Before you want to rip my head off because of the supposed blasphemy that the title of this article implies, I want to reassure you that Pete Rose was an amazing and great baseball player (Pete Rose, the human being, well, that’s something else).
Fans of all ages are aware of his achievements and antics, and how he filled the game with a primal force since the first day he stepped on a baseball field. Charlie Hustle and all!
A lot of these fans tend to put Rose really high in their lists of top baseball players, as high as Top 40, even 30.
To me, that makes no sense from such a unidimensional player, but I did not have the numbers to back it up, so I decided to check that out.
He is the absolute hit king and forever will be, period. In its current state, baseball has no place for a player with the needed characteristics and durability to break that record, something embodied wholly by Rose.
4256 hits in 24 seasons, which means an average of a little more than 177 hits every year. To put that in perspective, since 1900, only eight players have had at least 12 seasons hitting that yearly quantity of hits or more (Miguel Cabrera is the only active player, with 12). And only two had 15 seasons of that type: Derek Jeter and, yes, Pete Rose.
Rose ranks in the all-time leaderboards at:
- First in games played with 3562, the active closest player has 2931, Albert Pujols.
- First in at-bats, 14053 / Pujols, 11049.
- First in plate appearances, 15,890 / Pujols, 12618.
- First in singles, 3215 / Pujols, 1924.
- He is second with 746 doubles (Tris Speaker is first with 792) / Pujols, 671.
- Sixth in runs scored with 2165 (Rickey Henderson is first with 2295) / Pujols, 1865.
- Fourteenth in bases on balls with 1566 (Barry Bonds is first with 2558) / Pujols, 1339.
- 37th in fWAR with 80.2 (Babe Ruth is first with 168.4) / Pujols, 87.0
- Only player in Major League history to play more than 500 games at five different positions: first base 939, second base 628, third base 634, left field 671, and in right field 595.
He also had plenty of achievements like:
- 17× All-Star (1965, 1967–1971, 1973–1982, 1985).
- 3× World Series champion (1975, 1976, 1980)
- NL MVP (1973)
- World Series MVP (1975)
- NL Rookie of the Year (1963)
- 2× Gold Glove Award (1969, 1970)
- Silver Slugger Award (1981)
- Roberto Clemente Award (1976)
- 3× NL batting champion (1968, 1969, 1973)
He also made the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, and his number 14 was retired by the Cincinnati Reds.
Quite a resume for Mr. Rose, and it is part of why I still think that based only on sports merits, he would be Hall of Fame deserving, although my personal opinion is that the other things he did should nullify that.
Paradoxically, a lot of what accounts for the accolades that would make him HoF worthy also played against his overall value as a player.
Rose’s obsession with surpassing Ty Cobb as the all-time hit leader proved to be a burden for the last part of his career.
When I’m evaluating baseball players’ careers, one of the things I like to do, but certainly not the only one, is to divide it into 3 equal parts (as much as possible), and assess each of said parts. If we divide Rose’s career into three equal periods of eight years, this is how his numbers for each period look like:
As expected, the last third of his career was the worst, as it should be due to the normal age-related decline. But how bad was it? Well, his second third wRC+ was 130, meaning he was 30% better than other batters of that period of time, while his third period wRC+ was 102, just 2% better.
How does that compare to other all-time greats? Let’s check that out with a trio of great ones:
Cobb is the golden standard to compare Rose, not just for the obvious reason of the search for his record, but also because they were similar batters in terms of not having that much power and the length of their careers.
There is where the similitude end as Cobb was by far the better batter: by any measurement of batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, wOBA, wRC+ and/or fWAR, Cobb was way better.
And, he did not decay as badly as Rose did in the final third of his career, on the contrary, he was still an outstanding batter, posting a phenomenal .420 wOBA and a wRC+ of 144, meaning he was 44% better than the average player in that stage of his career.
The same happens with Roberto Clemente, whose career ended tragically and could still have more playing time ahead, but was already in his final third; no comparison can be made that benefits other than Clemente.
I’ve added a special case to the chart, that is Albert Pujols. Pujols has had one of the worst falls in terms of production in his final act, and we all know it. His underwhelming production could show Rose’s final one in a better light, but, and this is important, what Pujols did in his first two-thirds, can’t be matched by almost anyone ever.
Not just by Rose. By almost anyone. So this is a case where even with a drastic decline, greatness still arises. Rose’s first two-thirds of his career are not remotely close to Pujols’.
But one thing is certain, almost everyone agrees that Pujols was not earning his starting spot in his final years with the Angels; however, Rose wasn’t either.
His last average/good year was in 1981, five years before his retirement season, producing from his debut until then a slash line of .310/.380/.426, a good (but far from stellar) .363 wOBA, and a good (again, far from stellar) wRC+ of 127. His fWAR was 81.2 and had already reached a whopping quantity of 3697 hits.
Take into account that, hits numbers aside, those are not at all automatically first ballot, Hall of Fame induction numbers. As an example, the great Roger Hornsby, who posted way better numbers (.358/.434/.577, .459 wOBA, 173 wRC+, and 130.3 fWAR, and almost 3000 hits) had to wait until his fifth chance.
What happened then? Free-fall.
From 1982 to 1986, Rose batted .261/.348/.315, a .305 wOBA and an 88 wRC+. He was 12% worse than an average batter during those five years, according to his weighted Runs Created plus. He had five homers and 17 stolen bases in 27 attempts. His .662 OPS was so bad that it ranked 236 among all qualified hitters during that span of time.
By production, he was not a big-league player. But he got the opportunity to continue getting at-bats. This was epitomized by his naming as the last manager-player we’ve seen in MLB, for the Cincinnati Reds from August 1984 to 1986.
It Was All About the Record
In 1985, Rose got to pass Ty Cobb as the undisputed Hit King in Major League Baseball, and thus Pete Rose’s legend was cemented.
In an era in which hits and batting averages were the pinnacle, it was clear that Rose what did put him head and shoulders above most people who had played the game, at least from a fan perspective.
But the truth is that Pete Rose needed that record. It was, in the end, the best he could do, even if doing that ended up hurting his overall production because all in all, without the record chase and finishing his career when he should’ve retired, he could have been a borderline HoF case.
I know that getting 3000 hits had always meant an almost automatic induction but, even having already surpassed that figure in 1981, if he had retired after that season he was still in the bottom third of every player with more than 3000 hits in wOBA and wRC+.
Despite being different types of players, Rose shares something with Omar Vizquel: they both benefitted from long healthy seasons that allowed them to accumulate a good deal of stats. But for a player usually named as one of the greatest, it is very telling that he is not top 100 in certain stats such as batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS.
And having that many plate appearances without being top in AVG and OBP has another disadvantage: he is the number one player in outs.
The Hit King, Pete Rose, would probably rank 75th, at best, in my top player’s list; any higher than that it is reserved for the truly All-Time Greats.
Photo by Ken Stewart/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)