Pete Rose, without the other stuff

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, fresh young Red . . . without Rule 21(d) and the Cobb-chase circus, how was he really as a player?

Is it strange to think of Pete Rose at eighty years old? Of course it is, especially for those old enough to have seen half or better of his playing career. But eighty he is, as of Wednesday past, and he is also freshly employed by UpickTrade—to sell baseball predictions to subscribers for $89 a month.

“Picks provided for MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL, Tennis, Golf and major Horse Races. Grow your sports bankroll with the Hit King.” Thus Upick ballyhoos Rose’s prognostications. During a media conference on his birthday Wednesday, Rose insisted he wouldn’t be betting, merely picking based on his baseball experience and knowledge.

Baseball’s most notorious gambling exile this side of the Black Sox, tying himself to a Website picking events for bettors to bet, giving himself one more dubious look in a life full of them, is purely coincidental. Right? Rose wouldn’t exactly agree.

“For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame,” he told that Wednesday presser, “you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989.”

That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

If I’m ever bestowed that honor, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world. I don’t think me picking games—not betting on games, I have to keep saying that—picking games for customers will not in any way, shape or form hurt my opportunity to get to the Hall of Fame someday. I’m not the only guy that’s ever made a bet in the world of baseball. I probably bet today less than any of them.

“Suspended?” Have it your way, Pete.

I’m not going to re-argue the Rose “suspension” now. The mountain range of evidence, the long and pitiful record of the lies Rose told for decades, and especially the plain language of Rule 21(d) should have put paid to that argument long ago. So should the Hall of Fame itself deciding, quite appropriately, that those ineligible for standing in organised professional baseball had no business appearing on ballots through which they might be conferred baseball’s highest honour.

(To those who insist baseball’s recent agreements with certain legal gambling enterprises mean Rose should be un-banned, remember that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean your employer lacks the right to ban you from doing it when it involves your job.)

But I would like to do one thing. For argument’s sake, I’d like to make as though Rose’s violations of Rule 21(d) never happened, that he was never banished from the game for which he continues professing his deepest love, then ask and answer the following question: How absolutely great was Pete Rose as a player?

The eternal image of Rose the player is that of a junkyard dog clawing his way to whatever he gained on the field, at the plate, on the bases. His lifetime partisans hoist the near-constant image of headfirst slides and praise him irrevocably as evoking all that was once right and proper about the game. But his .375 on-base percentage ranks 215th all-time. And his percentage of extra bases taken on followup hits was yanked down to 49 percent thanks to his six-year decline while still chasing Ty Cobb’s hits record.

Speaking of which, let’s put the Hit King business to bed. Allen Barra tried, in his 2002 book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century. Rose in his view was “an arrogant, shallow, self-centered jerk who hung around years after he had any value on the field simply to eclipse [Ty] Cobb’s [career hits] record. You’re a fan, you want to pay money to watch that kind of circus junk, then you pay your money. I stopped caring about the so-called record two years before Rose surpassed it.”

Was Barra out of line? From his Rookie of the Year season 1963 through the end of his first regular season with the Phillies, his first eighteen seasons, Rose collected 3,557 hits. He could have retired right then and there, after playing on the 1980 Phillies’ World Series winner, and had himself a very Hall of Fame worthy career, plus a hit total a lot of Hall of Famers might have envied still.

Rose’s most emphatic partisans will find ten 200-hit seasons among those eighteen years and insist that that plus eventually breaking Cobb’s career hit record make him the Hit King indeed. Barra didn’t have the stomach for that, and neither do I. Perhaps audaciously, he asked whom you think is baseball’s greatest hitter, ever, and lo! many of the answers to that turn up . . . well . . .

Many say Ted Williams, but Teddy Ballgame never had one 200+ hit season. Many say Mickey Mantle, and he never had one, either. Many say Willie Mays, and he had only one. Many say Henry Aaron, but he has something else in common with Babe Ruth: only three 200+ hit seasons. (And don’t many still say the Babe?) Many say Stan Musial; he had a measly six. Many say that Mike Trout is in their league—and he is—but the most hits he’s collected in a single season thus far is 190.

Those players one and all were (are, in Trout’s case) better batters than Pete Rose was. Says who? Says my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances, says who:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Ted Williams 9788 4884 2021 243 57* 39 .740
Mike Trout 5514 2642 838 104 52 84 .675
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Stan Musial 12718 6134 1599 298 110* 53 .644
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Henry Aaron 13941 6856 1402 293 121 32 .624
Pete Rose 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

If you believe a lifetime .483 batter was better than a lifetime .740 batter, be my guest. But you say that doesn’t really prove anything? Well, now. How about the extra base hit percentages for each of these fellows? Be forewarned: Rose is going to come up smelling like a thorn.

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Mike Trout 1,396 264 48 306 618 .44
Ted Williams 2,654 525 71 521 1,117 .42
Mickey Mantle 2,415 344 72 536 952 .39
Henry Aaron 3,771 624 98 755 1.477 .39
Stan Musial 3,630 725 177 475 1,377 .38
Willie Mays 3,283 523 140 660 1,323 .35
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

By the way, since he spent so much of his late baseball life obsessed with catching and passing Ty Cobb, be advised that Cobb’s extra base hit percentage is three points higher than Rose’s.

Rose also doesn’t look like such a Hit King when compared to two more of his own contemporaries who both belong in the Hall of Fame and may well get there the next time the Golden Era Committee meets later this year:

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Dick Allen 1,848 320 79 351 750 .41
Tony Oliva 1,917 329 48 220 597 .31
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

There’s a guy whose career overlapped Rose’s by a few years before Rose retired as a player—a guy who’s a match for Rose’s skill set: an early-in-the-order batter with a little power and a near-surrealistic ability to reach base. (Barra once pointed out that, in each player’s fifteen best seasons, this guy reached base more often than Rose and used fewer outs to do it.)

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Tim Raines 2,605 430 113 170 713 .27
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

Now, let’s look at Allen, Oliva, Raines, and Rose according to RBA. (You may also find yourself breaking the grip longevity alone might have on you, since you’re going to see a very wide difference between Rose’s career longevity and career value.)

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537
Tim Raines 10359 3771 1330 148 76 42 .518
Pete Rose 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

Remove, too, that business about Rose playing in “more winning games than any player, ever.” Saying it almost implies that his teams absolutely wouldn’t have won without him. His actual offensive winning percentage is 67 percent as a Red through 1978 and 55 percent for the rest of his career. Frank Robinson’s OWP as a Red is 74 percent; Joe Morgan’s as a Red is 76 percent.

Which leads to a point I can’t remember people talking much about: whether Rose was the absolute best player on his teams during his absolute prime, the first eighteen seasons of his playing career during which he played on three World Series winners and several division winners and reasonably high in other pennant races.

I ran down Rose’s wins above replacement-level player (WAR) in each of those seasons, from his Rookie of the Year 1963 through 1980, when he ended the Phillies’ World Series win with that staggering foul catch. Except for two of those seasons, Rose was one of his teams’ top ten players and thirteen times one of his teams’ top five. But my guess is that you’ll have one of two reactions to the deets, disbelief or an overwhelming desire to shoot the messenger:

Year Pete Rose WAR/Rank Team Leader/WAR Team Finish
1963 2.4 (8) Vada Pinson (6.4) 5th
1964 1.3 (15) Frank Robinson (7.9) 2nd
1965 5.6 (2) Jim Maloney (9.0) 4th
1966 4.1 (2) Jim Maloney (7.4) 7th
1967 4.8 (4) Gary Nolan (6.0) 4th
1968 5.5 (2) Tony Perez (5.9) 4th
1969 6.6 (1) 3rd
1970 4.8 (4) Johnny Bench (7.4) 1st
1971 5.1 (2) Lee May (5.4) 4th
1972 6.1 (3) Joe Morgan (9.3) 1st
1973 8.3 (2) Joe Morgan (9.3) 1st
1974 5.9 (4) Joe Morgan (8.6) 2nd
1975 4.1 (5) Joe Morgan (11.0) 1st **
1976 7.0 (2) Joe Morgan (9.6) 1st **
1977 2.9 (7) George Foster (8.4) 2nd
1978 3.4 (6) George Foster (4.9) 2nd
1979 3.1 (5) Mike Schmidt (7.9) 4th
1980 -0.3 (20) Steve Carlton (10.2) 1st **

Once. Only once did Pete Rose lead his team in WAR for a season, only once was he the absolute best player on his team, and that was a season in which the Reds stood on the threshold of becoming the Big Red Machine despite their third-place finish.

Twice Rose was the best position player on a team where WAR determined the team’s best player period was a pitcher, and those teams finished in fourth and seventh place. And, in five straight seasons of the Big Red Machine’s heyday, Rose finished second twice, third once, fourth once, and fifth once to Joe Morgan, the overwhelming best player the Machine had.

Rose was a well-established, well-seasoned veteran when Morgan came to the Reds, but it’s absolutely arguable that those Reds would not have won without Morgan. Remember that Morgan’s offensive winning percentage as a Red is 76 percent. For the same seven seasons they were Reds teammates, Rose’s OWP is 68 percent. The Big Red Machine had better chances of winning races because of Morgan than because of Rose.

Which reminds me: what was Rose doing winning the 1973 National League’s Most Valuable Player award (the only MVP of his career) when Morgan was that much better? Easy: Rose led the league in “batting average” while playing on a division winner. So help me, if they’d known about and measured according to RBA they’d have seen the pair a lot differently:

Player, 1973 PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Joe Morgan 698 284 111 3 4 6 .585
Pete Rose 752 297 65 6 0 6 .497

I saw Rose play often enough during his entire career. I saw the headfirst sliding, the running to first base on walks, the hard-nosed style that so often crosses lines to bull headed (or beyond reasonable bounds, as in blasting Ray Fosse at the plate in the 1970 All-Star Game without even thinking of a mere takeout slide) and wasn’t exactly something on which Rose held the franchise.

He was very lucky that playing the game that way didn’t shorten his career by about ten seasons and maybe more. Baseball is littered with similar players who played their bodies right out of the game long before Rose finally did, playing themselves out of providing too much further real value to their teams before their bodies or their brains finally told them to retire or else.

If you remove the issues that sent Rose to organised baseball’s Phantom Zone, and compelled the Hall of Fame to enact a rule denying that men considered persona non grata should be considered for the game’s highest honour, this is how I see him:

Pete Rose would have been a Hall of Famer even if he hadn’t clung to and consummated the pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record, though I also think his 44-game hitting streak in 1978 really kick-started the final discussions about his true or reputed status as a legend. (So did making good on his once oft-stated oath to become baseball’s first million-dollar singles hitter.)

There’s no shame in Rose being a 76 percent singles hitter; so was Tony Gwynn. But I’m going to tell you Tony Gwynn was more valuable at the plate than Pete Rose was. (It isn’t Gwynn’s fault that he lacked the caliber of teammates in his career that Rose enjoyed in his.) Says who? You guessed it: RBA, says who:

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mr. Padre 10232 4259 790 203 85 24 .524
Charlie Hustle 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

Rose wasn’t close to being the greatest all-around player of his or any era. Yes, he was a multi-position player who played 500+ games each at five different positions. Except for the 673 games he played in left field, he was double-digits below average for run prevention while being worth 52 runs saved above his league average in left field. For nineteen percent of all the games he played.

He was foolish for behaving practically as though he was entitled to take a shot at breaking Cobb’s record despite the fact that, for his final six seasons as a player, his real value to his teams was below that of a replacement-level player. Whether you’re in your prime or a veteran looking to boost your legacy, there’s no such thing as being “entitled” to break a record, revered or otherwise.

Cal Ripken, Jr. put up with a large load of crap pursuing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. Yet Ripken didn’t behave as though it was his entitlement, unless you think saying often enough that it was part of his profession to show up and play every day equals entitlement. Ripken also had far more value to his teams while chasing and passing Gehrig than Rose did while chasing and passing Cobb.

Injuries reduced Albert Pujols to barely replacement-level player after his first year as an Angel. It’s been sad to see for anyone who remembers when he was a Cardinal. But Pujols doesn’t seem to behave as though he was entitled to achieve certain milestones,  the last of which was passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list.

The circus surrounding Rose’s pursuit of and passing Cobb did exactly as Allen Barra described: it “overwhelm[ed] discussion of Rose’s other qualities and deficiencies as a ballplayer.” He’s the Hit King by accumulation alone. He wasn’t close to being the greatest hitter of the post World War II-post integration-night ball era; he wasn’t the best player on his teams in his prime with one exception.

Should I go one step beyond? OK, you talked me into it, and please remember we’re still discussing as though violating Rule 21(d) hadn’t banished Rose to the Phantom Zone. With a  circus-less look at his record as it was, Rose might (underline that, ladies and gentlemen) have had to wait one or even two tries before getting his plaque. He wouldn’t have been either the first or the last of the genuine, Hall of Fame greats to enter as a slightly overrated player.

Remember, too, that slightly beats the living daylights out of being very overrated, or being in Cooperstown despite having little to no business being there in the first place. Just ask Harold Baines, Clark Griffith, Chick Hafey, Waite Hoyt, Travis Jackson, George Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, Tommy McCarthy, and Phil Rizzuto. (The Scooter does belong in Cooperstown—as a broadcaster. Really.) Among others.

It would have been mad fun to have that discussion involving Pete Rose. Absolutely. I’d imagine the passions on all sides of that argument would have been brought to as much of a boil as those on all sides of the argument about, you know, that other stuff.

Unfortunately, only one man was and remains responsible for that other stuff.

————————————————————————————————–

* Recall if you will from a previous essay: The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several Hall of Famers including Ted Williams and Stan Musial played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. I took Williams’s and Musial’s (and the others’) recorded sac flies, divided them by the number of seasons they played after the rule took force, then took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played.

In simple math, the formula is SF/SRS [sac fly rule seasons] x MLB seasons. It was the best I could develop for getting the total sac flies you could have expected Williams and Musial (and the others) to hit all career long.

** World Series winners.

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