A Number to Retire

Hi, everyone. My name is Michael Baumann, and I’m the newest member of the gang over here at Crashburn Alley. Odds are you’ve either never heard of me before or you know me from Phillies Nation, where I authored, among other things, the notorious Dr. Strangeglove series. If you’re on Twitter, my handle is @atomicruckus in case you’re in the following mood.

I have sort of an odd fixation on retired numbers and captaincy designations. For instance, when Chris Pronger got knocked out for the season, my first question was not “How do the Flyers replace him on the ice?” but “Do they assign a temporary captain? And is it Kimmo Timonen or Danny Briere?” It’s a small subset of the uniform obsession weirdness, and, I’ll grant you, not the coolest thing to care about as a sports fan.

There have been two historical questions to consider, at least for me, looking back on the past half-decade of Phillies history. The first, which Bill addressed the other day, is whether Chase Utley makes the Hall of Fame. The second, and now that he’s signed an extension that will most likely keep him in Philadelphia through his age-36 season, is whether the Phillies ought to retire Jimmy Rollins‘ number.

All things considered, the Phillies are rather conservative on retiring numbers. Despite a history that predates, among other things, the American League and the state of Oklahoma, the Phillies have retired five numbers, not counting Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which, as you know, was taken out of circulation by Major League Baseball in 1997. In addition, they’ve honored Grover Cleveland Alexander and Chuck Klein without retiring a number because Alexander played before uniform numbers and Klein, by my count, wore seven different numbers in his three stints in Philadelphia. Incidentally, three of the numbers Klein wore for the Phillies, No. 1, No. 32, and No. 36, were the first three numbers retired by the franchise, while a fourth, No. 26, is currently in use by someone who may warrant a marker of his own someday.

But while all of that is fascinating, none of it is particularly relevant to my argument: that Jimmy Rollins, assuming his career trajectory remains more or less normal, should have his number retired. I’m a little biased, since I’ve written volumes on my unrequited man-love for the Phillies’ shortstop, but consider the stats as they stand now.

Jimmy Rollins is currently eighth on the Phillies’ career leaderboard since 1901 in bWAR among position players, third in plate appearances, fifth in games played, third in hits, third in runs, second in doubles, second in triples, second in stolen bases, fifth in fielding runs, and thirteenth in home runs (as a Gold Glove-winning shortstop, for what that’s worth). That’s an impressive list, particularly when you consider that the people he’s behind include Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn in most cases, and remember that Rollins has somewhere in the neighborhood of four more years of starting and racking up 600 plate appearances per year to add to those totals. We’ll come back to that later.

The counterargument, of course, is that he’s 27th in OPS and 20th in WPA for the team since 1901, and if a franchise is going to retire five numbers in its history, all for Hall-of-Famers, why would you make room for a guy with a .329 career OBP who was never, if we’re totally honest, anything more than the third-best player on his team? After all, he’s almost certainly not going to make the Hall of Fame, which appears to be the standard for the Phillies retiring players’ numbers.

There’s an answer to that question, but not an entirely satisfying one because it’s absolutely emotional and subjective, so if you think this is absolute hogwash I won’t be personally offended. Jimmy Rollins has the extremely rare opportunity to become a civic institution in Philadelphia. Entering a three-year contract with a vesting option for a fourth, that will run from his age-33 to age-36 seasons, Rollins has 7,537 career plate appearances, 2,463 short of 10,000. He needs about 616 plate appearances a year to reach 10,000 plate appearances for his career, and a little over 631 (his plate appearance total in 2011, incidentally) per year to tie Mike Schmidt’s franchise record of 10,062.

That number, 10,000 is not really important in and of itself, but here’s the complete list of major league ballplayers who have compiled 10,000 plate appearances while playing their entire career with one club: Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, Stan Musial, Craig Biggio, Robin Yount, Brooks Robinson, George Brett, Al Kaline, Mel Ott, Derek Jeter, Ernie Banks, Luke Appling, Charlie Gehringer, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Clemente, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.

Let’s say Rollins compiles another nine WAR by the end of his contract, on the way to 10,000 or more plate appearances (3 in 2012, 2.5 in 2013, 2 in 2014, and 1.5 in 2015). That puts him at 43.4 bWAR for his career, which would make him one of the worst players ever to compile 10,000 plate appearances for any number of teams (66th out of what would be 73 if, for the sake of argument, no one beats him there). But someone who plays as long for one team as Rollins will have done seems to automatically get key-to-the-city status, even if he’s hardly the player Jones and Jeter are.

The argument with Rollins is, in essence, the exact opposite of the argument for Chase Utley. Utley, at his peak, may have been one of the ten best second basemen to play the game (exploring that statement would require an entire post unto itself, so I’ll have to ask that you take my word for it for now and trust that the Utley post will come soon enough). But he didn’t become a major league regular until he was almost 27, and after only a few years, age and injuries began to slow Utley down to the point where there’s a serious risk of his major Hall of Fame roadblock not being his counting stats as such, but having played 10 full seasons in the majors.

Rollins, however, was a starting shortstop and leadoff hitter at 22 and has been relatively healthy since then, so he’s been able to take 700 or more plate appearances almost every year. So while Utley’s peak may have been almost twice as good as Rollins’, Rollins’ career might wind up being almost twice as long. From a player evaluation standpoint, this puts Utley unquestionably ahead of his double-play partner, but retiring a number isn’t wholly about how good the player was in a vacuum.

Rollins will almost certainly pass Sherry Magee’s modern-era stolen base record next year (apologies to Ed Delahanty and Sliding Billy Hamilton, who played before baseball had entirely evolved into a civilized game). He will almost certainly end this contract as the franchise’s all-time leader in hits, and is on pace to break Delahanty’s club record of 442 career doubles sometime in the next four years, assuming he stays healthy and in the lineup.

So while it might make sense to put the franchise’s career hits leader up on the proverbial outfield wall (or, rather, his uniform number), it’s not just the statistical legacy Rollins leaves behind that warrants special consideration. The Phillies, it seems, have a tradition of honoring historic teams by retiring the number of one or more of its members. When we see Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts’ numbers, we think of the Whiz Kids. With Carlton and Schmidt, we see the teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and especially the 1980 World Series champions and 1983 National League champions. Jim Bunning’s No. 14 brings back memories of the 1964 Phillies, though I’d really rather it didn’t.

So it would make sense that the franchise should memorialize the past decade, the greatest in more than a century of Phillies baseball by wins and playoff success, by retiring at least one number from the era. The current Phillie with the best chance of making the Hall of Fame is almost certainly Roy Halladay (who wasn’t on the Phillies for either of their World Series appearances), then comes a long distance to either Cole Hamels, who probably has to pitch at this level for another eight or nine years to get there, or Chase Utley, whose spectacular peak is undermined by a lack of longevity, and whose generational greatness has, in any case, been largely overlooked by a BBWAA whose understanding of the game and interrogative inclinations have only atrophied since the days of Ring Lardner. Even if Utley’s peak is great enough to warrant his inclusion into Cooperstown (which, given how short it was, is debatable), it’s probable that the people who observe and write about him for a living have been too oblivious to notice. But, again, that’s another post.

Even if Utley or Hamels make the Hall of Fame (which is unlikely), the man who represents the transformation of the franchise is Rollins, in any case. Rollins arrived in 2001, the year the Phillies went from doormat to also-ran, and it was Rollins’ bold proclamation and MVP season in 2007 that heralded the Phillies’ transformation from mid-table pest to five-time defending division champion. It seems counterintuitive to say that Jimmy Rollins, even at his best, was really only the fourth-best player on the team (behind, at different times, Abreu, Rolen, Utley, Thome, Howard, Werth, Hamels, Halladay, Lee, and, sometimes, Ruiz, Victorino, Rowand, and Burrell), and then lift him up as the avatar for the greatest period of success in the history of the franchise. But that’s what he was.

Bill James once wrote of another shortstop, Bert Campaneris, who, like Rollins, was never the best player on the juggernaut Oakland A’s of the early 1970s, but his arrival during the team’s purgatorial stay in Kansas City heralded the great things to come. So, too, with Rollins, whose early arrival and almost tidal consistency would have, if he were a 10 percent better player, catapulted him into the stratosphere of public adoration that Chipper Jones enjoys in Atlanta or Derek Jeter enjoys in New York.

Rollins, like Campaneris, was never the star, but has always been the pathfinder. The Phillies likely don’t win a title without him, and if that’s hard to believe, it’s only because Rollins has manned shortstop so well for so long that it’s hard for Phillies fans to remember what it’s like to have Kevin Stocker or Desi Relaford out there for 162 games a season. Rollins, whose tenure in Philadelphia has seen the Phillies rise from the ashes of the Francona Era like a phoenix, is the Tenzig Norgay to Utley’s Sir Edumund Hillary.

So to distill nearly 1,800 words into a couple sentences, I think the Phillies, who have never retired the number of a non-Hall-of-Famer, should do so for a shortstop with a .329 OBP. In fact, I think it would be strange if they didn’t.