Pete Rose was great, but not among the greatest
It's time stop making Pete Rose the player out to be more than he really was.
More Pete Rose: Snyder: Stop with selective morality on Pete Rose & Hall of Fame
On the hopelessly twined-together subjects of Pete Rose, the Hall of Fame and baseball greatness, first this: If Pete Rose were eligible for the Hall of Fame and on the ballot and I had a vote, I would put an "X" next to his name. I think Rose's gambling affronts are more serious, insofar as potential harm to the game is concerned, than what the PED users have done. I think it's fair that he's banished for life (them's the rules when it comes to gambling), but I don't think it's fair that he was ex post facto barred from Hall of Fame consideration. He should have his day before voters, and he should go in on the merits of his playing career.
With that out of the way, some of Rose's legion of supporters badly need perspective with regard to how good Charlie Hustle really was. When the topic is Rose and the setting is the tavern or the ballpark or social media, you need not hang around long until you hear a phrase like "one of the greatest of all-time" or "best hitter ever" bandied about. Rose was a very good player who hoarded some impressive counting stats. However, he was not and is not -- blue-collar martyrdom notwithstanding -- among the very best ballplayers in the annals of the game.
There's no denying the factual matter of his hit total, but Rose stands as the ultimate "compiler" -- i.e., a player who, while brilliant in his prime, lingered far too long in the game in pursuit of "counting stat" benchmarks. Over the final five seasons of his career, Rose, in weary yet relentless pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time hits record, batted a combined .261/.348/.315 (86 OPS+), which isn't good from anyone, let alone a player who, at that stage of things, was also a liability in the field and on the bases. In 1986, Rose's final season and the year after he finally surmounted Cobb, he batted a miserable .219/.316/.270. There was only one manager who would've kept Rose at those depths on the roster, and that manager was ... Pete Rose.
In some senses, almost every pursuit of a career counting mark is in some ways a vanity project. After all, by that point the player in question is almost certainly not an especially useful one. That was Rose, and that was especially Rose when, for reasons sufficient unto himself, he hung around even after harpooning his white whale.
None of this is to impugn him for doing that, though. Rather, it's to remind you that a substantial portion of Rose's career was devoid of the buccaneering excellence of his early days. For much of it, we watched a player who was his old self only in glimpses. Because this was Pete Rose, though, we clung to those glimpses and willed away the bumbling remainder.
In the cold language of the numbers, though, Rose's long, slow slide out of baseball came at a cost. Consider some of his rate stats: In terms of OPS+ (park- and league-adjusted OPS), his career mark of 118 is ... tied for 411th place all-time. Prefer something more traditional and salt-cured, something more befitting the Hit King? Fine: His career batting average of .3029 is tied for ... 172nd all-time. On a rate basis with the bat, Rose's numbers are merely good, not great.
But what if he had quit when he should've, although still shy of Cobb's hits mark? Truncate his career after his age-40 season (1981), when he still would've had nearly 3,700 hits, and Rose's OPS+ would've been ... 124, or about 257th all-time. End it after the 1978 season, during which Rose reached 3,000 hits, and his OPS+ would.ve been ... 126, or about 220th all-time. Yes, Rose's deep and seemingly chronic decline phase of course dragged down his rate production, but the pre-deep decline foundation was never among the very best in baseball history.
Circling back to counting stats for a moment, two others of note: Rose's career WAR of 79.4 checks in as the 64th-best mark of all-time. Does the rank-and-file fan typically think of Rose as not being one of the 50 best players ever? Probably not, I would venture. WAR, of course, isn't definitive, but it is illuminating. Here's another counting stat for you: 10,328. That’s Rose's career total for outs made, and he's the all-time leader by a gaping margin. It's not entirely fair to seize upon that, of course, being as it is a function of his playing for too long. In that sense, Rose's out total is not unlike, well, his hit total.
In a related matter, we should also stop indulging in the fiction that Rose scaled the heights that he did primarily by force of will and by dint of a dirty uniform. Yes, Rose was a max-effort ballplayer who cared about winning, but, since he was an accomplished major-league player, he was, ipso facto, a profoundly talented athlete. You don't do what Rose did or any other MLBer did without being at the distant reaches of the bell curve in terms of raw, gifted-from-above baseball talent.
To repeat, though, Rose is an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer absent the gambling scandal, and he would have my unflinching support. He was also a very good and often genuinely great player (and, yes, I'm old enough to have seen him play quite a bit). Rose was not, however, among the very best ever. So those of us who regard him as such should cease. Otherwise, we give short shrift to the players -- the Babe Ruths, the Hank Aarons, the Honus Wagners, the Willie Mayses, the Walter Johnsons -- who truly did achieve inner-circle greatness on the diamond.
Let's save our myths for the truly mythic, not Pete Rose.