NEW YORK — One of the weakest ballots in recent memory proved to be the perfect vehicle for Scott Rolen to make a historic leap to Hall of Fame immortality on Tuesday.
In becoming only the 18th third baseman elected to the Hall, Rolen is also the first player in history to receive less than 17% in his first year on the Baseball Writers Association ballot and go on to eventually make it. As it was, he made it by a scant five votes, jumping to 76.3% from the 63.2% he received last year.
Undoubtedly, the soft ballot, in which there weren’t any no-brainers, was a boon to all of top vote-getters from last year, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner especially, who moved to the doorstep of election. Helton jumped from 52% to 72.2% and Wagner from 51% to 68.1%.
What remains mystifying, however, is the writers’ continued lack of support for Jeff Kent, the all-time home run leader for second basemen, who capped out at 46.5% (from 32.7% last year) in his 10th and final year on the ballot. Somewhat surprising was Carlos Beltran receiving just 46.5% in his first year of eligibility despite having more hits (2,725) than anyone on the ballot and one of the greatest postseason resumes (.307, 16 homers, 42 RBIs, 45 runs and a 1.021 OPS in 65 games) of any player in history.
Obviously, Beltran paid (at least initially) the price for his leading role in the 2017 Astros cheating scandal, just as BALCO steroids scandal-tainted Gary Sheffield — who had the most homers (509), RBIs (1,676) and runs (1,636) of anyone on the ballot — made a nice jump from 40.6% to 55% but is still way short of election. The knock on Helton, the career Rockie who will almost surely be elected next year, has always been the disparity of his stats away from hitter-friendly Coors Field (where he hit .345 with a 1.048 OPS). And yet, his .855 road OPS is higher than first-ballot Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, George Brett, Eddie Murray, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn and Al Kaline.
As for Rolen, who will be joining Fred McGriff (elected by the Contemporary Era veterans committee in December), on the stage next July in Cooperstown, in 17 seasons, with the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds, his calling card was his defense. He won eight Gold Gloves, and led NL third basemen twice in putouts and assists and finished in the top five in assists eight times and putouts six times. He was an excellent offensive player, too, but because of injuries his lifetime totals (.281, 316 HR, 2,077 hits, 1,211 runs, .855 OPS) pale in comparison to the other hitters on the ballot.
Unfortunately, Rolen played 150 or more games only five times in his career and in the MVP voting had only one top 10 finish (a fourth in 2004). By contrast, Kent had four top-10 MVP finishes including a win in 2000. For what it’s worth to Kent, the highest McGriff ever got on the writers ballot was 39.8% in his 10th and final year on the ballot in 2019 before being elected unanimously by the Contemporary Committee. It would not be all surprising if Kent gets a similar treatment when he comes up on the Contemporary ERA ballot in three years.
No doubt, the Hall of Fame hierarchy breathed a sigh of relief that the Baseball Writers didn’t throw a shutout this year. Next year will be vastly different when at least two no-brainers, third baseman Adrian Beltre (3,166 hits, 477 homers, five top-10 MVP finishes) and Twins longtime All-Star catcher Joe Mauer (three batting titles) are eligible for the first time, when at the same time Helton and Wagner should also get in.