Jimmy Rollins had more career hits than Mickey Mantle, Ryne Sandberg and Mike Schmidt. He’s one of only four players in MLB history with a 20-20-20-20 season. Among players with 200+ home runs and 450+ stolen bases, Rollins is the only player not in the Hall of Fame whose last name isn’t Bonds.
With all that, an MVP Award and four Gold Gloves in mind, it would seem Rollins is a model Cooperstown candidate. Not to go unmentioned, he was also the emotional core of a World Series champion.
Despite those accolades, Rollins won’t sniff the 75% threshold needed to enter Cooperstown on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, nor should he.
Cole Hamels was never a true ace, Ryan Howard’s achilles exploded in an event reminiscent of a Greek tragedy while Chase Utley never received the accolades of his peers. It seemed that Rollins was the best base stealer and defender of the Phillies’ mini dynasty.
With the power of hindsight, we can see neither of those are true. Utley was the most efficient base runner all-time, leading all present and historical MLB players in stolen base success rate for players with 100+ attempts.
In fact, Rollins even fell behind teammates Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino in that category too. Though the Phillies’ shortstop did rank highly in that category—thank you Davey Lopes.
Across Rollins’ Gold Gloves three-peat at shortstop from 2007-09, he was never the strongest defender on the Phillies infield. During that period he racked up an impressive 21 defensive runs saved (and 43 total for his career). Meanwhile his double play partner in Utley accrued an inhuman 61 defensive runs saved. During Ozzie Smith’s best three-year stretch, he only managed 63 defensive runs saved.
If advanced defensive metrics aren’t your cup of tea, let’s boil things down a little further.
During his best defensive season in 2008, Rollins averaged 4.52 plays (putouts + assists) per nine innings. That year the league average shortstop averaged 4.43.
It would be one of only two career seasons in which Rollins made more plays—and saved more outs—than the average shortstop. Across his career Rollins made only 4.21 plays per nine, while the league figure was 4.41.
Rollins was flashy and he had a great arm. He made the easy plays look easy and the hard plays look hard while rarely making an error. Truly great defensive infielders, Utley included, make the easy plays routine and the hard plays easy. It’s why defensive brilliance is often overlooked.
Gold Gloves are a subjective award, and during Rollins’ prime, baseball writers had little to actively measure defensive contributions. Using a combination of large sample size analytics and eye test, Rollins should be considered a good defender, but not one who should make the Hall on his defense alone like Ozzie or Yadier Molina when he becomes eligible.
It’s why I find the case for Rollins to make the Hall of Fame so preposterous in the first place, because if he wasn’t an elite defender, he certainly wasn’t an elite hitter, let alone a league average one.
What, did you think power-speed specialist Jimmy Rollins was a first-class hitter? His 2,455 hits were enough to sway you? I remembered Rollins as a table-setting lead-off hitter too. His presence at the top of the lineup seemed formidable, but we were deceived.
Rollins had a career .743 OPS, good for a 95 OPS+, solidly below league average. Indeed, he only had six seasons with an OPS+ above 100, and only one season with an OPS+ above 105.
Only three Hall of Famers who debuted since integration have fewer than six seasons with an OPS+ over 100. There’s the aforementioned Ozzie Smith, likely the greatest defensive shortstop in MLB history. Despite his career 87 OPS+, Smith’s postseason heroics and 13 Gold Gloves made him a first-ballot Hall of Fame in 2002. He also saved 239 runs defensively throughout his rightly lauded career.
Next is Luis Aparicio, who revolutionized the stolen base after it fell out of style in the 1920s and was an eight-time Gold Glove winner with 149 career defensive runs saved.
Finally we have Nellie Fox, who won three Gold Gloves over an 18-year career with an MVP award for leading the underdog White Sox to a pennant in 1959 (team to beat anyone?).
Should Rollins make a late-ballot case for the Hall near the end of his eligibility, the closest comparison would have to be Fox, a slap hitter from the 1950s who hit 35 career home runs and was signed to his first professional contract by Connie Mack. Fox was only inducted by the Veterans Committee 32 years after his playing career ended and 22 years past his untimely death.
Decades later, it seems clear that Fox’s induction was a misstep, one of many that led to sweeping changes in how the Veterans Committee functions.
Since Rollins hit so consistently atop the Phillies lineup for so many years (he’s one of only 87 MLB players to ever accrue 10,000 PAs), he became a counting stat darling, but if one can be mediocre at something for a long time, you can bend statistics to make it seem as if one is an all-time great.
Like every other kid who grew up during that most dominant era of Phillies baseball, I always believed that Rollins had to be a Hall of Famer. He was the second best shortstop of his era, behind only Derek Jeter and perhaps Nomar Garciaparra when he was healthy.
But upon further review, it’s clear we need to appreciate Rollins for what he was: the best shortstop in Phillies history, a consummate professional and the ultimate competitor. Rollins shaped his era of baseball in Philadelphia, and without his leadership and body language throughout the 2007 season, the Phillies probably wouldn’t have taken the NL East crown, nor the 2008 title, even with a Hall of Fame shortstop.