COOPERSTOWN, NY — It has been more than a decade since either of them has played a major league game. But for Scott Rolen and Fred McGriff, Sunday will be the culmination of their long, distinguished careers.
It’s the day they’re inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. So it’s the perfect time to look back on their paths to Cooperstown.
Rolens Hall of Fame case
Was Scott Rolen the Nolan Arenado of his era (1996-2012)? One could argue that.
Rolen was a fierce, acrobatic defender who won eight Gold Glove awards over his 17-year career. The only third basemen in history to have won more are Arenado (10), Mike Schmidt (10), and Brooks Robinson (16).
And if we use Baseball Reference’s above-average career defensive runs as a measure of Rolen’s defense, he’s the third-best defensive third baseman of all time (at 175). Only Adrián Beltré (216) and Robinson (294) ended their careers with more. (What about Arenado? He’s at 149, in his 11th season, so he’ll definitely be joining that group.)
“It’s a very scary thought.” What if Hall of Famer Scott Rolen chose basketball?
“I’ve always viewed third base as an integral defensive position,” Rolen said via Zoom last week during his Hall of Fame press conference, though he’s well aware that “maybe not everyone else saw it that way.”
But no matter how you look at it, it was the combination of top-notch leatherwork and above-average offensive performance that catapulted Rolen onto the podium at Cooperstown. Here is a list that tells that story:
MOST SEASONS WITH A GOLD GLOVE AND 120 OPS+ AT 3B*
Smith — 10
roles — 8th
Arenado — 6
(Source: Baseball Reference / Stathead)
(*with enough PA to qualify for a hit title)
Rolen’s path to choice
In Rolen’s first year on the Authors’ Ballot (2018), he received 50 fewer votes (43) than Manny Ramirez and his name was only checked on 10.2 percent of all ballots cast. But by the third year, when the ballot was less congested, Rolen’s candidacy picked up speed.
In three consecutive elections, no candidate has won more votes than he has. Between 2019 and 2022, it rose from 17.2 percent to 63.2 percent. And this year, in his sixth run, he jumped another 13 percent. As a result, he was able to clear the 75 percent hurdle by just five votes and 76.3 percent. That was the second-smallest margin in the last 35 elections.
Still, Rolen was the only player chosen by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters that year. He and David Ortiz are the only two to have won 75 percent in the last three elections. Rolen is also only the ninth third baseman voted to the Hall by the authors. The only others in the last 30 years: Chipper Jones (2018) and Wade Boggs (2005).
McGriff’s Hall of Fame case
(Photo: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)
He hit 493 home runs, had five MVP finishes in the top 10, and was a midfielder for five playoff teams in his 19-year career. So it shouldn’t have been almost two decades before Fred McGriff was honored at Cooperstown. But we all know why.
McGriff’s performance-enhancing drug era has overshadowed his Hall of Fame candidacy more than any batsman in 35 years—until now. During his prime (1988–2002), McGriff was nearly the same player for 15 seasons, productive year after year. What obviously wasn’t the same was the PED-ruined sport around him. Here’s a breakdown that says it all:
1988-1992 – .283/.393/.531
1993-2002 – .290/.373/.506
So what is the difference between these two time periods? During that early stint, McGriff finished in the top five on the league leaderboards for home runs and OPS for all five seasons, essentially pre-PED. But what then?
His production was nearly identical for the next ten seasons. But he made the top 10 in every category in just two of those years, as the muscular thugs around him were suddenly hitting 50, 60, and 70 home runs a year.
So is there any question that his height, more than anyone else in the sport, has been obscured by the insane number of PED-makers around him? Luckily, it’s now easier to look at his career in hindsight.
McGriff had 30 homer seasons 14 years apart (1988, 2002). He had .900-OPS seasons 13 years apart (1988, 2001). He was in Toronto cleaning up when he was 25 and cleaning up for the Cubs when he was 38. And then there’s this: Only one batsman in the entire live ball era (Eddie Murray) has been his team’s sweeper in more games than McGriff (1,826). That tells us exactly what every team he’s ever played for thought of him.
Somehow he never managed to get chosen by the writers. But who, in hindsight, embodied the fate of the ‘clean player’ in that era more than he? The correct answer is: Nobody. And now, during his press conference last week, McGriff said he took it as a compliment.
“I thought it was great,” he said. “It was a compliment. Because that’s the best thing I can do… have integrity and go out there and play the game the way it’s meant to be played.”
Fred McGriff is inducted into the Hall of Fame 30 years after Slugger “started a fire” among Braves
McGriff’s path to election
McGriff has never received 40 percent of the votes in his ten years in the author selection. But last December, the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee made a statement of its own — unanimously electing him in his first electoral year, voted on by a 16-strong panel of executives, Hall of Famers, writers and historians.
Right up to the end, McGriff’s entire career – and his journey to Cooperstown – was shaped by the PED era. Those PED people may have stopped him from being honored the first time. But it was hard to miss that when the Veterans Committee elected him last winter, they flatly rejected the nominations of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro. Hmmm. Why was that anyway?
Who else was honored this weekend?
Rolen and McGriff will be the only players entering the arena this weekend. But there are other award winners.
• Longtime Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes received the Ford Frick Award, which is essentially the Hall’s broadcast wing.
• John Lowe, who covered the Tigers for the Detroit Free Press for 28 years, received the BBWAA Career Excellence Award and is honored in the baseball writers’ wing.
• And the last of Brooklyn’s fabled Boys of Summer, pitcher Carl Erskine, received the Buck O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hughes, Lowe and Erskine were honored in a separate ceremony in Cooperstown on Saturday and will then be honored on stage on Sunday, induction day.
Whose plaques will be carved in 2024?
(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
The 2024 election will be fascinating. It will be Adrián Beltré’s first election year, and with his 3,166 hits, 477 homers and spectacular defensive skills at third base, he looks like a shill.
But could it also be the year for longtime Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who fell just 11 votes short of 72.2 percent in this year’s election? And what about Billy Wagner, one of the best left-handers in history, who scored 68.1 percent this year, 27 votes short.
Other prominent names to watch include Joe Mauer, Chase Utley and David Wright, all making their campaign debuts — as well as returnees Andruw Jones (58.1 percent), Gary Sheffield (55.0) and Carlos Beltrán (46.5), all now within striking distance. Also of note: it will be Sheffield’s tenth and final year on the authors’ ballot.
Next year, however, there will be no players chosen by any version of the Veterans Committee. Only managers, officers and umpires are considered by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee. One name to watch: recently-retired refereeing legend Joe West.
(Top Photo by Rolen: Elsa/Getty Images)