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2021 is a pivotal year on the Hall of Fame ballot for Scott Rolen

Jay Jaffe, one of the most prominent sabermetricians, was recently asked where analytically-inclined observers and supporters should focus their attention after helping push Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the past two seasons.  

Scott Rolen began his career with the Phillies. (Icon Sports Media)

Jaffe simply responded by saying one name: Scott Rolen.

Indeed, 2021 will be a crucial year for Rolen’s Hall of Fame candidacy. 2021 is viewed as a ballot thin on slam-dunk candidates. Over the past few cycles, the online sabmertric community has increasingly flexed their muscle on the process. Some more analytically-inclined writers, like Jaffe, are now getting votes. Other writers and observers of the sport that are very numbers based have realized the power of using the bully pulpit on Twitter to influence more traditional voters to take a deeper look at the cases of players that analytics say are worthy.

Martinez, for example, received just 36.2% of the vote in 2010, his first year on the ballot. As recently as 2017, Martinez garnered less than 60% of the vote. Yet, a campaign led by internet activists pushed Martinez into receiving 85.4% of the vote in 2019, his final year of eligibility. Candidates need 75% of the vote to be elected, so Martinez blew past that in 2019. Like Walker, Martinez’s career totals didn’t change during his decade on the ballot. What did is that more and more voters began releasing their ballots publicly on Twitter, and receiving feedback from fans and media personalities. Some voters may have voted for Martinez and Walker simply because they feared the wrath of anonymous Twitter users, but other voters were pushed into further examining the cases of former stars, and realizing that they had careers worthy of Cooperstown.

Will Rolen be the next player to make a gigantic jump on the ballot? Phillies Nation recently reached out to 2021 Hall of Fame voter Rob Maaddi and asked whether this would be the year that Rolen – who received 35.3% of the vote in 2020, his third year of eligibility – makes a push towards 75%. Maaddi simply responded by saying that Rolen “deserves a strong, hard look.” Theoretically, that’s true for every person on the ballot, but the reality is that Rolen’s case is going to get a much longer look from voters than those of Michael Cuddyer or Nick Swisher, two players appearing on the ballot for the first time in 2021.

Maaddi hasn’t voted for Rolen previously, but says that’s because there have been more obvious deserving candidates on the ballot, not necessarily because he doesn’t think Rolen is worthy. BBWAA voters are limited to a maximum of 10 votes per ballot. However, with no obvious candidates appearing on the 2021 ballot for the first time, the logjam has seemingly been broken. At the very least, Rolen’s case is worthy of quite a bit of deliberation, and may get it more than he has the last three years.

Yes, he tops the average Hall of Fame third baseman in bWAR, WAR7 and JAWS, three sabermetrics used frequently to assess how dominant a player was at his peak, and how they compare to players already in the Hall of Fame at their primary position.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Rolen isn’t short on more traditional accolades. He won the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year while playing for the Phillies. Rolen was a rookie the same year as Liván Hernández, Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, among others. He made seven All-Star teams, despite his peak coinciding with at least part of The Steroid Era. Rolen is also one of the five greatest defenders in the history of his position. Though Nolan Arenado may pass him as soon as next year, the only Hall of Famers who have more than Rolen’s eight Gold Glove Awards at the position are Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt.

In many senses, Rolen’s offensive presence was underappreciated because his prime overlapped with a period in which quite a few players were putting up video-game numbers, many of which would later be watered down by PED connections.

Think about this: in 2004, Rolen slashed .314/.409/.598 with 34 home runs, 129 RBIs, a 1.007 OPS, 30 defensive runs saved and a staggering 9.0 fWAR. It’s not a stretch to say his 2004 campaign for the St. Louis Cardinals was one of the most complete seasons of the last 25 years, one that would likely net him a National League MVP Award if he produced it in 2021. However, in 2004, when Barry Bonds, Adrián Beltré and Albert Pujols combined for 139 home runs, Rolen had to settle for a fourth-place finish.

Between 1997 and 2006, FanGraphs says that Rolen was the fourth-most valuable offensive player in the entire sport. Over the same period, Rolen graded out as the fourth-best defender in baseball. Again, his peak came at the same time that many view as the height of PED usage in baseball, and nothing has ever emerged to suggested that Rolen juiced. So, no, Rolen never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting, but that’s partially because he was competing during an era flush with cheating. It also stands to reason that Rolen simply didn’t get a fair shake in awards voting at the time, and considering more information is available to us in 2020 than it was in the late-90s or early-2000s, he may place higher in multiple years if voting was redone today. Context matters when you are basing a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness on awards votes cast 15 or more years ago.

Though I personally find Rolen’s case rather cut and dry, my opinion isn’t especially important because I don’t have a vote on such matters. What is important to monitor this year isn’t whether Rolen gets elected – he’s not going to. However, Martinez received 35.9% of the vote in his fourth year on the ballot, while Walker was at just 10.2%. If Rolen receives a large increase in the vote in 2021 – like into the 50% range – he’ll be tracking way ahead of where Martinez and Walker were at the same stage, leading you to believe that he has a very real chance of eventually being elected.

While being elected to the Phillies’ Wall of Fame may be a good first step for Rolen, the debate about whether he should wear a Phillies or St. Louis Cardinals’ hat on his Hall of Fame plaque would be a pretty fun one to have. 2021 may give us the clearest indication yet of whether it’s a discussion worth having.


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