Going into his age-30 season in 2005, Scott Rolen was coming off his best year to date and still in his prime. He had already established himself as one of the better fielding third basemen of all-time, but his offensive production was starting to look pretty impressive as well. Indeed, his resume before the age of 30 indicated he was on pace for some big things. At the time, he was a career .286/.378/.520 hitter with 226 home runs, and one might have thought he would approach the magic 500 number before hanging it up. Considering how good Rolen is with the glove, such hitting credentials would have cemented his place as one of the very best ever at the position and earned him a rightful spot in Cooperstown.
Unfortunately, the 2005 season would not prove kind to Rolen. After getting off to a slow start (he was still hitting just .226 as late as April 23), his bat was just starting to come around when he slammed into then-Dodger first baseman Hee-Seop Choi in a play at first base on May 10. The reaction was immediate. Rolen grabbed his shoulder and hunched over near the base, clearly in significant pain. He would be taken out of the game and placed on the disabled list, and although he made an attempted return to action on June 18, he was clearly not the same hitter. In addition to showing hardly any power, Rolen also let loose the occasional blood-curdling scream when he took an especially vicious cut. The shoulder was obviously not healed, and he was again shut down in late July, this team to pursue season-ending surgery.
Although Rolen’s 2006 season, the year that saw him get his first and (to date) only World Series ring, was something of a bounce back effort, he’s never fully shaken the effects of a weakened shoulder. Since turning 30 in that 2005 season, Rolen’s career numbers have taken quite a dip, albeit with a few solid seasons mixed in. All told, he’s a .274/.344/.447 hitter since turning 30, and it’s probable that the shoulder issues claim a huge role in that drop-off in production. Certainly it’s unreasonable to expect that post-30 Rolen could match the numbers he put up prior to 2005, but it’s hard to see that much of a (sudden) decline not being largely due to the injury.
Here’s something to think about, though: even with Rolen’s offensive production taking such a hit in his post-30 seasons, it still looks as though he has a good chance of getting some Hall of Fame votes. He may no longer compare favorably to the very best hitting third basemen of all-time, but he’s still more than respectable in that department, and as previously mentioned, his glove is absolutely first rate. That should be good enough for him to sneak right around the hulking Choi and into Cooperstown anyway.
Consider that in terms of UZR, Rolen has amassed the fourth most defensive production all-time among third basemen behind only the legendary Brooks Robinson, the not as legendary Buddy Bell, and Adrian Beltre, who probably doesn’t get as much attention as Rolen does for his outstanding defense — the two are literally neck-and-neck in career UZR totals. It’s not an unreasonable thing to argue that anyone who plays his position that well is worthy of some kind of Hall of Fame consideration, and it’s not like Rolen hasn’t done a little hitting, too.
Even with the decline in production since 2005, Rolen is still a hitter with a career OPS of .855, a wOBA of .368, and a wRC+ of 122, all of which point to a player who was very dangerous in the batter’s box. Maybe it’s no longer fair to compare his hitting to Mike Schmidt (a comparison Rolen — when first drafted by the Phillies — was often saddled with), but that shouldn’t change the fact that he’s still been very capable with the bat over the course of his career.
The most important thing to consider is that in terms of overall production, Rolen has been so good defensively that his hitting is more than good enough to qualify him as a Hall of Famer. Using FanGraphs’ data and sorting the statistics of all qualifying third basemen in the history of the game, Rolen’s current WAR total of 75.0 puts him 11th on the list behind 10 Hall of Famers. Even if this is Rolen’s last season, and he hinted back in April that it very well could be, he’s already done enough to be enshrined forever in Cooperstown. Just imagine where he might have ended up if it weren’t for that collision at first base in 2005.