As the Baseball Writers Association of America deliberates over who, if anyone, will gain permanent admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY next summer, fans' thoughts inevitably turn to who among their current heroes might be up for similar consideration in ten or fifteen years' time. The Phillies, with a talent core probably the equal of any team in MLB right now, have a few candidates. At this point, the one who's perhaps easiest to handicap--which is not to say "easy"--is Jimmy Rollins, whose seventh big-league season was his best yet. At age 28, Rollins put all the facets of his offensive game together, becoming just the second Phillie to reach the elusive 30-30 (home runs and steals) plateau, adding a league-best 20 triples and 139 runs among other gaudy numbers, earning his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, and winning NL Most Valuable Player honors.
That MVP trophy likely gives a serious boost to Rollins' eventual HoF chances, as we'll see in a bit. But I have to admit that I'd been thinking about his Cooperstown candidacy months before that same BBWAA awarded him the MVP. Through 2007, his stats are on pace to compare favorably with most of the 21 shortstops currently enshrined, and they don't look bad compared to Derek Jeter, the perennial Yankees all-star who has long been assumed a Cooperstown lock five years after he ends his career. Through seven seasons, Rollins has 1,307 hits, 769 runs, 81 triples, 114 HR, and 248 steals; at the same juncture, Jeter had 1,390 hits, 839 runs, 38 triples, 117 HR, and 167 steals. Rollins has an MVP, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger; Jeter had none of those at the same point in his career (admittedly, with Alex Rodriguez still a shortstop and Omar Vizquel vacuuming up the defensive hardware during this period, this was a tougher proposition). Jeter had five all-star appearances, to Rollins' three.
Perhaps a more encouraging sign for Rollins' Hall hopes is that for three years running now, Baseball Reference has had Ryne Sandberg as his most comparable player by age. (Jeter is 9th on this list.) In counting stats, Rollins bests Sandberg pretty much across the board, though the friendlier offensive environment of the early 21st century probably cancels this out. Indeed, Rollins' career OPS+ of 98 isn't close to Sandberg's mark of 108 through this point at his career (much less Jeter's 121); a couple legitimately lousy seasons toward the start of Jimmy's career (85 OPS+ in 2002, 90 in 2003) continue to drag down his averages. In addition to Sandberg, the ten most comparable includes another Hall of Famer in Travis Jackson, a sure immortal-to-be in Jeter, and solid Hall candidates Roberto Alomar (not yet eligible) and Alan Trammell--Rollins' second-best comp through age 28--who might have to wait for the Veterans Committee despite Bill James' evaluation of him as the ninth-best shortstop of all time.
Speaking of James, the sabermetric visionary once developed an interesting if admittedly subjective battery of questions to evaluate a player's Hall of Fame candidacy beyond mere numbers, known as The Keltner List. Let's see how Rollins stacks up by this test:
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
This is necessarily a tough one to answer, but the MVP award suggests that a "yes" response is at least defensible. As always with questions like this, it depends how you define "best." I'd characterize Rollins as no better than the second-best player on the Phillies (Utley), let alone MLB, but the writers would seem to feel differently.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
By the same logic, the answer is an arguable "yes." Personally, as noted above, I don't think so.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Not to be a broken record, but as the question is a variation on the previous two, so too is the answer. If anything, I find it easier to argue that Rollins is the best shortstop in the NL, if not MLB--a distinction he earns by virtue of being "better" than Hanley Ramirez (a superior hitter but far inferior fielder) and Jose Reyes (who collapsed down the stretch for the 2007 Mets)--than that he's a "better" player than Utley or Ryan Howard.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Here we get a little clearer. The answer is obviously yes, and this was true even before his MVP year. Rollins closed 2005 (.308/.363/.470 after the all-star break, including the 36-game hitting streak to finish the season) and 2006 (.298/.346/.540) in furious fashion, helping to lift the Phillies into playoff contention in both seasons.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
At age 29 in 2008, we don't yet know. My guess however is that as Rollins ages, his offensive game will continue its already-evident migration from an emphasis on speed to one on power. His walks could increase, leading to a rise in on-base percentage even as his stolen base totals drop. A question not yet worth worrying about is what will happen if and when Rollins needs to move off shortstop; with Utley at second base and Howard presumably ensconced at first, could Rollins eventually move to his right at take over at third base? Will he back up a hundred feet to play left field?
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, given that we don't actually think he's the best player in the game today.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Yes. Rollins' numbers compare favorably to most of the Hall of Fame shortstops. Of course, "comparable" is a slippery concept here; players like Rabbit Maranville and even Phil Rizzuto were standout shortstops in periods when the offensive expectations from the position didn't approach those of today.
8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Yes to both. As noted above, he's actually ahead of the Hall standards for shortstops, and as noted a month or so back here, on the statistical merits, he probably wouldn't have won MVP honors.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Not applicable, because he's not eligible.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Through seven full seasons, he won one MVP, finished in the top 10 another time (10th, 2005), and the top 30 three additional times (17th, 2001; 30th, 2004; 21st, 2006).
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?
Rollins has played in three all-star games, but the question is a strange one because his 2002 season, in which he started the Midsummer Classic, was probably his worst, and the '06 and '07 campaigns, arguably his two best, saw him home for all-star festivities. Probably the balance is that Rollins has had four "all-star type seasons" out of seven; if he keeps this pace through an 18-year career, he'll go to 10, and that probably bodes well for his candidacy.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Yes. Rollins seems universally respected within the game.
Of course, the real determinant will be what happens from here on out--how long Rollins plays, and how well he plays over that span. Over the last four years, he's averaged 158 games played, 685 at-bats, 197 hits, 125 runs, 41 doubles, 13 triples, 20 homers, 76 RBI, 37 SB, and triple-slash numbers of .288/.339/.475. Six or seven more years of that, and a relatively three or four-year gentle decline phase following it, probably wins Rollins admission to baseball Valhalla: he'd finish with around 1,750 runs, 20th or so all-time; in the neighborhood of 3,000 hits; maybe 550 steals and 300 homers.
That's a pretty solid candidacy--though the other variable might well be how many return trips to October baseball the Phillies (or whoever else employs Rollins) make, and how well he performs there. A World Series MVP, for instance, would be a big spur for Jimmy's Hall of Fame case; let's get to work on that.