The romance of baseball is in part a gift handed down through generations. In my lifetime I saw history in 1975, or when I watched Tom Browning finish his perfect game, or watched the scoreboard flash 4,192. Baseball has the unique place in American sports to have remained significant for more than 100 years. Football, Hockey and Basketball cannot yet make that kind of a claim. The names of Roger Staubach, Ken Anderson or Jerry Lucas elicit nostalgic thoughts regarding those sports while baseball harkens back to Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
Today I want to examine a player whose historic significance to the game is sometimes lost in the modern day grind of the day to day game of baseball. We know parts of his story, but do we truly understand just how good a player he has been? I am talking about our own third baseman Scott Rolen.
His struggles the last couple of years not withstanding, he has had an exceptional career. It is easy to overlook his accomplishments; he has played on 4 teams. Offensively, he is overshadowed by a couple of active third basemen sure to be first ballot Hall of Famers if you only examined the numbers and do not take acknowledgement of PEDs into consideration. But in spite of this Rolen still stands out when you take a closer look at all his accomplishments.
In order to view Scott in the proper perspective you must first know just a little more about each of the 11 third basemen currently in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I will even throw in information about the two players that could be well on their way toward earning a place in those hallowed halls. I will present a brief vignette of each current member first then a quick bio of the three active players and close with the statistical tables that hopefully lend credence to my conclusion. I believe Scott Rolen deserves a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame even if he never played another game. The biggest challenge in this review is drawing attention to the three members of the Negro Leagues who found a home in the Hall that I simply don’t have the statistical information to give them their proper due.
Ray Dandridge who hit for a career .355 batting average yet is known best for his fielding played for 10 different teams over 23 years. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Judy Johnson played 19 years with a .344 batting average and also a wizard with the glove may be best known for his role as player/manager with the Homestead Grays in 1930 for discovering Josh Gibson, one of the greatest sluggers in any league. He joined the Hall of Fame in 1975.
Jud Wilson played 24 years in the Negro Leagues and was called one of the “two toughest outs” by Satchel Paige. High praise indeed. He had a career .351 batting average and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
It is impossible to compare players from these leagues to players in the non integrated Major Leagues just as there is no real way to compare players from one era in time to another. Part of the mystique of baseball is the ability to wistfully try.
Anyway let’s meet the Major League third basemen in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Frank “Home Run” Baker played 13 seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics and the New York Yankees between 1908 and 1922. He sat out the entire 1915 season because of a contract dispute with the Athletics. Baker hit 96 home runs during his career in the “dead ball” era of baseball. When asked how many he would have hit using a lively ball he is quoted as having said, “I’d say fifty anyway. The year I hit twelve, I also hit the right-field fence at Shibe Park thirty-eight times.” He led the American League in Home Runs from 1911-1914. He is one of only three players on this list to hit more triples than home runs.
Let me preface this by saying I am unable to be objective about George Brett. Along with Joe Morgan, they are the two players from my youth I idolized most. Brett played 21 seasons all with the Kansas City Royals from 1973 to 1993 winning the World Series in 1985. Notably, he batted .390 in 1990 and along with teammate Frank White is among the 24 players to hit for the cycle twice in their career. Sparky Anderson talking about Brett said “I’ve always loved the way he played the game of baseball, and I also thought he was the most dangerous hitter I ever faced – certainly in the American League. Back with Cincinnati, I used to walk the Giants’ Willie McCovey all the time because he could just kill you. I thought I’d never treat another hitter that way, but I wound up doing it with George.”
Wade Boggs played for the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during his 18 year career spanning 1982-1999. A contemporary of Brett he lacked George’s power but usually had a higher batting average and his career average was 19 points higher. He once said, “I didn’t get over 1300 walks without knowing the strike zone.” In fact he is currently 26th all time for the most bases on balls finishing with a career total of 1,412. He is one of just 5 third basemen ever to have a defensive WAR above 10 for his career at 10.1.
Another player from years’ distant past, Jimmy Collins played 14 seasons for the Boston Beaneaters, the Louisville Colonels, the Boston Americans and the Philadelphia Athletics from 1895 to 1908. He revolutionized the way third base was played and to this day has the 4th highest defensive WAR of all time for his position. He was a consistent hitter with a career average of .294 and in 1898 led the National League in home runs with 15. On Collins’ Hall of Fame page, John B. Foster is quoted from the 1902 Spalding Guide: “With a swoop like that of a chicken hawk, Collins would gather up the bunt and throw it accurately to whoever should receive it. The beauty about him was that he could throw from any angle, any position on the ground or in the air.” Reminds me of Scott Rolen just a bit.
George Kell played 15 seasons from 1943-1957 for 5 different teams, most notably the Detroit Tigers. He was a consistent force but never really a star. A quote immediately following his death suggests why he deserved a place in the Hall of Fame. ”Third base remains baseball’s enigmatic position, the only one in which fielding prowess stands on equal ground with hitting skill. It is the rarest of combinations and one that has sent just 11 former Major Leaguers to the Baseball Hall of Fame — the fewest of any position. George Kell, one of those 11, died Tuesday at the age of 86. During his playing days, his skills with the lumber and the leather produced one of baseball’s most consistent players of the mid-20th century.” – Researcher Craig Muder (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 03/24/09)
Freddie Lindstrom played just 13 seasons predominantly with the New York Giants but he stands out in the record books for two reasons. In 1924 he became, and still is, the youngest player to appear in a World Series game at 18. His Hall of Fame plaque recognizes him as one of only three players to collect 230+ hits in TWO seasons. I expected him to join Pete Rose and Ty Cobb but each of them only reached this level once in their careers. The two were Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler. Since Lindstrom was elected another man has collected 230+ hits in THREE seasons: Ichiro Suzuki. Lindstrom also set the 20th Century mark for the most hits in a doubleheader with 9. When selected by the Veteran’s Committee in 1976 he finished his speech by saying, “I realize that it had to be the handiwork of the Supreme Being to allow me to live long enough to see this day and also for the Veterans Committee to be good enough to pick me for this honor which is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.” How many young boys grow up imagining themselves as a member of the Hall of Fame? Until I turned 8 or 9 years old, I imagined myself there.
Eddie Matthews is a fascinating player. He is the only man to have been on the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta versions of the Braves. He was the 7th man to reach 500 home runs back in the days when that number meant something. Matthews hit 25 home runs 11 seasons in a row and 12 seasons total. In the era of Mickey Mantle, Mathews was the first person to grace the cover of a new magazine in 1954 called Sports Illustrated. Also in ’54, Ty Cobb was quoted as saying “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.”
Paul Molitor presents a challenge for an evaluation of this sort. He was a skilled hitter but only played 53% of his 1491 games at third base. He had a career fielding percentage of .950 at third so fielding clearly had little to do with his entry into the Hall of Fame. Still he was an excellent hitter and finished with the most career hits of anyone on this esteemed list and 9th all time. His career spanned 21 seasons from 1978 until 1998 and he appeared in two World Series where he rose to the occasion with a career 1.112 OPS and .418 Batting Average. In the 1993 World Series against Philadelphia he led the Toronto Blue Jays to victory and was recognized with the WS MVP award.
When I was a kid and you wanted to refer to dominant fielding you referred to Brooks Robinson. He was simply incredible in his 23 seasons on the hot corner. His streak of 16 Gold Gloves at third base from 1960 through 1975 will doubtless never be equaled. His defensive WAR is nearly twice as high as any other third baseman in the Hall of Fame. He won an MVP award in 1964 and sadly in 1970 earned the World Series MVP award for his dominant performance versus the Cincinnati Reds just as the Big Red Machine was taking form. After the series ended Sparky Anderson was famously quoted as saying, I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.” George Brett said admiringly of Brooks, “He charged everything. He reacted as the ball was coming off the bat, sometimes as it was coming to the bat.”
But in the end Robinson wrote one of my favorite quotes in his autobiography Third Base is My Home, “It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.”
It was only later when I realized Mike Schmidt and I shared a birthplace, until then he was simply the enemy. Playing 18 seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies he was a known Reds killer. When looking at Schmidt’s split stats he recorded his highest OPS (1.010) against Cincinnati. He hit 55 of his of his 548 home runs were hit against the Reds in just 185 games, the highest ratio of home runs/games played of any team he faced. His athletic prowess was unparalleled at the time he played. In his biography, Pete Rose was quoted by author David Jordan, “To have his body, I’d trade mine and my wife’s, and I’d throw in some cash.” When he won both the 1980 World Series and the 1980 season MVP awards he won the Home Run title by 13 HRs demonstrating his superiority to the rest of the league. If I were to pick the man I believe to be the greatest third baseman in history, for me the discussion would begin…and end, with Mike Schmidt.
If my statement proclaiming Mike Schmidt the greatest third baseman were to be disputed, Pie Traynor would be a solid second choice. In his 17 year career all with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was known for his glove although statistically his numbers do not reflect this perception. My guess is that his dWAR numbers are a bit suspect because all of the pertinent information is either not available or cannot be perceived as we view the game today. One statistic though is indisputable and it may be the most staggering stat I have ever seen. In 1929, Harold Joseph (Pie) Traynor struck out 7 times. 7 times in 540 at bats. He had more triples that season (9) than he had strikeouts. It is hard to imagine. Branch Rickey said of Traynor, “He was a mechanically perfect third baseman, a man of intellectual worth on the field of play.” High praise from the man who integrated baseball on the day Traynor was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Oh and his nickname, according to his website the explanation for it was simply that pie was his favorite childhood treat. I must agree.
Now we turn our attention to the three men who look poised to swell the numbers of the Hall of Fame. The active third base stars of MLB.
Chipper has already stated that 2012 will be his final season in the Major Leagues and has amassed numbers worthy of the Hall of Fame. In his 17 year career, all with the Atlanta Braves, he has stacked up impressive numbers. Comparing Jones to the 13 members of the Hall he ranks 5th in WAR, 3rd in offensive WAR. He has the 5th most hits, the 4th most doubles, and the 3rd most home runs. His career OPS is .935 and he has had 6 seasons with an OPS over 1.000. He won the MVP award in 1999 and has set the offensive bar for third basemen in the National League for more than a decade. He has earned his place in Cooperstown.
ARod seems to be a lightning rod for criticism. Unlike many players on this list he has not stayed with a single team but has been willing to exploit the finances of baseball to the benefit of his pocketbook. Hard to criticize that decision in my mind. His time in Seattle, Texas and with the New York Yankees has been tumultuous but without exception they have been productive. A New Yorker by birth, he has never been accepted in the town for which he gave the ultimate sacrifice. He came to New York and moved from short stop to third base to accommodate the ever popular Derek Jeter. And he had the nerve to win the MVP award twice in pinstripes while on Mr. Jeter’s team. Audacity. ARod’s numbers are mind boggling but tainted by the admission that he used performance enhancing drugs while in Texas from 2001-2003. It is hard to imagine a player with 600 home runs not finding their way into the Hall of Fame but if Rodriguez is denied, this is the reason. By the end of this season, Rodriguez will finish with nearly identical numbers of at bats while playing third base as he has at shortstop, so like Paul Molitor he can be considered a third baseman but he spent only a portion of his time there. As of now, he has more HRs, RBI, and Runs Scored than anyone on this list…and it may not be enough. Time will tell.
So now we return to Scott Rolen.
First let’s review the stats of each player mentioned in this article.
|Frank Baker||Philadelphia Athletics||63.7||60.2||3.5||1838||315||103||96||887||987|
|George Brett||Kansas City Royals||85.0||79.5||5.5||3154||665||137||317||1583||1596|
|Wade Boggs||Boston Red Sox||89.0||78.9||10.1||3010||578||61||118||1513||1014|
|Jimmy Collins||Boston Red Sox||53.0||40.9||12.1||1999||352||116||65||1055||983|
|George Kell||Detroit Tigers||33.6||32.3||1.3||2054||385||50||78||870||881|
|Freddie Lindstrom||New York Giants||29.2||27.3||1.9||1747||301||81||103||895||779|
|Eddie Mathews||Milwaukee Braves||98.3||95.4||2.9||2315||354||72||512||1509||1453|
|Paul Molitor||Milwaukee Brewers||74.8||74||0.8||3319||605||114||234||1782||1307|
|Brooks Robinson||Baltimore Orioles||69.1||41.8||27.3||2848||482||68||268||1232||1357|
|Mike Schmidt||Philadelphia Phillies||108.3||94.4||13.9||2234||408||59||548||1506||1595|
|Pie Traynor||Pittsburgh Pirates||37.1||40.7||-3.6||2416||371||164||58||1183||1273|
Now for the active players we have reviewed.
|Chipper Jones||Atlanta Braves||82.7||84.9||-2.2||2621||527||38||456||1566||1568|
As you can see, Scott Rolen can hold his head high when considered in this company. He has earned a place. He has excelled for three teams; first in Philadelphia, next in St. Louis, and finally in the confines of Great America Ballpark. Offensively, he has the 6th best oWAR, 8th if considering Jones and Rodriguez. His overall WAR ranks 7th as Brooks Robinson sneaks ahead of him. Defensively he is only outshined by Robinson, making him statistically the second best fielding third baseman in the history of the game of baseball. Only 4 members of the Hall have more doubles or home runs than Scott does. In short, he has earned a place in my mind. He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
I would be remiss without a couple of references that I used for this article. Baseball-reference.com is always a wonderful aid, as were baseball-almanac.com and Wikipedia. Other references I mention specifically in the article. Your information was quite helpful!
Follow me on Twitter @JohnHeitz
Topics: Alex Rodriguez, Baseball Hall Of Fame, Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, Eddie Matthews, Freddie Lindstrom, George Brett, George Kell, Home Run Baker, Jimmy Collins, Jud Wilson, Judy Johnson, Mike Schmidt, Paul Molitor, Pie Traynor, Ray Dandridge, Scott Rolen, Wade Boggs