The One True Hit King?

Re-evaluating Pete Rose.



Hey, what a weekend—the Cincinnati Reds have won two games in a row! Exciting, eh?

Before that, however, they had lost seven in a row, and they’ve lost 12 of their last 16 games. Yes, my first-paragraph optimism was false. It’s an ugly stretch in what has become a frustrating season for the Redlegs. In fact, it has been such a frustrating year that I’m going to ignore the current version of the Reds completely. You can thank me later.

I’m going to talk about Pete Rose instead. Yeah, perhaps it is the only topic that would be even more frustrating for long-time Reds fans…but hear me out.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that we just passed the 25-year anniversary of Rose’s banishment from baseball for offenses related to gambling. Now, I’m not going to make the case for or against Rose; it’s a complicated enough situation that I’ll leave that to others. Heck, I don’t even know where I stand on the issue anymore; every time you start to feel sympathy for Pete, he opens his mouth and says something dumb. But that guy sure could play some ball.

Others haven’t been as reticent as me to rehash the Rose saga. There has been yet another round of stories about Pete in recent days, largely covering the same tired old ground. Former Reds beat writer Jerry Crasnick had this excellent piece over at ESPN. Mike Schmidt says to let Pete into the Hall of Fame. Bud Selig is noncommittal. Even The Atlantic had a think piece on Rose.

Wait, you’re probably saying. You said you weren’t going to talk about all this. How about getting to the point? You are quite correct, dear reader. As usual.

I want to talk about Pete’s performance on the field. His actual performance, and not the myth that surrounds the player. For years, there was a consensus in Cincinnati: Pete Rose was the greatest hitter who ever lived. There are people throughout Reds Country who believe that to this day. Heck, when I was a kid, I thought the same thing. Obviously.

Look at the facts! Most hits of all time (4,256). He played in more winning games (1,972) than any professional athlete, in any sport. He was a winner! Charlie Hustle!

At the time Rose played, these were convincing arguments. But the times, they have changed. When I first became interested in sabermetric analysis, I was fascinated by the gap between the Rose I thought I knew and how Rose looked under the harsh lights of the advanced metrics. Given that we assess performance differently than they did in 1976, let’s look at how Rose actually stacks up against the greats in baseball history.

Here’s Rose’s slash line: .303/.375/.409. (Career OPS of .784; career adjusted OPS+ of 118). In baseball history, 172 players have had a higher average (Rose ranks just behind Steve Brodie, Mark Grace, and Will Clark). Rose’s OBP is 212th all-time, behind such luminaries and non-Hall-of-Famers as Kevin Seitzer, Travis Hafner, and Taffy Wright.

Here, we begin to see the difficulty in analyzing Pete’s career. He stuck around baseball a long time—24 seasons—which permitted him to reach the big milestones, such as the hits record. He had a very high peak in the 1970s (more on that in a minute). But because Rose stuck around so long, his career-rate stats dropped fairly precipitously near the end. You may not realize it, but Rose was a below average hitter in six of his last seven seasons.

If Rose had retired after 1979—when he led the league in OPB at the age of 38—his slash line would have looked like this: .312/.381/.432. I would venture to say that few players have harmed their career-rate stats more after the age of 38 than Rose.

In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the picture is cloudy. During his 24-year career, Rose ranked in the league’s top 10 in bWAR only three times (1972, 1973, 1976). If we limit the query only to position players, Rose ranked in the top 10 a total of six times. He never led the league in that category.

For his career, Rose posted 79.1 career bWAR. That’s very good, but the “Pete’s the greatest!” brigade may have difficulty believing that it’s only good for 64th all-time, behind players such as Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, and Charlie Gehringer. Those are excellent players, but we aren’t in the Ruth/Bonds/Mays neighborhood, are we? (For what it’s worth, if we look only at position players, Rose’s WAR comes in at 39th place).

How about wOBA (weighted On Base Average)? Babe Ruth had the highest mark in baseball history, at .513, followed closely by Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Rogers Hornsby. Pete’s mark of .354 comes in at 684th place all-time (behind Richard Hidalgo, Lenny Dykstra, and Chet Lemon). In wRC+, Rose’s career mark of 121 is in the top 250, and tied with Tony Perez…but also tied with Jason Bay.

(Here again, Rose’s final few seasons affect his ranking in both these categories. To give you a better idea, from 1982 to the end of Rose’s career—his final five seasons—Pete “hit” .261/.348/.315. At least the guy could still get on base.)

Again, though, Rose’s peak was pretty good. He led the league in OBP twice, and ranked in the top 10 another 11 times. He led the league in hits seven times (top 10: 16 times), and was second all-time in doubles (746; Rose ranked in the top 10 in this category 15 times). Pete’s career total of runs scored (2,165) is the sixth-best total in baseball history; he led the league four times, and finished in the top 10 in another 11 seasons. Aaah, the joys of hitting in front of Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

Speaking of his peak, Pete was awfully good from 1968 to 1973 (ages 27 to 32): .325/.393/.454, with an OPS+ of 139 and an average of 209 hits per season.

What’s the bottom line? No, I don’t think Rose was a worse player than Kevin Seitzer, and I really don’t intend to criticize Pete here. In some ways, Rose gets the “Derek Jeter” treatment among sabermetricians. Rose and Jeter were not among the very greatest players in baseball history, but both are sure-fire Hall of Famers (except for one big roadblock in Pete’s case). There’s no shame in that, is there? Can’t we admit that Rose was an excellent player without trying to make the case that he was as good as Ted Williams?

Forget the advanced metrics, or where Rose ranked in various categories. (Yes, I’m asking you to forget all that, mere minutes after I filled your brain with it!) Let’s remember that Rose won an MVP (1973), was named to 17 All-Star games, and won three batting titles (finishing in the top 10 in batting average in 10 other seasons). If these things don’t impress you, he played in more games, and had more plate appearances than any player in history.

If you’re familiar with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system (a means to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness), you will note that JAWS ranks Rose fifth in baseball history among left fielders. Pete, of course, played LF more than any position other than first base (where he played at the end of his career), and he won both his Gold Glove awards as an outfielder. The only left fielders who rank higher are Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Carl Yastrzemski.

This, of course, brings up another point made by the old-timers, and it’s a valid one. Rose played every position except for shortstop and catcher in his career, and he was always willing to switch positions to help the club. One of my favorite Rose stories happened early in the 1975 season. Manager Sparky Anderson needed to get George Foster into the lineup, so he went to Pete Rose—who was an All-Star left fielder, mind you—and asked him if he would consider moving to third base in order to make a place for Foster out in left field. Rose didn’t grumble, or refuse, as so many players would have. No, Pete grabbed a glove and went to take ground balls at third base. When you wonder why so many Cincinnatians of a certain vintage love Pete unconditionally, remember this story.

The godfather of advanced statistical analysis, Bill James, had the right idea about Rose. In his Historical Baseball Abstract (which you need to read, if you haven’t already), James ranked Pete as the 33rd-best player in baseball history, right behind Jackie Robinson. His comments perfectly capture why Rose’s statistics, and the advanced metrics, may not tell the entire story, and why so many people have signed on to the CULT OF PETE:

Pete Rose played the game differently than anyone else. When he drew a walk, he dashed to first base as if he were being chased by a leopard, as fast as he would run on a ground ball to short. He ran to his defensive position at the start of the inning; he ran full tilt back after the inning was over. He actually ran from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box; if he struck out he raced back to the dugout. If he had to back up another fielder, he backed him up at full speed, as if he fully expected that he would have to make a play. He was not blessed with great speed or strength or quickness or agility, but he was perhaps the most competitive player who ever lived. He hustled, from April first to the end of the season, like nobody else we ever saw; he was called Charlie Hustle. He loved the game of baseball, he loved playing baseball for a living, and he made sure that it showed every day.

Sportswriters worshiped him. This was the guy, the one guy, who played the game the way it was supposed to be played, the human training film. …When Pete Rose was discovered to have feet of clay, the sportswriters who had lionized him turned on him like a pack of vultures.

Now, I never particularly liked the Pete Rose show, and for a long time about the only thing I ever wrote about him was that he wasn’t as good as everybody said he was. But Pete Rose was never my hero, so his personal failings were never a source of pain to me. He is what he is. The man did get 4.256 hits in his career, more than a thousand of them for extra bases. …He drew more than 85 walks six times, won Gold Gloves as an outfielder, made the All-Star team at four positions, led the league in fielding percentage at three positions, led the league in outfield assists twice…had a 44-game hitting streak, had two streaks of 500 or more consecutive games played, and took six teams to the World Series.

Pete Rose had more extra base hits in his career than Mike Schmidt, Rogers Hornsby, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Al Simmons, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, or Joe DiMaggio. …Pete Rose had almost as many extra base hits in his career as (Roy) Campanella had hits. Which is better to start a pennant race with, a guy that you think might be the MVP, or a guy that you know is going to hustle every day and get 200 hits?

As Rose approaches his 74th birthday, and as we all watch the debate surrounding him grow ever-louder as next year’s All-Star game in Cincinnati draws closer, it’s much more enjoyable (to me, at least) to remember what Rose was, rather than what he wasn’t. He was a force of nature on the field. If you were a Reds fan in the 1970s who worked your butt off all day long at some low-paying job and just wanted to listen to the Reds on the radio, or wanted to see the Reds win on the rare occasion you were able to get to the ballpark, there’s a reason Pete Rose was your hero.

No, Pete Rose wasn’t the greatest hitter of all time, and he has screwed up almost everything in his life. I don’t really think he deserves to be let back into baseball, and that’s entirely his own fault.

But man, that dude could play.


Chad Dotson is a contributing writer to our Reds Blog. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog.

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