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JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Scott Rolen

Scott Rolen
USA TODAY Sports – Jerry Lai

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2018 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

“A hard-charging third baseman” who “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” “A no-nonsense star.” “The perfect baseball player.” Scott Rolen did not lack for praise, particularly in the pages of Sports Illustrated at the height of his career. A masterful, athletic defender with the physical dimensions of a tight end (listed at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds), Rolen played with an all-out intensity, sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield. Many viewed him as the position’s best for his time, and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25–30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.

There was much to love about Rolen’s game, but particularly in Philadelphia, the city where he began his major league career and the one with a reputation for fraternal fondness, he found no shortage of critics — even in the Phillies organization. Despite winning 1997 NL Rookie of the Year honors and emerging as a foundation-type player, Rolen was blasted publicly by manager Larry Bowa and special assistant to the general manager Dallas Green. While ownership pinched pennies and waited for a new ballpark, fans booed and vilified him. Eventually, Rolen couldn’t wait to skip town, even when offered a deal that could have been worth as much as $140 million. Traded in mid-2002 to the Cardinals, he referred to St. Louis as “baseball heaven,” which only further enraged the Philly faithful.

In St. Louis, Rolen provided the missing piece of the puzzle, helping a team that hadn’t been to the World Series since 1987 make two trips in three years (2004 and ’06), with a championship in the latter. A private, introverted person who shunned endorsement deals, he didn’t have to shoulder the burden of being a franchise savior, but as the toll of his max-effort play caught up to him in the form of chronic shoulder and back woes, he clashed with manager Tony La Russa and again found himself looking for the exit. After a brief detour to Toronto, he landed in Cincinnati, where again he provided the missing piece, helping the Reds return to the postseason for the first time in 15 years.

Though he played in the majors for 17 seasons (1996–2012), Rolen retired at age 37, and beyond sneaking over the 2,000 hit line, he didn’t accumulate the major milestones that would take his Hall of Fame case into no-brainer territory. Even so, the combination of his exceptional offense and his elite defense — validated both by the eye test and the metrics — places his WAR and JAWS among the top 10 third basemen in history, but in his 2018 ballot debut, voters gave him a paltry 10.2%. While several conceded that they would have included him if space had permitted, his share only grew to 17.2% in 2019.

As the ballot traffic thinned, Rolen’s candidacy finally took off; he gained 18.1% from 2019 to ’20 and another 17.6% from ’20 to ’21 — the second-largest and largest gains of their respective cycles, the latter of which pushed him past the 50% mark. Last year, he posted another double-digit gain, reaching 63.2%. Like Larry Walker, a candidate who similarly benefited from strong defensive metrics that underscore his tremendous value despite counting stats that may not be eye-catching, Rolen has been taken more seriously by voters. Given the humble beginnings of his candidacy, it’s remarkable that he’s now the candidate most likely to prevent the second voter shutout in three years.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Scott Rolen

Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Scott Rolen 70.1 43.6 56.9
Avg. HOF 3B 68.4 43.0 55.7
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,077 316 .281/.364/.490 122

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1975 to a pair of schoolteachers, Rolen grew up in Jasper, a town of 10,000 roughly an hour away, and excelled at both basketball and baseball. On the court, he was a 6-foot-4 point guard versatile enough to play shooting guard or forward as well. In 1993, he made the Indiana All-Star team and was the Tri-State co-player of the Year, among other honors. Heavily recruited by colleges, he was offered hoops scholarships by UCLA, Oklahoma State, Alabama, and Georgia. He played all around the diamond and even pitched in relief before moving to third base full time. During his senior year, he was voted Indiana Mr. Baseball, as the top high school player in the state (he was runner-up in Mr. Basketball).

Though Rolen committed to Georgia for a basketball scholarship, he reconsidered when the Phillies chose him in the second round of the 1993 draft and offered a $250,000 signing bonus. After 25 games in rookie ball, he hit .294/.363/.462 with 14 homers as a 19-year-old in the A-level South Atlantic League in 1994, a performance that placed him at no. 91 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring. He climbed to 27th in 1996 despite being limited to 86 games due to a broken hamate, and after a combined .324/.416/.515 showing in Double- and Triple-A, he was recalled on August 1 by the Phillies, who were in the midst of a 67–95 season. He went 1-for-4 with a double off the Cardinals’ Donovan Osborne in his debut. With incumbent third baseman Todd Zeile traded later that month, the 21-year-old Rolen hit .254/.322/.400 with four homers in 146 PA down the stretch, but his season ended on September 7, when a pitch by the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel fractured his right ulna.

The injury carried a silver lining, in that Rolen’s 130 at-bats left him barely eligible to be considered a rookie for 1997. He got his money’s worth out of the designation, climbing to 13th on the BA list and hitting .283/.377/.469 with 21 homers, 16 steals, and 4.5 WAR. He was unanimously voted NL Rookie of the Year, beating out the likes of Vladimir Guerrero and Andruw Jones. The Phillies, however, went just 68–94 under first-year manager Terry Francona, their fourth straight losing season since their 1993 NL pennant.