 70.1 according to Baseball-Reference, totals that are usually indicative of clear Hall of Famers. Of course, I imagine those doubting Rolen’s credentials don’t use WAR quite as much, so I’ll back off from that for now.

    All of that is really good, even if it doesn’t quite reach the eye-popping factor of 3000 hits or 500 homers (and that really shouldn’t be a case-ender anyway; most Hall of Famers don’t have 3000 hits or 500 homers, that’s part of what makes those groups special). Of course, Rolen’s case only looks better the more context you apply.

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      For example, those 316 homers tie him for fifteenth most among third basemen (here being players who spent >50% of their time at the position); at this point, I’d like to remind you that there are only 15 AL/NL third basemen in Cooperstown right now. Those 2077 hits make the top twenty, the doubles are fifth, and his 122 OPS+ is twentieth (among players with 5000 plate appearances, which of course includes a few active players who will likely see their rate stats drop with age).

      Except it’s also worth remembering that offense was the weaker half of his case. Sure, Rolen was one of the fifteen or so best hitters at a position with about fifteen members in the Hall, but he did that while also being an all-time fielder with the glove. Like, we all kind of know the Gold Gloves are a joke at this point, but them giving him eight awards wasn’t a fluke!

      Basically any look at more advanced stats puts him in the conversation for top five all-time at the position. Total Zone Runs puts him sixth with 140 runs saved (that also ties him for 25th all-time, across all positions!). Defensive Runs Saved only dates back to 2003, meaning that it’s missing the first third of his career (and four Golden Glove seasons), but he still ranks tenth all-time and second among third basemen, behind Nolan Arenado. Baseball-Reference’s dWAR puts him at sixth all-time for the position, while Fangraphs’ dWAR puts him fifth.

      And of the other five players in this conversation, few of them could match his bat that we discussed earlier. I don’t think anyone would disagree that he hit better than Brooks Robinson or Clete Boyer, and Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell managed higher career totals in some areas primarily through longevity, while rarely ever matching Rolen’s offense at his peak. As far as two-way third basemen go, Adrián Beltré and Mike Schmidt (who usually falls somewhere in the 8-to-12 range with his glove) are basically Rolen’s only peers.

      So, for anyone wondering how Rolen regularly reaches that “surefire Hall of Famer” mark of 70 WAR, or what makes him one of the ten best third basemen all-time, that is how. By being one of the the five or six best gloves in the history at a tough position and then hitting very well on top of that!

      <The Larger Context of Third Base>

      Okay, now that that’s out of the way, on to the larger point about what makes a player Hall of Fame worthy, as well as how that intersects with third base as a position.

      Like, let’s go back to that point I made earlier about Rolen being twentieth in OPS+ at his position. I’ve seen a few people lately comparing Scott Rolen to Lance Berkman, who fell off after one ballot, as a way of saying Rolen isn’t deserving because of Berkman’s better offense, but I think it’s a good case study in looking at players within the context of their position.

      I actually have made an affirmative case for Berkman’s election in the past, but it’s a good case study in remembering where your offense is coming from. His 144 OPS+ would put him just behind Mike Schmidt for best all-time at the position, if he could play third base. But in the context of first base, he’s basically where Rolen was, at 17th all-time (but with little chance to move up much; most of the players ahead of him are done).

      Conversely, a Rolen that can’t cut it at third base and has to move across the diamond moves to the back half of the top-70 all-time, alongside guys like Derrek Lee and Vic Wertz. Like, it’s good to be able to hit overall, but hitting that well while just sticking at a harder position is much rarer! That’s why Rolen’s case is so much stronger!

      In fact, let’s look at that idea a bit more, about “sticking at a harder position”. In particular, I want to take a look at the top 20 third basemen by career WAR, specifically Fangraphs’ version, which jumped out at me while doing research for this piece. See, Fangraphs’ positional charts don’t limit players to one position; if they play more than a certain percentage of their games somewhere, they qualify, even if they played more games somewhere else. Which is why the leaderboard for third base look likes this:

      The top third baseman of all-time is Alex Rodriguez, who played more games at shortstop than third. Granted, it’s not much more, and calling him a third baseman isn’t out of the question, but it’s weird because you usually see him at shortstop in these types of things when they have to decide on one position or the other.

      And that type of thing permeates the list. Miguel Cabrera (nearly 1200 games at first base and another 800 at DH and outfield, versus under 700 at third), is eleventh. Paul Molitor is twelfth, despite spending over 70% of his career elsewhere. Harmon Killebrew spent just over two-thirds of his career away from the hot corner. Edgar Martinez is just over 25% at third (and, you know, the namesake for the league’s DH award). Dick Allen (37%) and Tony Perez (27%) also spent more time at first base than across the diamond. Even Darrell Evans only spent the barest majority of his career here (about 53.6%). Either way, we’re still easily over a third of the top of the leaderboard having more playing time elsewhere!

      That’s… not really the case at other positions. You’ll get players who moved from one position to another over their careers, like Rod Carew or Robin Yount. You’ll get players who split time at corner outfield spots, like Stan Musial or Babe Ruth. But even in those cases, they’re still nowhere near a third of the top twenty! First base is probably the closest, but even then it’s still different.

      Like, counting Frank Thomas here in addition to DH doesn’t feel nearly as weird as Molitor or Edgar showing up at third, given that he was more of a 55/45 split between the two (and despite what I suspected, Jim Thome in fact did play more games at first than DH, although it was close). Pete Rose makes as much sense here as anywhere else. And Carew, Musial, and Ernie Banks did technically spend more time here than any other position, even if they’re best remembered elsewhere; they’re A-Rod/Darrell Evans type cases, at worst. And even after counting all of those, we’re still not up to third base’s number of questionable cases anyway. And again, no other position is even close to this level, let alone third base’s.

      Maybe people around the game have just been underrating how hard it is to play third base? The number of great players who started there and quickly moved away feels at least a little telling. Maybe it should be regarded more like second base or center field or shortstop? Less difficult sure, but certainly closer to them in complexity than to first or the corner outfield spots. Different enough that you start considering whether a player was a good hitter within the context of their position, rather than just overall.

      Like, look at the OPS+ rankings for second base; Roberto Alomar is 21st (among 5000+ PA players), immediately behind Chase Utley and Lou Whitaker. Ryne Sandberg is 24th, and Craig Biggio is 30th. A lot of those players had more plate appearances, which dragged down their stats, but even still, their peaks weren’t that far off from Rolen’s. And yet I don’t think most people would argue against the idea that all of them were good offensively. It’s just usually implicitly understood that second base carries with it a different set of expectations when offense comes up.

      Shoot, people have been making the Hall of Fame case for Jeff Kent* almost exclusively around the idea that he was an especially great offensively for a second baseman! And he is (although a little overrated by traditional stats), but it’s maybe worth noting that his 123 OPS+ is only a hair above Rolen’s! And that’s not nothing; he does, in fact, rate higher within his position (fourteenth among second basemen). It’s just frustrating that the implicit “Good Hitter at His Position” praise doesn’t extend to third base, even though it really seems like it should.

      *I still think he goes in on the first Veterans Committee ballot he sees, probably the first one he’s eligible for. And I still wonder how he would have fared on the BBWAA ballot had he debuted at any time other than 2014. The last few years have emphasized how momentum-based these votes are, and trying to build that when you debut on a ten-vote ballot that’s already seen fourteen of its candidates enshrined (even before the Bonds/Clemens/Schilling debacle) seems like a Sisyphean task.

      This piece has started to get a little long as I expanded its scope, and I wanted to get this part out now since it is more related to the current events of Scott Rolen and his induction. So congrats again to the newest Hall of Famer, and I hope everyone who was iffier on his induction now sees what made him worthy of Cooperstown.

      And check back again soon for the second part, where I look at the wider context of third base in the Hall! If you’d liked this article and want to receive an email update when that second part goes up, feel free to subscribe to my new mailing list using the form below! I only send things out to this list when I have a new Hot Corner Harbor article up (Out of Left Field has its own list, check it out here for more info), so you don’t need to worry about spam!

      1 comment:

      1. Hi, thanks for this! I usually don't care too much about the Hall of Fame, but I too was a little dubious of Rolen's resume. Honestly, some of that is probably because he beat my Brewers so much!

        I'm not the biggest metrics guy, especially defensive metrics. Mostly, I don't want to spend the time and energy learning about them lol. But, I know Rolen always had a reputation as a great defensive 3rd beaseman.

        Yada yada yada, long story short, I was looking at Dave Parker's stats and thought that common thing, if this guy is in, then why isn't this other guy in. And in the end Parker probably shouldn't be in; I was really just looking at his offensive stats and that he won some Gold Gloves (although he made a lot of errors for an outfielder!).

        Yada yada yada again, I appreciate the context you have given and it makes a lot of sense. I've liked the 3rd base position since t-ball. Funny story on that. My first t-ball team was the Phillies. I asked my older brother who was good on the Phillies. He said Mike Schmidt. Then I learned Schmidt was a third baseman, so I wanted to play third base. Funny how a young child's mind works.

        Thank you!