Sometimes a new Hall of Fame class fits together so neatly in baseball history. Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott, 500-homer sluggers in the shadow of Babe Ruth, They went together In 1951. Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski, One City founders who met in a high-profile world championship, They took their turn In 1989. Reggie Jackson, incomparable showman, The theater was for himself in 1993.
This Sunday belongs to Fred McGriff and Scott Rollin, diamond-crossing stars whose careers overlapped in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Both have played for at least four franchises and made at least five All-Star teams. Both have reached the World Championship twice, winning once. Neither of them came close to the MVP award.
These are loose connections, at best. More than anything else, the pairing of McGriff and Rolen is a powerful reflection of the changing standards for baseball’s highest honor.
McGriff was unanimously elected last December by a 16-person committee called the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee. He had previously spent a maximum of 10 years on the writers’ ballot, and didn’t collect even a quarter of the vote until his final appearance, in 2019, when he peaked at 39.8 percent — just short of the Hall’s 75 threshold.
For McGriff, the revelations of frustrated suffrage were the weather of an exhausting winter.
“We’ve got some strong writers, some tough cookies,” McGriff said, laughing on a video call with reporters last week. “But it’s hard, because every year your name gets on the ballot and you come in, you have people out there, your friends and your buddies and everyone calling you. Come January, it’s like, ‘Uh, here we go again.'”
Rolen had a very different experience, building support annually between writers and making it on his sixth attempt. In his debut, on the 2018 ballot, Rolen polled just 10.2 percent, with just 43 votes out of 422 ballots. By this year’s ballot, it had risen to 76.3 percent, with 297 of 389 writers checking his name.
Still can’t believe it.
“For me to sit here and say, ‘Oh, yeah, me and T Cobb and Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, I mean, this is not real,’” Rollin said last week. “This is not a real situation. These guys are true legends, and I have the opportunity to share this exhibition with them, which I am very honored to have.”
For some fans, the Hall of Fame should only be reserved for the best; The comments towards McGriff and Rolen were certainly harsh upon Major League Baseball greet them in a January tweet.
However, the reality is that many fans will be unfamiliar with at least half of the 342 Hall of Fame members. The room would be just as comfortable if Cobb, Ruth and Aaron were the standard. Membership in the Hall reflects the attitude of voters at the time, and this chapter shows how quickly those attitudes changed.
Part of the reason for McGriff’s low support and Rolen’s sudden outburst is logistics; Writers are limited to 10 choices, and stars associated with steroids (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others) have created a deadlock on the ballot that has only recently been eased. But as voters get older and different metrics become more popular, the old entry keys no longer open the hall door.
Think of McGriff, who said that each year he aimed to hit 30 homers, drive in 100 runs and hit as close to . 300 as possible. Those have been the basic stats in baseball for generations.
“You set yourself goals every year to try to hit your goals, RBIs, because in the past, RBIs and batting average mattered,” McGriff said. “It’s a little different now, but it was important back in the day. And so you constantly had goals.”
McGriff hit . 284 with 493 home runs and 1,550 runs batted in. Only nine players making debuts before him matched all of those stats: Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Fox, Ott, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Aaron, Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray. All of them (except Ott, incredibly) were elected to the Hall on the first ballot.
“I always go back to Joe Morgan and how we talked in Cincinnati,” Rollin said, referring to the Reds Hall of Fame second captain. “I attribute that statement to him but I like using it so much because it’s exactly how I feel: As a player, you knew who the Hall of Famers you were playing with and against every day of your era. And so—not a criticism of the book or the process of any kind—but I’ve always thought Fred McGriff was a celebrity idol.”
McGriff has played 422 more games than Rolen, so he naturally hit more home runs and drove in more runs (Rolen had 316 homers and 1,287 runs batted in). But he also has a higher batting average than Rolen, who hit . 281, and also leads him in both on-base percentage (. 377 to . 364) and slugging percentage (. 509 to . 490).
What he doesn’t have is Rolen’s overall value, as measured by victories over replacement at baseball reference: 70.1 for Rolen, 52.6 for McGriff. The broader context and skill set helps explain the difference.
Rolen has eight Gold Gloves and McGriff won none. Rollin also ranks among the leading hitters of his era at third base, which remains the Hall’s lowest-represented position, with 16 innings. There are 26 first bases in the Hall of Fame, and players are most common in that spot. This was especially true during McGriff’s party — although some, like Jason Giambi, Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mo Vaughn, were documented steroid users.
The scandal did not trap McGriff, who had 10 seasons hit at least 30 homers but never hit more than 37 seasons. He was often cited as a clean juicing footballer.
“I took it as a compliment, to have integrity and go out and play the game the way it should be played,” said McGriff.
MacGriff’s extrapolation is a triumph of the traditional statistics he was expected to produce—and did. Rolen’s is a triumph of a more nuanced definition of greatness, increasingly appreciated by front offices, players, and the media.
“The people we watch every day talking about the game on the MLB Network are slowly changing that understanding,” said Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Evan Longoria, whose career WAR (58.9) is higher than Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell, Hank Greenberg, and David Ortiz.
“For the average fan, there’s really no tangible sense of how a player really impacts the game. I don’t think there are enough casual baseball fans who understand the value of OPS and WAR and all these advanced metrics. They just get off the batting average, like, ‘Why on earth does this guy make $100 million when he’s hitting . 240?’ .
The Hall of Fame is about influence, and there’s more than one way to assess that. McGriff represents the old school and Rolen represents the new, but the testimony looks the same either way.