Grab a beer; this is a long one.
How daring of me, I know, to say Pete Rose doesn’t belong in Hall of Fame. “He’s a scurrilous dog; he gambled and lied to Major League Baseball; he lied to the Commissioner; worst of all, he lied to his fans.” Yes, we’ve all read those arguments, ad nauseam, so why read another diatribe against Charlie Hustle? The typical defense of Pete is this: he always bet on his team to win, so how can anyone say he hurt his team? He’d be even more motivated to ensure a win, right, with his own money on the line.
There are two major flaws in that defense. First, it is immaterial and irrelevant that he bet on the Reds to win; it is against the rules of baseball to bet on games. The real world is a sea of grays, but there are occasional glimpses of black and white, and this is one of them. If somehow you are unaware of why this rule is in place, do a bit of reading on the term “Black Sox”. The influence of gambling in baseball had a long history before that, and occasionally hit afterwards as well; for now, trust me, there’s good reason baseball instituted such draconian penalties for gambling.
The second flaw in the logic of this defense is this: what happens if Pete goes on a losing streak? Suddenly, he owes a lot of money to people who demand payment. Isn’t it a possible, even probable, that in exchange for, say keeping in a pitcher just one too many innings in a bad outing, that debt is forgiven? Or maybe you cool off a hot bat, explaining you need to see if this September call-up can hit lefties? In 1985, Pete’s first full year as the Reds’ manager, they were five and a half games out of first, with six games to play. In 1986, they were eleven back on September 19th, and never got closer than nine games from the title. This provided ample opportunity for a bit of chicanery, which would easily escape scrutiny.
Ah, but you, wisely, actually looked at the records, didn’t you? And you see that Pete’s Reds actually performed terrifically down the stretch in ’86. After the game of September 19th, they were 74-73, eleven back. From there they were a Red hot (sorry, couldn’t be helped) 12-3 to finish ten games over .500. Unfortunately for them, the Astros went 11-4, so their efforts went for naught.
Regardless, the Reds were brilliant down the stretch, so obviously Pete wasn’t throwing any games. Blows my entire hypothesis right out of the water, doesn’t it?
No, not at all. Because my issue with Peter Edward Rose isn’t that he bet on baseball. While that absolutely violates the criteria of character and integrity (he broke the rule repeatedly, then lied about it), in my opinion, he violated those same rules in an even more egregious manner, did so in plain view, and has rarely been called out for it. Before I dive into this, I’ll acknowledge Bill James, who wrote about this issue decades ago, as it was happening. Mr. James, as almost always, was a Mickey Mantle moonshot ahead of the curve.
The problem I have with Rose is this: he put himself above his team. In 1984, Pete reached the amazing 4,000 hit plateau, and passed it. The all-time hit record was in sight, and Pete was going to break Cobb’s record as a Red. To that end, he was given the fifth-place team in place of the fabulous Vern Rapp, and installed himself at first base. The chase was on.
At first glance, it was the obvious move. Nick Esasky in his second season was struggling, to say the least. On August 17th, this was Esasky’s “batting” line: .204, .302, .381, .683. That’s AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS. No doubt at this point in the season, Rose was the better hitter. Pete’s line after his 2-4 performance: .262, .337, .301, .638. Obvious, right? Esasky was hitting barely breaking .200, and Pete was outhitting him by almost sixty points. But look a bit further; Rose’s OBP advantage drops by almost half, 35 points better than Esasky. It’s still better, though. But now the problems really begin. While Nick’s SLG is terrible for a 1b at .381, Pete’s is abysmal, at .301. Esasky’s OPS is bad at .683, but Pete’s is .638. Esasky’s terrible average represented just under 60 percent of his offensive contributions, while Pete’s .262 (not great to begin with) represented 82 percent of his offensive value. If you don’ know how to get these numbers, it’s simple: As OPS is simply On-base Plus Slugging, to get the value of the hits, multiply the batting average time two, as it’s a component of both OBP and SLG, then divide by OPS. You’re calculating the value of the hits in relation to the walks and extra bases. So while Esasky wasn’t hitting nearly enough to keep his job, he was adding more value via the walk and extra bases. So was it the right choice to sit him? In 335 appearance in ‘83, his first year in the bigs, he’d hit .265, slugged .450, with a .779 OPS. He hit the sophomore slump, hard, in ’84. Pete went on a massive tear, too, since coming to the Reds. In his 26 games back in the ‘Natti, he hit a blistering .365, with enough walks and doubles (9 in 96 AB) for a very respectable OPS of .888.
Two problems: that was not a sustainable level for Rose, and there were more options than Esasky. It wasn’t that big a problem for the team in 1984; they were in fifth place, and weren’t going anywhere. To me, it makes much more sense to let Esasky work though his struggles at the plate; you’re in fifth, after all. The fact is that Rose requested the trade from Montreal specifically to get Cobb’s hit record. The Expos traded for Dan Driessen on July 27th, and took over at first. Pete’s 133 hits from Ty, and suddenly is out of a starting job. The Expos weren’t going anywhere either, but apparently saw a need for !B who slugged better than .295. You read that right; in 278 AB, Charlie Hustle had walloped 6 doubles and 2 triples (2 three-baggers at age 43, gotta admit, that’s nice). Still, he SLUGGED .295. Maybe that had something to do with their standing, 11 and a half out. Pete had done what they asked of him; he collected his 4,000th hit, and he was now superfluous. The Expos were more than happy to accommodate his wishes, and move him home to the Reds. At the time, the assumption was Rose would be going to the AL, as his arm wasn’t good enough to play anywhere but first, and he no longer had the power most teams want at the spot. Of course, he didn’t have the power most teams want at DH, either. The Reds made the most sense. By far, as they needed a manager, something Rose was very interested in as well. He could play enough to pass Cobb, and everyone goes home happy.
Except Pete was, and is still, Charlie Hustle. Throughout his career, you could be excused for thinking Pete was short for COMPete. To his credit, Rose mainly inserted himself in the lineup to rest Esasky against righties. Esasky hit a miserable .168 with an OPS of .543 against RHP; against LHP, he hit .224 with an OPS of .780. Rose, meanwhile, smote the Spaulding at a robust .381, with .917 OPS against righties. Against southpaws, he wisely restricted himself to 14 plate appearances, as he only hit .250 with a .690 OPS. With Pete playing as young as his haircut, it worked.
But then came 1985. Pete was still 95 hits shy of passing Cobb. So of course, he started the 44 year old 1b with no power. For April, Rose hit .254 with a .624 OPS. Esasky was installed at 3B, and turned in a .267 AVG and .838 OPS for the month. May saw a reversal, as Rose hit .296 with .862 OPS. Esasky slumped to .194 and .567, respectively. In June the pendulum swung back to Nick, and stayed there. Pete hit .303 and .765 in June, still respectable, but Nick dialed it in for .343 and .986. July was much the same; while Esasky cooled off to hit just .258, his OPS was still a stellar .916. Rose meanwhile slumped to .287 and .686. I’ll give Pete credit, though; he was drawing walks like the second coming of Eddie Yost. After a slow start in April, he was averaging almost exactly one walk per game; for the first half of the season, his OBP was a stellar .397.
But… Pete’s power was almost non-existent. Of course, that was never his game, but when you throw in a .323 slugging percentage for the first half of ’85, well… is that a quality 1B? Here’s Pete’s line for the first half of ’85, followed by Nick’s:
Player AVG OBP SLG OPS
Rose: .262 .397 .323 .720
Esasky .251 .352 .412 .763
The disparity only grew in the second half:
Rose .267 .392 .313 .704
Esasky .270 .314 .509 .823
I don’t know about you, but I know who I need playing at 1B. Yes, you have to get men on base to score runs, and Rose was getting on base. But he wasn’t doing anything else. Charlie Hustle reached base 197 times in 1985 including his 4 HBP, and scored the staggering total of 60 runs. Davey Concepcion reached base 194 times, and scored 59 runs. Davey typically batted 6th, Rose typically 2nd, (although Rose put himself in the three hole 39 times, for some unfathomable reason). Rose had guys like Esasky and Dave Parker batting after him; Concepcion had Ron Oester and Dave Van Gorder. Who’s going to score more runes, the guy slotted ahead of .551 slugging Parker and .465 slugging Esasky, or the man setting the table for Oester, who slugged .361 and Van Gorder, who “slugged” .325? At least his catcher had more power than his first baseman, I’ll give Rose that.
Let’s look at a few other guys that hit out of the 2 hole. I’ll list some stats, then see if you can guess who put up the stat lines. The fourth is Rose, of course, so for a fair comparison, the other three also played in the National League in 1985.
|R||TOB||2B||3B||HR||SB||G/2 or 3||R/200TOB||SP|
Just in case it isn’t clear, TOB is total times on base, g/2 or 3 is the total games they batted either second or third, and SP is times the played put themselves in scoring position, including HR. The next to last column list runs per 200 times on base, as it makes for a more recognizable real world comparison, rather than runs per 100, or 500.
The astute reader no doubt identified the second easily enough; Willie McGee stands out with his runs, triples and stolen bases. The player on line three might be a bit tougher, as I combined hits and walks. The point here is to identify putting yourself on base, and in scoring position, after all, so a walk’s just as good as a hit (or HBP, also included). Line three is Tony Gwynn.
Say it’s unfair to compare a 43 year old 1B to two speedy OF at the top of their game? Why? Opposing teams didn’t take that into consideration; their job was to keep the guy off base, and prevent him from scoring if he did get on. Rose’s job as manager was to maximize the runs his team could score. And by the way, Pete played in 119 games, so almost all of his appearances were at the top of the order.
So who created the first stat line? Why, the indomitable Vance Law, that’s who. Vance Freaking Law. Pete got on base a lot for an old man, but he didn’t exactly wear out the basepaths on his trips from first to home.
Okay, so what? So Pete didn’t have any power, and didn’t score many runs, despite his great OBP. Esasky was still playing; Rose didn’t block his path after all. Except, he did. Esasky couldn’t play 1B, because Pete couldn’t play anywhere else. Nick didn’t remind anyone of Brooks Robinson at third, so the Reds made a move to bring in Buddy Bell in mid-July. Bell had six Gold Gloves, even won the Silver Slugger in ’84 for the Rangers. To be fair to Esasky, the number s don’t show he was bad at 3B; in fact, he was almost exactly average, with a zone rating exactly one run above the average 3B for the entire season. But getting Cincy native Bell was certainly viewed as an upgrade. While his ’85 season in Texas was frankly pretty poor, the hope was that a little home cooking would help the five-time All Star rebound. Unfortunately, Bell’s poor season continued as a Red. Instead of moving Esasky to first, Nick went to the outfield, because Pete was still 35 hits away from passing Cobb. No way he’d let a little thing like the good of the team stop Charlie Hustle.
Gary Redus, at this point a superior player to Rose (.781 OPS), grabbed a lot of pine. Wayne Krenchicki (am I really writing this? Yes, yes I am) was better than Rose, with his .763 OPS. Even Max Venable with his .737 OPS would have been a better option.
Worst of all, there wasn’t room for the electrifying Eric Davis, who proved he belonged in his September call-up, hitting .406, slugging .781, and an OPS of 1.253. Davis had started the year poorly, to be sure, but in May he hit .261, slugged .565, with an OPS of .826. But the manager didn’t have room for a kid like that, because he needed to get his hits.
Pete got his hits, alright. He wrapped up the season 13 hits past Cobb. And just to prove he was the best ever, he came back in ’86 to blast the ball with this slash line: .219 .316 .270 .586. Yes, that’s your first baseman slugging .270.
Did Pete Rose collect more hits than anyone in major league baseball history? Yes, absolutely. Did he put himself into the position to get those hits? Yes, absolutely. Pete Rose selfishly put his accomplishment ahead of the needs of his team.
Now, do I really think that’s enough to keep him out? It’s a moot point, of course, as Pete isn’t eligible. But, if you weigh the criteria of integrity, character, and sportsmanship equally with skills and record, Pete doesn’t belong. The standing complaint you read is “This is supposed to be a Hall of Fame, not a Hall of Saints”. There was precious little guidance given to the prospective voters when the Hall was created, and that’s a shame. In the future, we’ll look at some ways to fix that. Whether integrity, character and sportsmanship should be among the determining factors is another argument entirely; the fact is, they are part of the process. How each voter considers those criteria is up to him or her. If I had a vote, under these guidelines, Pete will keep selling his autograph at the collectibles shop a block away.