Scott Rolen, Immortal? (18 Game Capsule 1)

Let's start with a quantifiable piece of evidence. The Baseball Hall of Fame has opened its doors to eleven MLB third basemen, twelve if you count Paul Molitor. It's a bit of an underrepresentation, comparing unfavorably to 18 second basemen, 19 shortstops, and 20 first basemen.

While there are reasons and theories for this electability gap, let's pretend for the moment that they don't much matter, and ask more topical questions: Will Scott Rolen be elected into the Hall of Fame? And if the matter is still unsettled, what more does he need to do to get in? Perhaps at a more granular level, why write about Rolen vs. the Hall when he's currently hitting .183 (and a weak .183, at that)?

To that last point, April is always the official month of optimism in these parts, and I'll maintain that nothing seen in the last three weeks will last forever (except for the awesome parts). That, or I had been mulling this piece for awhile and figured I had better post it now before it became completely ridiculous. Regarding the broader questions...

Lists are helpful things, so here's the current list of Hot Corner Heroes Currently Hosted in Cooperstown:

Frank "Home Run" Baker

Wade Boggs

George Brett

Jimmy Collins

George Kell

Freddie Lindstrom

Eddie Mathews

Paul Molitor

Brooks Robinson

Ron Santo

Mike Schmidt

Pie Traynor

It seems like a given that the most likely Hall of Fame candidates are those who were the best at their position during their era of play. If true, then Rolen will have a primary disadvantage to be directly compared to Chipper Jones, who we will assume to be a lock. Add his name to the list above, and here are the average career stats for the Immortals, as compared to Rolen's career numbers through the end of 2011:

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

OPS+

WAR

Average

8,254

1,287

2,446

439

87

246

1,239

126

68.5

Rolen

7,104

1,185

2,005

500

41

308

1,248

123

66.2

That's...well, that's not too bad, actually. Seems like Rolen would more or less match the average profile of the current group of enshrined. Per usual, however, there's a bit more to the numbers, namely that the more recent group of Hall members is quite a bit better than the group who played before the world emerged into Technicolor. Let's exclude Baker, Collins, Kell, Lindstrom, and Traynor, and focus on the group which might have been plausibly eye-witnessed by current sportswriters:

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

OPS+

WAR

Average*

9,331

1,478

2,719

498

77

349

1,402

130

84.2

Rolen

7,104

1,185

2,005

500

41

308

1,248

123

66.2

Rolen's about 3-4 solid seasons short of the mark, perhaps. What's not being accounted for, though, are Rolen's future seasons (including this one). Let's add both the brock2 and ZiPS projections for Rolen's full career stats:

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

OPS+

WAR

Average*

9,331

1,478

2,719

498

77

349

1,402

130

84.2

Brock2

7,889

1,293

2,206

555

46

325

1,339

N/A

N/A

ZiPS

8,178

1,306

2,276

576

50

335

1,409

119

N/A

It's still an uphill climb. Looking player by player, there's another problem that emerges. Most of the inductees have reached a "magic milestone" in his career:

Boggs: 3,000 hits

Brett: 3,000 hits

Mathews: 500 home runs

Molitor: 3,000 hits

Robinson: only 2,800 hits, plus reputation as the greatest defensive 3rd baseman ever

Santo: no magic milestones

Schmidt: 500 home runs

Jones: Chipper is not going to reach 500 homers, although he'll come reasonably close while being a fairly iconic one-team player through a long stretch of team success whose career OPS+ will be the 3rd highest within this group.

Rolen won't even reach 2,500 career hits or 400 home runs, so a more nuanced case would need to be made in his favor. Unfortunately, there's another likely obstacle in the way. Let's look at another chart:

WAR

dWAR

Pct

Baker

63.7

3.5

5.5%

Boggs

89.0

10.1

11.3%

Brett

85.0

5.5

6.5%

Collins

53.0

12.1

22.8%

Kell

33.6

1.3

3.9%

Lindstrom

29.2

1.9

6.5%

Mathews

98.3

2.9

3.0%

Molitor

74.8

0.8

1.1%

Robinson

69.1

27.3

39.5%

Santo

66.4

1.1

1.7%

Schmidt

108.3

13.9

12.8%

Traynor

37.1

-3.6

-9.7%

Jones

82.7

-2.2

-2.7%

Rolen

66.2

14.6

22.1%

A high percentage of Rolen's value comes from his glove, which is of little surprise to those who have seen him play. If the above numbers accurately reflect reality, however, we can see that Rolen contributes both an unusually high percentage of his value from his defensive play and falls well short of the gold standard set by the Human Vacuum. This is again largely anecdotal, but Cooperstown seems to have a bit of history whereby it will immortalize the greatest fielder at a position (Brooks, Ozzie, Maz), but otherwise focuses primarily on hitting prowess as a voting guide.

One more chart, focusing on Rolen and the most recent player in this group to be honored:

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

OPS+

WAR

Santo

8,143

1,138

2,254

365

67

342

1,331

125

66.4

Rolen

7,104

1,185

2,005

500

41

308

1,248

123

66.2

Santo played in a weaker run-scoring environment than Rolen, but it's semi-reasonable to think that voters may mentally group Rolen in the same tier as Santo, who was never elected by the BBWAA. Rolen will likely have three major disadvantages against him in the comparison:

  • 1) He's unlikely to be a much-loved TV analyst, openly shilling for his own induction;
  • 2) He's unlikely to be viewed as a sympathetic figure worthy of additional grassroots stumping (Santo's battles with diabetes, leading to his leg being amputated, presumably contributed to this sympathy, although part was that baseball generally caused Santo so much pain, on account of the Cubs.)
  • 3) He won't be subject to a veteran's committee vote, or whatever they will call it in the future, for at least 21 more years.

This would appear to be a stacked deck against Scotty Rolen: The lack of calling card milestones, the semi-hidden and ill-defined creation of value, and the obvious shortcomings in his most obvious peer comparison (both from a contemporary and a historical viewpoint). There is, however, a potential ace card to be played. Rolen is close enough on the numbers and the merits to be worthy of preliminary consideration, and if he were to steal the October stage one season (2012, for instance), it may be enough to establish iconic status. There are precedents: Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris (perhaps), even Brooks Robinson and Bill Mazeroski owe some of their eternal fame to their World Series exploits.

It's possible, even plausible, that you approached the initial question of Scott Rolen's Hall of Fame candidacy with indifference. No more, fellow traveler. The likelihood of his bronzed plaque is directly tied to how well he plays this October, and that's something we all can cheer for.

***

Hey, I'm back with the 18 game thing. Still don't have a non-awkward name for it. Pitching backwards this year with respect to the format, on account of I just felt like it. The first capsule always feels a bit pointless, since I'm essentially pointing out that each player's stats over the last 18 games is exactly the same as his year-to-date numbers. Quelle surprise! So anyway, to the numbers. I suppose this might be the aftereffects of a 3-game win streak, but I'm feeling mega positive about this group right now. The pitching was exactly average, the hitting sucked, the team played a difficult stretch of schedule, and they won half their games. These are banked games that will still count when the team really starts playing. Let's kick it... (stats through Wednesday's games)

2012 Reds, Capsule 1

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 9 - 9

Strength of Schedule: .534 (4th most difficult in NL; 8th most difficult in ML)

RPI (ESPN): .526 (4h best in NL; 9th best in ML)

Baseball Prospectus postseason odds: 45.6%

Baseball Prospectus division odds: 18.0%

Offense:

  • .231/.302/.358 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .245/.313/.382
  • In addition to being below league average, the traditional home park scoring advantage is working against the team, leading to a team OPS+ of 81 (league average = 93).
  • Looking a bit under the hood, most of the peripherals don't suggest illness. The walk and strikeout rates are essentially average, while the BABIP is just a tad sub-par (.278 against .292). The biggest deficiency shows up when looking at home runs, since the Reds rank 11th in the NL in that category. Perhaps an indication that better things are ahead can be found in the league's doubles lists, where the Reds sit 2nd behind Colorado.
  • Six of the regulars have 11 or more strikeouts to date, which probably seems like a lot on both fronts, but the 135 K's are at mean and median averages.
  • Speaking of strikeouts, Joey Votto is having the most trouble making contact, striking out in 31% of his at-bats. He made up for it in other ways, of course, but I wonder if there's an aspect of trying to make up for his sluggard teammates.
  • One more Votto note: 871 OPS = 142 OPS+. !?!
  • It's best not to make too many conclusions at this point of the season, but the last time the aggregate full season OPS in the National League was this low was 1992.
  • Zack the Season Saver? 2nd on the team in OBP, 1st in slugging percentage.
  • Just nine stolen base attempts on the year.
  • The tale of a punchless bench: Harris + Valdez + Cairo = 68 plate appearances, .156/.179/.219 batting line.
  • Outside of Votto, no one walked more than 6 times.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.59, against league average of 3.56.
  • The common narrative, especially early on, was that the offense may have been awful, but the pitching was amazing. And while there were certainly games that fit that narrative, and while ERA over this short a period can mask the true game-by-game effectiveness of the staff, Baseball Prospectus's pitching stats show a purely average rotation: Support-neutral W-L record for the starting staff = 6.5 wins, 6.6 losses. Based on BP's "Fair Quality Starts", which appears to be some kind of quality start toggle based on the underlying components of each start, just six of the first 18 starts was "quality". Prior to reading this, I expect you were sitting at your desk thinking about how we need another non-intuitive and difficult to explain Prospectustat. You're welcome.
  • Mr. Chapman leads the team in strikeouts, but is sixth in innings pitched. He's one of five relievers with a K/9 rate over 10 (Marshall, Arredondo, Simon, and Bray).
  • Arroyo: 15 K's, 2 walks. Welcome back, seaman.
  • There are good things to be written about the start of Sean Marshall, accidental closer, but since he will blow a save in the first game of the next segment, I'm going to pass.
  • Jose Arredondo is a bit (large bit) of added control from being Chapman-lite, with 10 K/9, and opponents hitting just .161 against. Six walks in 9 innings, however.
  • The team DER is .696, 9th best in the NL and 17th best in the ML.

The next 18:

  • 10 games at home, 8 on the road
  • 12 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 3 of the 18 against 2011 playoff teams
  • .495 average winning percentage (2012) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • I expect, barring injury, we will not truly face the question of Aroldis Chapman's insertion into the starting rotation over these next few weeks. If we were, however, I'm more and more convinced that it's Mike Leake's spot with the bullseye on it. To be sure, Leake is not a 6.50 ERA pitcher, but if we're truly being honest with ourselves, it's been awhile since Mike Leake has been (Mike Leake!), settling for (Mike Leake.) at best. I wish it weren't this way, but I'm struggling to see the upside, and I fear that the league has fully caught up.
  • Zips projected six starters to have OPS+ levels at least at league average. There are currently three. Bad teams are imminent. The rebound effect will be severe, and it will be glorious, comrades.
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