So, Pete Rose has been in the news the past couple of days. Rather than discuss that topic again, let's discuss Pete Rose the baseball player. Obviously, Rose would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer as the all-time hits leader and one of the most famous players in the game's long history. I've had readers tell me he's the greatest player ever and I've had very smart people tell me he's the most overrated player of all time, merely a good player who played forever.
The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle.
Rose isn't the greatest player ever, not even close. Getting hits is important, but that's just one element of offense: Do you hit for power? Do you get on base? Do you run the bases? And that's before we talk defense. In terms of career Wins Above Replacement since 1901, Rose ranks 36th among position players -- behind Jeff Bagwell and ahead of Brooks Robinson. Nobody claims those two are the greatest players ever.
If we look at what I'll call superstar seasons, Rose fares even worse. Let's set a bar of 7.0 WAR as a superstar season. That's a very high bar, an MVP-caliber season. Barry Bonds has the most at 14. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron had 13. Babe Ruth had 12, Lou Gehrig and Honus Wagner had 10. Sitting at nine: Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker. Albert Pujols, Eddie Mathews, Eddie Collins and Ty Cobb had eight and we go down from there.
Since 1901, 104 position players have had at least two 7.0-WAR seasons. Rose had one. That was in 1973, which happens to be his MVP season. He hit .338/.401/.437, won the batting title, collected 230 hits and scored 115 runs. Even though he hit just five home runs, Baseball-Reference rates Rose as worth 8.3 WAR, fourth-best in the National League. So he was a solid MVP selection. I mean, Joe Morgan played on the same team and hit more home runs, drove in more runs, scored more runs, had a higher OBP and a higher slugging percentage, stole 57 more bases and played a more difficult defensive position, but Rose wasn't a bad choice.
Rose got a lot of hits, finishing with 4,256 to pass Cobb. He was extremely durable. He didn't hit many home runs -- his career high was 16 and he finished with 160, and he gave up trying to hit home runs late in his career. In his final seven seasons, playing mostly first base, he had more than 3,600 plate appearances and hit just six home runs. But he broke Cobb's record.
Anyway, what Rose had was a long list of excellent seasons. If we lower the bar to 5.0-WAR seasons -- an All-Star level campaign -- Rose had eight, one of 49 players since 1901 with that many. Chipper Jones had eight such seasons. So did Cal Ripken and Reggie Jackson and Edgar Martinez.
If we lower the bar even further to 3.0 WAR -- still an above-average regular -- Rose comes in with 14 seasons, one of 33 players with that many.
So that paints a pretty good picture of Rose the player: All-Star level player but rarely one of the very elite players in his league. He ranked in the top 10 among position players in the NL six times, peaking at No. 3 in 1973 and 1976.
One thing WAR doesn't factor in: Rose's ability and willingness to move around the diamond. There is hidden value in that, similar to an active player like Ben Zobrist. Rose came up with the Cincinnati Reds in 1963 as a second baseman, but his defensive metrics there weren't good; they say he had trouble turning the double play. In 1967, he moved to the outfield, with Tommy Helms taking over at second.
He actually won two Gold Gloves as a right fielder, although Baseball-Reference's defensive ratings say he was only average there. He moved to left field in 1972, where his ratings were excellent. Early in 1975, Rose was starting in left field but the Reds were getting no production at third base. Sparky Anderson asked Rose to play third base, Rose moved to his fourth position, George Foster was inserted in left field and The Big Red Machine added the final piece to its dynasty and won two World Series. He later moved to first base.
Baseball-Reference rates Rose as worth -54 runs on defense in his career. From age 36 on, he rated at -73 runs. I mentioned those final seven seasons, ages 39 to 45. Rose added an additional 884 hits to his career ledger; he was worth -1.4 WAR in those years. For a player long heralded as a gritty hustler who would do anything to help his teams, he wasn't helping for seven years.
One final note. Longtime reader Tarek raised this question in Tuesday's chat: Rose or Derek Jeter? Rose had 79.1 career WAR, according to Baseball-Reference; Jeter had 71.8 career WAR. Of course, his rating is dragged down by horrific defensive metrics: -246 runs worse than average in his career, the worst total of any player ever. Unfair? In his career, Jeter made 4.04 plays per nine innings; the league average for a shortstop was 4.51. That's one play not made roughly every two games (very basic evaluation there; defensive metrics aren't quite that simple). Say what you will about Jeter's defense, but he didn't make as many plays as other shortstops.
Like Rose, Jeter was very durable. Like Rose, he played on many winning teams.
Unlike Rose, he didn't stick around too long in selfish pursuit of individual records.
I'd probably take Jeter, going with the shortstop over Rose's positional flexibility.
And then I'd work on his footwork and positioning.
Rose's final ranking? He's clearly outside my top 25 position players, but likely in my top 50, which means he's probably around 65-75 if you factor in pitchers.