Scott Rolen was barely a footnote when the Hall of Fame voting was announced in 2018. He received only 10.2 percent of the vote.
Much of the attention that year was focused on another third baseman, Braves great Chipper Jones. He rolled into Cooperstown at 97.2 percent.
Only five years later, Rolen stands with Jones after one of the most unlikely journeys in Hall of Fame history.
In the latest example of how much the process is changing, the Hall announced Rolen as its newest member on Tuesday night. He received 76.3 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Rolen had the lowest percentage of votes in his first year of eligibility of any candidate who went on to the Hall. He reached with five votes to spare.
The Hall of Fame induction is July 23. Rolen will join Fred McGriff, who was a unanimous selection of the Hall’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee in December.
Rolen is a clear beneficiary of the electorate getting increasingly younger and more comfortable using modern statistics to evaluate players.
Rolen had 70.1 bWAR during his career, which stretched from 1996-2012. Only four players had more during that time: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Jones.
Rodriguez and Bonds have been denied admission because of their ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Pujols is not yet eligible, having retired after last season. He is sure to be a first-ballot choice in five years.
Rolen’s traditional statistics — .281 batting average, 316 home runs, 1,287 RBI — were strong. But bWAR, which also encompasses defense and baserunning, showed he was elite.
“I took pride in defense and baserunning. I felt those were two aspects where I could contribute on a daily basis,” said Rolen, who was a ferocious defender at third base, often throwing his body in front of hard-hit balls.
Rolen was the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year, a seven-time All-Star and an eight-time Gold Glover. The bulk of his career was spent with the Phillies and Cardinals.
That third base has long been an underrepresented position in Cooperstown wasn’t necessarily a factor, but it became clear to a lot of voters Rolen deserved another look after that first year. In his second year on the ballot in 2019, Rolen received 17.2 percent of the vote. His percentage climbed to 35.3 in 2020, then to 52.9 in 2021. Last year was another giant step as Rolen reached 63.2 percent.
Todd Helton is another player on the rise. The former Rockies first baseman fell 11 votes shy this year with 72.2 percent. Helton has five years left on the ballot and likely will only need one more.
Former Astros and Mets closer Billy Wagner climbed to 68.1 percent and is on a path that will lead to Cooperstown. He has two more chances on the BBWAA ballot.
Wagner, who spent part of the 2009 season with the Red Sox, peaked at 16.7 percent in his first four years on the ballot. He has advanced steadily since.
As Rolen benefited from voters having a greater appreciation of defense, Wagner has been aided by better ways to evaluate relievers beyond earned run average and saves. His 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, for instance, are better than Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (9.4). Opposing hitters had a paltry .558 OPS against Wagner, also better than Hoffman (.609).
Other than Wagner, the other former Red Sox players on the ballot did not receive much support.
Bronson Arroyo, John Lackey, and Mike Napoli received one vote. Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t get any.
Manny Ramirez received 33.2 percent in his seventh year on the ballot, a 4.3 percent jump from last year but hardly a sign of momentum.
While one of the greatest hitters in history, Ramirez was suspended in 2009 for using performance-enhancing drugs. He tested positive again in 2011 but retired rather than serve another suspension.
Voters have largely shunned players who tested positive.
Jeff Kent, a hard-hitting second baseman, ended his 10 years on the ballot with 46.5 percent. He will be a candidate for the Class of 2026 via the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee.
Carlos Beltrán, who has the statistics of a first-ballot selection, received only 46.5 percent. That Major League Baseball named Beltán a ringleader of Houston’s 2017 sign-stealing scheme damaged his candidacy. Whether he can recover in the next nine years is uncertain.