In his sixth year on the ballot, the underrated Scott Rolen, who was the St. Louis Cardinals' third baseman for about one third of his 17 big-league seasons, broke through and earned election to Cooperstown.
Hall of Fame voting is weird. Players' receive varying levels of support, moving up and down in percentages, sometimes by quite a lot over the years. This despite doing nothing on the field to change their candidacies.
Scott Rolen is an excellent example of this phenomenon, climbing from 10.2% his first year on the ballot to besting the required 75% (with a mark of 76.3%) to earn election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That surge is greater than any other player in nearly 60 years.
What is it about Rolen that captured the attention of just over one in 10 voters a half-dozen years ago to keep him on the ballot and now earned the votes of more than three in four voters this time? It was his all-around strong game - hitting, fielding, and baserunning - that overcame his relatively short career, the result of various injuries that ate into his playing time.
At the plate, Rolen was terrific. While he never lead the league in any category during his career, he was very good quite often. He hit over .280 on nine different occasions, maxing out at .314 in 2004 as a Redbird. Rolen homered 20 or more times in 10 different seasons, topping out at 34 long balls in that same '04 campaign. He drove in 90+ runs seven times, peaking at 124 in - you guessed it - 2004. He crossed the plate 90+ times in six different seasons, with his best year of 120 runs coming during his sophomore year of 1998 with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Those terrific seasons combined with numerous other solid years resulting in strong, if not awe-inspiring career totals. Rolen finished with 2077 hits and a .281 batting average. He smashed 316 baseballs into the outfield seats, drove in 1287 runs, and scored 1211 times.
Rolen's all-time rankings in those last three counting categories are 133rd, 122nd, and 179th, respectively, not exactly positions on the leaderboards that blow you away. Of course, offense was just a part of his well-rounded game.
Defense is much more difficult to evaluate than offense. Hitting stats are quantifiable and updated after every plate appearance these days. Glovework is more subjective, with the eye test and numbers sometimes in agreement and other times in opposition. Rolen's defense, however, was seen by everyone as top-notch among third basemen.
Good positioning, quick feet, agile movement, the willingness to make diving stops, and a cannon for an arm combined to make Rolen an excellent fielder at the hot corner. When he was healthy enough to play something close to a full season, Rolen typically earned the recognition his performance deserved. Over the 10 campaigns in which he played in 128 or more games, he won a Gold Glove in eight of them. The only players to win more are Brooks Robinson (16), Mike Schmidt (10), and Nolan Arenado (10...and counting?). That's some pretty impressive company.
An underrated aspect of Rolen's performance was his baserunning. He wasn't the fastest runner, but who is at 6' 4" and 245 pounds? But he had savvy on the bases, stealing a total of 118 bases in his career, with a top mark of 16 during his rookie year.
Speaking of that rookie year, that was the first - but certainly not last - occasion when Rolen would take home some hardware, as he was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1997. In addition to that recognition and his eight Gold Glove awards, Rolen claimed a Silver Slugger in 2002. He made the All-Star team seven times and received MVP votes in four different years, peaking with a fourth-place finish in - yep, you guessed it - 2004.
While Rolen's counting stats may not jump off the page, his career triple-slash line of .281/.364/.490 was good for a 122 OPS+, putting him well above average at the dish over 8518 plate appearances. His WAR total, per Baseball Reference, is 70.1, tied for 103rd place with a new player on this year's ballot, Carlos Beltran. That WAR total is 10th among third basemen, and Rolen also ranks 10th per Jay Jaffe's JAWS calculation.
Whether you prefer classic Triple Crown stats or more modern triple-slash and WAR numbers, they all paint the picture of an excellent player. And while Rolen may not fit the mold of a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer, multiple looks by numerous voters over the years have developed that picture into one worthy of Cooperstown induction. Enjoy your visit to New York state this summer, Scott Rolen. Representatives of multiple fanbases, including a good number representing St. Louis, will happily join you for your well-deserved ceremony recognizing your outstanding, Hall of Fame-worthy career.