What about Pete Rose?

One cannot simply start talking about Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. The debate has layers, sections, and detours that are destined the derail your conversation if you aren’t careful. The conversation has to be divided into three separate discussions that all have equal weight and intrigue. I know it can be frustrating not to jump into the meat of the discussion, but if we don’t organize our thoughts we won’t get anywhere.

Where does he stand in the history of the game?

Even this question is loaded. There is nothing that is simple and that includes statistics. Opinions on Rose range anywhere from him being one of the greatest players in the history of the game to being one of the more overrated players in the history of the game. A chronicling of him being one of the top ten players is based on very simplistic methodology. It starts and usually stops with 4256.

Yet, the naysayers might also might be overlooking some things. Still, we start with the obvious question: what in the hell is he doing in a discussion about left fielders? Well, the question of what position to consider someone at can be tricky too. Usually we go with the position played more often, but that is not universal. Sometimes we have to consider where the player was better defensively and other times we need to consider the value they brought to the table at that position. We will analyze all three methods and show why he lands in left field.

  Games TZ Runs BWAR
First Base 939 -44 1.9
Second Base 628 -21 13.3
Third Base 634 -35 17.4
Left Field 673 51 25.1
Right Field 590 1 21.0

This is the first and best example of not always getting the facts right. The anti-Rose crowd point to his shoddy defensive numbers and certainly that might be true overall, but the numbers here show he was a pretty gifted left fielder and at least mediocre in right field. The bWAR numbers were taken in seasons where he spent the majority of his time at that position. He also played some games in centerfield, but he never spent the majority of any season at that position.

Clearly, he played more games at first base than any individual position and more games in the infield than in the outfield. He came up as a second baseman, so it would certainly be defensible to categorize him as an infielder, but he was clearly at his best in the outfield both defensively and overall as a player. The fact that he played more games in left, played the position very well, and enjoyed his most success as a player there makes the decision pretty easy.

Now that we have that problem solved it is time we moved on to the index. We always start with the career value numbers. We have to keep the 12 players from the BBWAA in mind. Eight easily belonged while four were borderline. Let’s see where Rose ranks individually.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Pete Rose 79.7 80.1 109.4 279.2

Clearly, Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. Furthermore, the career numbers here put him well within the top five players at the position. If we exclude Barry Bonds for a moment we find that Rose finishes fifth at the position and pretty close to Carl Yastrzemski. At this point, there is little reason to rank one before the other. We often get ourselves in trouble when we attempt to sort players like this. Suffice it to say, they are similar in terms of value.

It is worth noting that the win share numbers were far different than the WAR numbers. This is where we should remind everyone that win shares are based on actual wins and not expected wins. Usually those aren’t different but when a player plays for a historically great team we find that those teams consistently outperform their expected records. From here we get into the minutia of debating whether that is a factor of luck or clutch performance. If it is clutch performance then we have to parcel out that added value proportionally. Nine times out of ten that evens out over the course of a career. In the case of the Big Red Machine we have to assume that Rose played a part in them overachieving their expected record on a consistent basis.

This is where the rubber meets the road. We can say that Rose benefitted from having great teammates and so his numbers (conventional and sabermetric) were better as a result. We can also claim that his teammates were better because of him. With a player like Rose, each explanation is equally plausible. Suffice it to say, it is situations like these that make using three different sources necessary. We can’t discount win shares, but we can’t completely rely on it either.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Pete Rose 60.2 55.7 60.8 176.7 455.9

Rose has the kind of peak value figures you would expect from someone that played for 25 years. This is particularly true when you consider win shares. The major difference is that win shares are not negative. If someone is always putting up positive value then we can expect bigger gaps between career and peak value. So, we see a starker difference between Rose and the other top five left fielders.

In terms of peak value he ranks closest to Joe Medwick. I suspect this reflects the anti-Rose crowd’s collective opinion of him. That certainly makes sense but it also ignores the career value component. Both reflect the player overall, so it is impossible to consider one without the other. That puts the truth somewhere in between.

Opinions of Rose get complicated when we parcel out hitting and fielding. His primary value point is as a compiler. We’ve already seen some of the fielding numbers, so we will avoid the usual chart at this point. We saw this phenomenon with a few players in history. The most notable was Craig Biggio. When players play so many positions you have to look at them differently.

Did Rose play different positions because he was a bad player or because he was versatile enough to move? The Reds famously moved Rose to third base in 1975 to make room for George Foster. As we saw with his fielding numbers, he was a pretty good defensive outfielder. So, he brought some added value because of his versatility. How that gets baked into the Rose value cake is anyone’s best guess. I’m not smart enough to make specific allowances for that, but we also can’t take his overall defensive numbers at face value.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Pete Rose 118 12 .644 121 .354

Like with the fielding, the offensive numbers are somewhat misleading. Rose was remarkably unproductive in his last several seasons. When you add in the fact that he was playing below average first base it was glaring. It’s hard to distill that out of the overall memory. We usually remember the last thing we saw and for many that was an aging singles hitter that refused to admit he was past his prime. 1981 was the last season he had an OPS+ above 100. He retired following 1986. That’s five years of average to below average performance. Lop off those five seasons and I imagine you see something completely different above. We are still talking 18 seasons, so it’s not like longevity was an issue. Usually, my work would be done here, but as we know, Rose comes with other baggage.

How does he compare with other historical bad actors?

The difficulty with Rose is that you have to consider the whole package. That includes an ego that really has never allowed him to show remorse for his bad acts. Instead, he tries to compare himself with steroid and other drug users. Those players weren’t banned and so why was he? This argument demonstrates that Rose has never fully acknowledged what he has done and how it stacks up against other “crimes against baseball”.

Of course, the remorse goes directly to our third question, so we will leave it aside for now. If we rephrased the question above we would simply ask whether he should be banned from baseball for life. I generally don’t like the if…then arguments people are destined to make. In politics we usually call this “whataboutism.” It Is a tactic used to deflect away from the conversation. Is gambline really worse than drinking, using elicit drugs, steroids, or domestic abuse? Moreover, is it worse than just being an asshole? In the generic sense it is hard to make that argument, but we can’t argue this in the generic case. This is about baseball and what it means for baseball.

Even if we ignore the legacy of the 1919 Black Sox scandal and other cheating scandals from the early years of the sport we have to consider the nature of sport itself. Sports continues to be huge entertainment because it is the one form of entertainment where no one knows the end result beforehand. It’s what separates it from professional wrestling or your standard situational comedy. It’s unscripted. A team could win 130 games in the regular season and still lose in the playoffs. That’s what makes it exciting.

When someone gambles on the sport they are putting their fingers on the scale. How much weight they apply depends on whether they bet on their own contests and whether they bet on their own team to win or lose. By all accounts, Rose did bet on the Reds as a player and manager but there is no evidence to say he bet against them. Furthermore, it would not fit his personality to bet against his team.

Still, let’s say he has $1000 on the team to win. Let’s say he has a one run lead in the ninth and his closer has pitched three days in a row. The usual course would be to sit the closer to preserve him for the rest of the week, month, and season. Would having juice affect that decision? That all depends on the amount of the bet in comparison with his finances. Either way, it is hard to deny that any decision he might make is completely pure. That affects the integrity of the game and without that you don’t have a game.

Now, does steroid use affect the integrity of the game? I suppose that argument could be made. Yet, someone that uses PEDs is doing so ostensibly to win. Everyone doing their all falls under the integrity of the game. So, I don’t follow that argument in the same way.

Does he deserve a chance at getting into the Hall of Fame?

Bart Giamatti pulled a fast one on Rose. He enticed him into agreeing a lifetime ban with the expectation that he would still get into the Hall of Fame. Then, they made being on baseball’s banned list verboten in Cooperstown. It was a fancy trick and as much as I might dislike Rose, that was not baseball’s finest hour. We could debate whether Rose deserves to be a part of the game, but that is a separate discussion.

I had to phrase the question as I did above because the question of whether he belongs in is a separate question. As mentioned before, Rose has been reluctant to issue a full mea culpa for his actions. It was only recently (the last decade) that he fully admitted to gambling on baseball in general and gambling on the Reds specifically. He still hasn’t fully come clean as to whether he always bet for his team.

This is hard stuff. I generally fall into the camp that he should be on the ballot and the BBWAA should decide his fate. Then at least every member would get to wrestle with their conscience individually. If someone wants to categorize him in the same way as a Darryl Strawberry or Dwight Gooden that is their right. If someone wants to put him in the same category as Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds that is their right. If they want to consider him another Orlando Cepeda that is also their right.

I’m not sure it is fair to consider him among the top ten players of all-time but he is well within the range of Hall of Fame performance based just on the numbers. I’m not sure the baseball’s banned list and the Hall of Fame registry were ever supposed to be conflated. Is Joe Jackson a Hall of Famer? Maybe if you consider the numbers on their own merits. I don’t know if I would vote for Rose or not, but I think he certainly deserves a chance.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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