Scott Rolen, the Hall of Fame, and third basemen

Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron takes a look at the Hall of Fame case for Scott Rolen.  Cameron argues that Rolen stacks up very well in comparison to his contemporary Derek Jeter, but that while Jeter will be a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer, Rolen faces long odds of even being admitted, even though Rolen is currently 12th all-time in WAR among third basemen, using the Fangraphs' calculations.

Part of what makes the Rolen Hall of Fame case so difficult is that the Hall of Fame, in general, has so few third basemen in it.  Even if you include Paul Molitor as a third basemen, there are a total of eleven* third basemen in the Hall of Fame -- much less than the total at any other position.  That makes it harder to draw comparisons among other third basemen who are already in, and leaves a lot more of the "borderline" third basemen on the outside looking in.

*  I'm excluding Negro League players in this count -- there are fourteen if you include Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, and Jud Wilson.

To put this in perspective...if we look at Hall-eligible position players who aren't in (those retired at least 5 years who aren't officially banned from the Hall),* who have accumulated at least 60 WAR using B-R's WAR methodology**, there are a total of 19 that meet our criteria. 

*  How great is Barry Bonds?  When I ran the sort on B-R for retired players with at least 60 WAR, he was first, with 171.8 WAR.  The next highest player on the list is Jeff Bagwell, with 79.9 WAR.  The best retired player not currently in the Hall has less than half the total WAR of Bonds.

** B-R is much easier to search than FanGraphs, so I'm using B-R's version.

Of those 19, the breakdown by position is as follows:

1B -- 4 (Bagwell, McGwire, Hernandez, Palmeiro)

2B -- 3 (Whitaker, Randolph, Grich)

3B -- 4 (Bell, Nettles, Bando, Santo)

SS -- 2 (Larkin, Trammell)

OF -- 4 (Raines, L. Walker, R. Smith, Dwight Evans)

Other -- 2 (Allen, E. Martinez)

There are as many 60+ WAR third basemen on the outside looking in as there are first basemen and outfielders, both of which are much more represented in the Hall than third base is, with Palmeiro and McGwire being excluded primarily because of their PED issues, while Tim Raines will likely be admitted in the next couple of years, dropping the outfield number down to three.

And the two guys in the "Other" category -- Dick Allen and Edgar Martinez -- were both third basemen, as well, although Martinez spent the majority of his career at DH, and Allen floated from position to position.

The other fascinating thing (to me, at least) is how this exercise shows how Hall standards have changed in recent years.  Not a single position player who debuted before 1960, who logged a WAR of at least 60, is not in the Hall (other than Shoeless Joe, of course).

If we work backwards chronologically, and look at players who retired before 1990 with 60+ WARs who aren't in, the list goes like this:

Santo

Allen

Bando

Smith

Grich

Nettles

Bell

Four third basemen, one outfielder, one second baseman, and one "other."

The other thing in looking at this list is that it really drives home how overlooked defense has been in the Hall of Fame balloting, particularly for the corner spots.  Buddy Bell was, according to Fangraphs' data, the second-best defensive third baseman in major league history.  Robin Ventura, who never got a sniff at the Hall (and who has a 55.5 career WAR per B-R), is 4th.  Nettles is 7th (behind Rolen and Adrian Beltre, who are 5th and 6th, respectively).  Bando and Santo were also above-average defenders, although not on the level of Bell or Nettles.

And when you look at the other guys on the outside looking in from this list, without regard to position -- and in particular, when you look at the guys who are off the ballot for good -- you see the theme repeat itself.

Dwight Evans and Reggie Smith were outstanding defensive right fielders.  Fangraphs has Grich, Whitaker and Randolph all among the 25 best defenders at second base of all time.  Keith Hernandez was a tremendous defensive first baseman.

And yet, they all missed the cut, and really didn't even get much consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Rolen's Hall of Fame case is going to be interesting to watch, in nine or ten years when he becomes eligible.  He doesn't have gaudy offensive numbers or a lot of MVP love, as Cameron points out.  But he is one of the very best to play the game at his position, and I would wager that, a decade from now, his consistent excellence, and his outstanding glovework, will be enough to get him into the Hall.

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