Scott Rolen, an elite defensive third baseman who was one of baseball’s steadiest offensive producers in his prime, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Rolen will join Fred McGriff, who was voted in by a veterans’ committee in December, when the Class of 2023 is inducted this summer.
Third basemen are the rarest of Cooperstown breeds, and Rolen became just the 18th Hall of Famer to play most of his career there. He received 76.3 percent of the vote during his sixth year on the ballot to clear the 75 percent needed for induction by just five votes. He had been on 63.2 percent of the ballots last year.
“There was actually never a point in my life where I thought I was going to be a Hall of Fame baseball player,” Rolen said Tuesday. “... Never thought I was going to get drafted. Never think I was going to play in the major leagues. Never was going to be whatever. And then certainly when I made the ballot, it was a great honor at the time.”
But Rolen went further than that Tuesday, getting honored for a 17-year career that included a rookie of the year award in 1997 and a World Series title in 2006. Rolen began his career as the second coming of Mike Schmidt with the Philadelphia Phillies and grew into the stalwart of a long-awaited St. Louis Cardinals championship team in his 30s. With eight Gold Gloves, he trails only Brooks Robinson (16), Schmidt (10) and current Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado (10) for the most at the position. Among third basemen from the past half-century, Rolen is seventh in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. Of those ahead of him, the only players not in the Hall of Fame are not yet eligible or had their careers tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.
“On behalf of the entire St. Louis Cardinals organization, I would like to congratulate Scott Rolen on the well-deserved honor of being selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. “Scott was a cornerstone of our infield and lineup during his six seasons in St. Louis, and helped create many fond memories as part of the great Cardinals teams of the mid-2000s.”
Rolen, who played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds, finished his career with a .281 batting average, an .855 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 316 home runs and 2,077 hits, numbers affected substantially by injuries that limited him in his 30s.
“Philadelphia was privileged to have witnessed the beginning of his extraordinary baseball career,” Phillies owner John Middleton said in a statement. “In addition to being one of the most impactful offensive and defensive players of his era, Scott played the game the right way. Whether taking an extra base with a headfirst slide or diving for a ball in the hole, his hard-nosed effort and selfless attitude resonated with our fans.”
Thanks to his elite glove and steady bat, Rolen was an annual MVP candidate when he was healthy. From 1997 to 2005, only three players accumulated more FanGraphs WAR: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and fellow 2023 Hall of Fame ballot member Andruw Jones. Jones, known as even more of a glove-first star than Rolen, was named on 58.1 percent of the ballots this year, the sixth he was eligible.
Rolen became just the second player elected by the writers in the past three years. They voted in former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz last year. The year before that, they didn’t elect anyone. The relative dearth is evidence of the complicated era in which Rolen wrote his Hall of Fame résumé, one in which many of the brightest stars slid into baseball purgatory because of ties to performance-enhancing drugs.
Rodriguez, for example, landed on just 35.7 percent of the ballots this time as a year’s suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs continues to overshadow his legacy as one of the more prolific hitters of his era. Rodriguez is fifth all-time in homers and fourth all-time in RBI, numbers that would otherwise make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Accused of using steroids, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, statistical Hall of Fame locks, went 10 years apiece without reaching 75 percent; they fell off the ballot after last year’s voting.
Other complicated candidacies, such as those of postseason ace Curt Schilling and first-time-eligible outfielder Carlos Beltrán, also have tarnished some of the more impressive on-field résumés of the past few decades. This year, Beltrán became the first member of the 2017 Houston Astros to hit the Hall of Fame ballot, meaning his candidacy gave voters their first opportunity to grapple with the legacy of those involved in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. He received 46.5 percent of the vote.
But neither Rolen nor the man who came closest to joining him in the Class of 2023, Todd Helton, was tied to off-field controversy. Helton, the biggest star in Colorado Rockies history, was always discredited somewhat because he played half of his career at offense-friendly Coors Field, but his numbers — including a .316 career batting average and a .953 OPS — suggest he wasn’t a fluke. Helton received 72.2 percent of the vote in his fifth year on the ballot and will be back next year. So will closer Billy Wagner (68.1 percent in his eighth year) and slugger Gary Sheffield (55 percent in his ninth).
Those players should take heart in Rolen’s Hall of Fame story, which he said began in the parking lot outside of his young son’s basketball practice as he waited to hear the voting results of his first year on the ballot in 2018. At the time, he told his son he didn’t think he would get in, that he just wanted the 5 percent required to stay on the ballot for one more year. When the numbers came out, he had received 10.2 percent.
“Did we win?” his son, Finn, asked him.
“I said, ‘Oh, yes, we won,’ ” Rolen recalled telling him.
“[Getting in] is kind of silly,” he said. “This is kind of over the top.”