Saturday, August 1, 2009

Why doesn't Pete Rose belong in the Hall? Because he wasn't that good!

If you're reading this, you've likely also read the recent discussion of whether Pete Rose should be reinstated and allowed into the Hall of Fame.

Most such discussions center around what a sleazebag he was, how he gambled on baseball, jeopardized the game, slandered decent people, lied his face off, and waited until he could turn a profit from it to finally tell the truth. Among other things. It's pretty clear that he's not a good guy, and this is more than enough reason for lots of people to be against him ever seeing the inside of the Hall.

But what rarely gets discussed is a simple truth that, thanks to his talent for self-promotion, is not widely understood. The fact is that Pete Rose wasn't a great ballplayer.

He was a remarkable ballplayer in many ways, and unquestionably a very good one, but he wasn't a great one. Consider:

He wasn't a great defender at any position. He didn't have great speed, or great hands, or a great arm. He could do a passable job at several positions, for which we must give him credit, but then so could Lee Lacy. Rose couldn't play shortstop or catcher, and spent most of his career at what are generally understood to be offensive positions, where you expect to have better-than-average hitters.

He earned a reputation as Charlie Hustle. What was that based on? Well, he did hustle, to be sure. But much of the fuss was about his habit of running to first on a walk. The fans loved it, and Rose loved the attention, but you get the same result whether you sprint or amble to first base on a walk. It didn't help his team, but it helped his reputation.

Another thing he got credit for was baserunning: he wasn't afraid to steal a base. Problem is, he should have been. He stole 198 bases, but was caught 149 times, giving him one of the worst success rates in the history of baseball among players who frequently tried to steal. The records were murky in the early part of the previous century, but if you look at records after World War II, I don't think you'll find another player with a worse percentage in as many attempts. (I couldn't find anyone with fewer stolen bases that was caught so many times.) This is worse than running out walks, which at least is harmless. By "hustling" on the bases, Rose was actively hurting his team. But again, the public loved it, and the legend grew. Helping your reputation at the expense of your team is not my idea of greatness.

By now, Rose backers are screaming about all of his hits. Of course, this is where he shines. He had lots of advantages, that helped him get far more chances at the plate than any other player in history -- he stayed healthy, he hit at the top of the order on some very good offensive teams, meaning that he got lots of at-bats (he led the league in plate appearances several times), and he didn't draw a large number of walks, which gave him more opportunity to pad his hit totals. He also played well into his mid-40s, long after he was helpful to his team. His production at offensive positions was downright poor for his last five seasons, so he never should have gotten the opportunity to reach 4000 hits, much less the record. We won't discuss the fact that many of those hits came when Rose was player/manager and was inserting himself into the lineup. But he sure did get a lot of hits.

Let's not forget that hits alone are a poor measure of offensive production. A relatively quick and dirty method for measuring offensive performance is OPS, or on-base plus slugging, which combines slugging percentage (bases per at bat, where a single is one base and a home run is four bases) and on-base percentage (roughly the number of times you get on by hit, walk, or hit by pitch divided by the number of plate appearances).

By this measure, Rose is 525th in the history of baseball as of this writing, according to Not far behind Jason Varitek. I came up with a count of 108 Hall of Famers among those ahead of him in that category, which means that there are 416 guys with a better career OPS who are not in the Hall of Fame. 416. And that's not counting the guys who hit almost as well as he did who were superior defenders. Get in line, Pete.

The argument will be made by many that Rose played in an era that was not conducive to hitting. He was active in 1968 (one of his two legitimately great seasons, by the way), which was possibly the worst year to be a hitter in the history of baseball. So let's consider only players who were active in 1968. By my count, Rose ranks 49th in career OPS among such players. Behind Mack Jones and Don Mincher, if those names mean anything to you. And far behind guys like Dick Allen, Reggie Smith, and Ron Santo, none of whom are in the Hall.

Of course, he gets credit for longevity (though not too much credit, for the aforementioned reason that he extended his career far beyond what it should have been), and you probably can't fairly say that he was only the 49th best player among his contemporaries. Or maybe you can, because we're ignoring defensive standouts like Brooks Robinson and Bill Mazeroski, to say nothing of pitchers.

What you can say is that when you add up hitting, fielding, and base-running, Rose was not among the very best players of his own time. And he is certainly not among the best players of all time.

He had many interesting records, and there's no doubt that he was good, but he just wasn't a great player in terms of productivity on the field. What makes Rose a Hall of Fame candidate in the first place is his fame, not his excellence. But if you want to consider him based on reputation, you have to consider all of the nastier sides of his character.

If you want to consider Pete Rose purely as a ballplayer, you don't have to consider him at all.

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