Pete Rose: All Time Great, But Not That Great.

As with everything in life, we need to put Rose in perspective.

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.

 

The Greatness

 

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.

 

The Not-So-Great

 

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:

 

Pete Rose in thirds.

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)

Carlos Marcano

Just a Venezuelan, not living in Venezuela. Intrigued by most of the things that can be measured in baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and life. I love to try to estimate performances.

  • Avatar John Palochak says:

    Thank you! Someone who finally looks at Rose and his total career. You spoke the truth, something “Rose lovers deny.”

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Glad you liked it, John!

      I wasn’t trying to stain or diminish Rose’s career, to be honest, just wanted to put things in perspective about him.

      Regards, Carlos.

      • Avatar Mike Trudeau says:

        Carlos, you’re telling us that the all-time hit leader and all star at five positions is overrated?? That’s an interesting take. Maybe you can explain how Joe Montana was no big deal next.

      • Avatar Mike Trudeau says:

        I’m not trying to be a smart a** just saying…Pete’s accomplishments are amazing. Today the game is so different that a guy like him might not even be appreciated. Who are the table setters now?? It’s all home runs and strike outs. Pete is a flawed guy BUT between the lines he was an amazing competitor and has to be higher than 75. That’s a little disrespectful.

        • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

          Hi Mike! Thanks a lot for reading and the feedback!

          You are totally right, the game is different today than how it was in Rose’s era; that’s why he was a byproduct and beneficiary of hist time, the batting average and hits time.

          But here is the thing, there is a difference between what that era looked for in a player and with what was thought to be the best to look for and what actually is the best to be productive and win games.

          And, wanted or not, getting on base, not only hitting singles, and hitting extrabases, again not only hitting singles, is way more productive and important. And in that regard, Rose is very far away in any list.

          Also, it’s funny that even if we erase the horrible last 5 years of his career, Rose would rank 130th in batting average(.310), 208th in OBP (.380), 975th in Sluggig (.426), and 262th in wRC+ (127).

          Those are not that great numbers, and that’s after taking the worst years off.

          So, I’m not saying he is not a HoF, I already stated that getting all those hits matter. The thing is that, from an impact perspective and being practically the only important part of his game, it gets diluted.

          Regards,

          Carlos.

  • Avatar Gene says:

    I am a life-long Reds fan, so reading the article was a little tough although I tried hard to be open minded. I loved watching Pete Rose play because of all the intangibles he brought to the park everyday, but he also wasn’t my favorite player on the Big Red Machine. In reference to John Palochak, yes the numbers “don’t lie,” but the devil is in the analysis and not the numbers. It is data’s Achilles heal and something data driven people like to sweep under the rug.

    1. You cannot compare players across eras. Ty Cobb played in a different era where pitchers threw over 200 pitches a game, relief pitchers were non existent and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

    2. Nothing is mentioned here of Pete’s 44 game hit streak in 1978 at age 37. In this century only Jimmy Rollins has come within 20. Neither Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs nor Ichiro Suzuki even had hitting streaks over 30 games. Ty Cobb had a 41 game hit streak but Rose beat that. And by the way, the players named above are all one-dimensional players.

    3. 24 seasons averaging over 177 hits a season! 9 more than the next closest player. 9 seasons is a career for many.

    4. Rose batted lead-off. His job was to hit singles. He hit more than anyone in the history of baseball. Where a player hits in the batting order has a great effect on hitting philosophy, overall numbers etc. In what part of the order did Pujols, Clemente and Cobb hit?

    5. Intangibles (How do you quantify intangibles?) Rose was a fierce competitor, a pit bull; he always ran to first base; he frequently took head first, diving slides; and he handled enormous pressure both during the hit streak and the race to beat Cobb. Did he want the record? Sure! Why? Because he had the tools and longevity to do it. Nobody else did, or does, since. I mean, why is Pujols still playing? Because he is chasing records.

    I enjoyed reading the article and you brought out many good points. Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. His crime was not so much that he bet on baseball, it was that he lied about it. So, who is going to throw the first stone?

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Hi Gene!

      First and more important than anything else, thanks for reading the article and giving your feedback, a truly appreciate it!

      You are bringing up very interesting points, and I would like to address them, not to argue but to complement with my reasoning.

      1.- “You cannot compare players across eras. Ty Cobb played in a different era where pitchers threw over 200 pitches a game, relief pitchers were non existent and so on and so forth ad nauseum.”

      Totally true in a way, different eras comps are the worst, I agree. But the idea behind dividing their careers in three equal parts lies in doing comps against themselves, which is more benign. And in that regard, the last thirds comp does provide a light on Rose’s big decline which other greats did not have.

      Besides that, using wRC+ tries to overcome (imperfectly, I have to agree) the problem with the eras conundrum: it measures output weighting it accordingly to the respective eras. But you make a great point.

      2. “Nothing is mentioned here of Pete’s 44 game hit streak in 1978 at age 37. In this century only Jimmy Rollins has come within 20. Neither Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs nor Ichiro Suzuki even had hitting streaks over 30 games. Ty Cobb had a 41 game hit streak but Rose beat that. And by the way, the players named above are all one-dimensional players.”

      This was something done on purpose (which I might be regretting now) because if I included it I would have felt in the need of counter it with another opinion I have about hitting streaks: they are amazing and incredible feats but they don’t necessarily translate into team succes; as an example, the Reds were 37-25 (.597 winning percentage) on June 14th, 1978 when Rose’s streak started. The day it was broken, July 31st, it was 62-43 (.590) a little worse. I was almost at 1500 words and didn’t want to digress on that, like I’m doing now!

      3. “24 seasons averaging over 177 hits a season! 9 more than the next closest player. 9 seasons is a career for many.”

      An amazing feat, there’s no argument against it!

      4. “Rose batted lead-off. His job was to hit singles. He hit more than anyone in the history of baseball. Where a player hits in the batting order has a great effect on hitting philosophy, overall numbers etc. In what part of the order did Pujols, Clemente and Cobb hit?”

      In this point, Gene, is where I believe we will have the biggest disagreement, nothing too serious, though.

      In my understanding (which might not be the best one), the purpose of a lead-off batter is to get on base, not just to get hits. It’s very telling that Rose’s OBP is out of the top 100 when that was his main role for a lot of time. In that regard, he hurt his team more than not. Cobb is 9th all time in OBP, Pujols’ is the same as Rose,. 375. Clemente was worse, actually.

      5. “Intangibles (How do you quantify intangibles?) Rose was a fierce competitor, a pit bull; he always ran to first base; he frequently took head first, diving slides; and he handled enormous pressure both during the hit streak and the race to beat Cobb. Did he want the record? Sure! Why? Because he had the tools and longevity to do it. Nobody else did, or does, since. I mean, why is Pujols still playing? Because he is chasing records.”

      I have to admit that this is a fascinating point, and somethinh that we, baseball fans, love about our favorite sport: narratives.

      Rose was the epithome of hustling, and because of that, rightly won the heart of millions of fans everywhere.

      We all love the hard working achiever. Thing is that, even hustling you might not be having the great results that it seems to be getting.

      As I started the article, I still believe Rose is, from a strict sports achievement sense, a HoFer, no doubt.

      And I also think that his lying about gambling was the nail on his HoF case. But the reason I think he should not be allowed to get into it are related to the murky accusations regarding his alleged actions against an underage girl; an unrepentant lier has a hard case against that.

      Thanks for taking the time to provide this excellent feedback!

      Regards,

      Carlos.

  • Avatar Rob Anderson says:

    Obviously you don’t have knowledge of baseball

  • Avatar Jonathon says:

    I agree he was a below average player at the end of his career. Many great players performed well below their prime at the end. But to say Rose is borderline HOF without 4000 hits is absurd. He has a .300 career avg despite playing into his mid 40s. He was in the top 5 in MVP 5 times. Top 10 in MVP 9 times. Top 5 in Batting avg 7 times. 4 times he lead the league in run scored, etc. I can go on and on. Maybe he was not as good as Cobb but he is a not doubt HOF even if he retired with 3500 hits. Comparing him to Omar Vizquel who never got close to an MVP is just idiotic barely worthy of a response.

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Hi, Jonathon, thanks for reading!

      We have a very different way of pondering the real value of a baseball player but by no means I think yours is idiotic, just different.

      Judging a player’s value by batting average was a bless for Rose and his era, the thing is it’s been a while since we moved good evaluation from batting average and beating average titles as they have proven to be next to worthless (don’t trust in my opinion, you can survey any big league – and plenty of other profesional leagues – front offices and they will surely convene with that. wOBA, wRC+ and plenty of other, not so new now, stats show a better way of gaging a players baseball worth. In most of them, Rose is less than stellar.

      The comparison with Vizquel was just on the way they were both some kind of accumulator of stats, I tried to make that clear but I think I failed to do it right, thanks for pointing it out.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Regards, Carlos.
      P. S: Runs scored is an interesting stat in that it is not a one person thing, you need to be part of a team that have enough players capable of driving you in. Granted, you have the burden of having to get on base, which is mostly up to you, so just imagine if Rose would have been really great in OBP how many other R he could have scored! Good for him he had a lengthy enough career to pile them up!

  • Avatar Iván López says:

    Carlos, gracias por el gran articulo, como siempre. Me gustaria saber en tu opinion (y como esto es Pitcher’s List) quien crees que es la mejor comparacion en la loma del pitcher? Un lanzador que depende mayormente en sus numeros de Victorias y longevidad para entrar al HOF. Gracias por todo!

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Gracias a ti, Iván, por leerlo y las amables palabras.

      Un caso que se me ocurre rápidamente es el de Jack Morris, quién entre los lanzadores en el HoF es de los de peor ERA, FIP y HR/9 con un relativamente bajo fWAR pero sus más de 250 W (254) y los 18 años, a´sí como las narrativas de postemporada (muy importante) le ayudaron mucho para su inducción.

      ¡Saludos!

  • Avatar NY Expat says:

    Thanks for this article, Carlos! 75th might be too low for me (though I couldn’t tell you exactly where he’d be), but I appreciate the gist here: He’s not top 10 or 20.

    I don’t think too many people remember or care, but the player that was hurt the most by Rose writing his name in the lineup every day was Kal Daniels, who was a damn good hitter at that time.

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Kal Daniels! It’s been a while since I read that name, I remember reading that a combination of Rose blocking him and a bad knee was his doom.

      Thanks a lot for reading!

  • Avatar Peter latourette says:

    Well 2 things..other than baseball is a business and people came to the ballpark to see him….his style rubbed off on other players & he was an instrumental figure in helping to bring 2 cities World Championships!

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Thanks for reading, Peter!

      Yes, he was must see TV back in his days, and a big part of the Red Machine, I agree.

      Best regards,

      Carlos.

  • Avatar Luke says:

    You make good points, seems to be detrimental to Pete. The last 3 years he played he was washed up and old. If it weren’t for that, his batting average would of been around 330. You have to be a fucking alien to have that many hits. I don’t care if Betty Crocker is throwing you pitches! Your argument is void my friend! Obsession? Correct! Now you get it!

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Thanks for reading, Luke.

      It was more like the last 5-6 seasons of his career which were mediocre, accumulating barely a 0.1 fWAR while batting some very pedestrians .272/.355/.327, .314 wOBA, and a 94 +wRC, meaning he was 6% worse than the average player during that timeframe.
      Good thing for him he played a lot of time so he could accumulate some valuable stats, for his era.
      Best regards,
      Carlos.

  • Avatar Luke says:

    Are you a Brewers fan?

    • Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

      Not at all! A’s fan here.
      I try to keep my fandom out of my analysis and day-to-day living, not easy at all but I believe it’s worth it!

      Regards,
      Carlos.

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