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The cases for and against Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard as they join the Hall of Fame ballot | David Murphy

Defense gives Rollins the heavy edge over Howard as both Phillies greats make their case for Cooperstown. But is that enough?

Jimmy Rollins at a press conference in May 2019.
Jimmy Rollins at a press conference in May 2019.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that had the success the Phillies did from 2008 to 2011 without having a sure-fire Hall of Famer in its lineup.

Truth be told, that’s one of the strongest arguments for each of the Big Three from those days. The story of those teams is in many ways the story of its individual stars: a brief but wondrous stretch of all-time production followed by a precipitous decline that left all of us wondering what might have been.

This year, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard will make their first appearances on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall of Fame ballot. Chase Utley will have to wait another three years. For now, let’s take a look at the cases for and against Howard and Rollins, who will need to receive 75% of the votes cast in any one year for inclusion.

Ryan Howard

Case For: Fans dig the long ball, and nobody hit more of them than Howard when he was at his peak. For six years, Howard was the most prodigious home run hitter in a sport in which home runs are king. Between 2006 and 2011, he slugged 262 of them, a whopping 18 more than the next closest player (a fella named Albert Pujols). Howard also had 88 more RBIs than Pujols during that stretch.

The case for Howard says that he was such an astronomical power-hitter during his peak that we should ignore the fact that he spent only six-and-half seasons as a marquee player. It says that we should consider the fact that he was rookie of the year at the age of 25, and that he might have had two or three additional top five MVP finishes had he arrived earlier. As it stands now, he finished in the top five four times, winning one, while serving as the centerpiece of a team that was arguably one of the top two teams in the majors for a four-year stretch.

Case against: Really, it comes down to two names: Mark Teixeira and Paul Konerko. It’d be awfully difficult to formulate a case for Howard that also excludes Teixeira and Konerko. And if all three of those players are in, you’d probably be arguing that nearly a fifth of the first basemen active during Howard’s peak deserve inclusion. Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, and Joey Votto, for starters.

As much as it might sound like blasphemy for those of us who remember how dangerous a hitter Howard was in his prime, Konerko and Teixeira both have similar resumes, World Series titles included.

Konerko: .279/.354/.486 (.841 OPS), 439 HR, 1412 RBI, 118 OPS+, 9,505 PAs.

Teixeira: .268/.360/.509 (.869 OPS), 409 HR, 1,298 RBI, 126 OPS+, 8029 PA

Howard: .258/.343/.515 (.859 OPS), 382 HR, 1,194 RBI, 125 OPS+, 6,531 PA

Howard hit a lot of home runs, but so did a lot of other players who are not in the Hall of Fame. Howard retired with 382 home runs: 31 current retirees hit at least that many and are not in the Hall.

How do you balance longevity against a player’s peak performance? It’s a worthy question, but it opens up another can of worms when you consider a contemporary like Prince Fielder, who had a six-year run where he hit 230 home runs with a .401 on-base percentage, .950 OPS, and 151 OPS+.

You can certainly argue that Howard was the best of that bunch of power-hitting first baseman who populated the majors in the early-2000s. But his overall numbers simply do not distinguish him from that bunch (Teixeira, Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, etc.) enough to place him with guys like Cabrera and Pujols and David Ortiz.

Jimmy Rollins

Case for: It starts with his defense. We’re not even going to attempt to quantify it, because there simply aren’t any metrics reliable enough to measure his ability against those from previous generations. But the fact that Rollins was a four-time gold Glove winner at the game’s toughest position is a good starting point. This is particularly true when you hold him up against a player who might represent his strongest case for inclusion: Barry Larkin, elected in 2012. Rollins’ counting stats compare favorably with Larkin’s: 231 home runs (Larkin: 198), 1,421 runs (Larkin: 1,329), 936 RBIs (Larkin: 960), 470 stolen bases (Larkin: 379). Larkin won three Gold Gloves, one fewer than Rollins.

Rollins has more home runs than all but two of the 19 shortstops, behind Cal Ripken’s 431 and Robin Yount’s 251. He would rank among the top 10 Hall of Fame shortstops in runs and stolen bases and in the top 12 in RBIs. Special consideration should also be given to his remarkable MVP season of 2007, when he almost single-handedly carried the Phillies to a division title.

Case against: You can make an argument that Rollins was no better than the fourth-best hitter on his team during the Phillies’ four-year run from 2008 to 2011. He finished his career with an entirely average .264/.324/.428 slash line. The metric OPS+ ranks him as 5% below league average for his career.

The strongest case against Rollins lies in the shortstops who are not Hall of Famers. Specifically, Alan Trammell, who has four Gold Gloves, and a World Series ring, and a 70.3 career WAR that dwarfs Rollins’ 47.6. Trammel doesn’t have an MVP, but he does have a second-place finish and three top 10s. Trammel’s peak year of candidacy was in 2012, when he was named on just 36.8% of Hall of Fame Ballots. Rollins has the edge in runs. Trammel has the edge in RBIs. If Trammel never came close to appearing on half the ballots, it’s hard to argue that Rollins should appear on three-quarters of them.

The Verdict

Rollins has the stronger case because of his defense and the position he played. His case would be even stronger if he hadn’t played shortstop at the same time as Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. As it is, Rollins’ 42.2 WAR ranked 16th in the majors between 2001 and 2012, a 12-year stretch in which Jeter and Rodriguez were the only two other shortstops who are ahead of him on the list. My gut feeling is that Rollins will gain some momentum with each passing year, especially as voters credit him for a longevity that is growing increasingly sparse in the modern day of professional athletics.

Howard? If there was something between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Very Good, he’d be first ballot. Beyond that, the odds are against him.

» READ MORE: Exploring the Hall of Fame case for Bryce Harper