Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pete Rose and an Excuse to Talk About the Hall of Fame

Yes, this is an article about Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. And yes, this ground has been thoroughly covered. However, this article is about more than just Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. It is about establishing a set of rules by which it is possible to evaluate the candidacy of any baseball player for the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose is just the bait. It’s a case that most people are familiar with, it’s controversial, and it provides a good test case for our Hall of Fame evaluations. Evaluations will take the form of first presenting a very brief Major League Baseball (MLB) background for the player, expanding upon any special circumstances associated with the player, an itemized interpretive run through all of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame voting guidelines, and finally a conclusion regarding the player's Hall of Fame candidacy.

MLB Background
Pete Rose played Major League Baseball from 1963 through 1986. During that time he was widely considered to possess above-average baseball talent. He was considered a maximum effort player and earned the nickname “Charlie Hustle.” He played multiple positions throughout his career. He began his career as a second baseman but moved to the outfield from 1967-1974. From 1975-1978 Rose played primarily at third base before finishing his career as a first baseman. Rose is best known for accumulating the most hits by any player in MLB history.

Special Circumstances
Pete Rose was found guilty and eventually admitted to gambling on MLB while being an active participant. As MLB’s all-time hits leader Pete Rose is in possession of one of the more visible sports records. Pete Rose’s style of play, running hard, sliding headfirst, taking extra bases, and appearing very involved in the outcome of games, endeared him greatly to a large number of baseball fans.

MLB’s Hall of Fame Voting Guidelines
MLB provides the following guidelines for HOF voters. These are meant to serve as the primary criteria upon which a Hall of Fame case should be made. They are as follows:
"Voting will continue to be based upon the individual's record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the game of Baseball. All candidates receiving votes on at least 75 percent of ballots cast will earn election.” (
That’s not nearly as helpful as one would hope. The criteria listed by MLB are, to say the least, poorly constrained. This is of course intentional to allow voters leeway, and encourage diversity among the HOF’s membership. Not to mention inspire controversy and discussion about which candidates are worthy (see this article). All of which is of course good for MLB. But, this is not an article about controversy; it is about providing answers and supporting them. Ambiguity is the enemy of that cause and must be struck down. With that in mind, definitions of each voting criteria will be provided, and the analysis of Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame case will adhere to a more extensively explained (if not universally accepted) voting paradigm.

The Individual’s Record: The individual record is interpreted to mean the record of accomplishments of a baseball player or manager while actively participating in Major League Baseball. What did a player or manager actually do to help in accomplishing the main goal of the sport: winning games.

Baseball is a wonderful sport for this type of analysis. Unlike many other sports it is fairly easy to isolate the individual performance from the team performance. Furthermore, recent advances in player evaluation have allowed for quantifiable and critically falsifiable statements to be made about the magnitude of a player’s contribution towards winning games. These methods of statistical analysis, though not without flaws, can provide us with a baseline for evaluating Pete Rose’s candidacy in regards to “The Individual’s Record” criteria.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a statistical construct that attempts to combine all of a player's accomplishments into one number which approximates how many victories a player was individually responsible for. It is a complex (preventing a full outline here) but incredibly well thought out methodology. But more importantly, it is proven to work. If you don’t want to just take my word for it (note: you should never do this), please visit the following links, offered both as proof of WAR as a viable metric for evaluating baseball players' performance, and in explanation of its calculation:

What is WAR? | FanGraphs Sabermetrics Library

WAR: It Works | FanGraphs Baseball

Position Player WAR Calculations and Details -

(30 minute pause for the readers to become acquainted with WAR)

For those who didn’t travel down the WAR rabbit hole, WAR is a number that does an incredibly good job of representing how good a person is at baseball, the higher the number the better. Pete Rose accumulated ~91 WAR (the error margin on WAR is such that including any further significant figures with career numbers is meaningless) over the course of his career. This is good for the 31st best mark of all time. Here is how his career breaks down:


As you can see, Pete Rose essentially stopped being a useful play after the age of 38. However, by that time he had already accumulated ~90 WAR. For this time period (age 22-38 seasons) Pete Rose was a great player. This satisfies the Individual Record criteria for the Hall of Fame.

It is worth noting here that the tail end of Rose’s career, wherein he achieved his often-cited greatest accomplishment (the hits record), consisted of his age 38-45 seasons when he was essentially worth nothing. During that time period Rose accumulated 1,092 hits, and was worth ~1 WAR. This is the worst 8-year stretch by any player given regular playing time (that I can find) in the history of baseball. The hits record is an impressive display of longevity. That Pete Rose was able to accumulate that much playing time while being a terrible player speaks volumes to his popularity both with fans and with management of the teams he played for.*

*Yes, I know he managed himself for a good portion of this time, but the fact that he kept writing his own name into the lineup and didn’t get fired is remarkable.

Ability: A player’s ability is interpreted to mean how efficient that player was at producing value for his team. This criteria deals with rate-based performance and discounts time lost to injury or other factors which would prevent a player from accumulating playing time. This criterion addresses a player’s peak (the period of time when he was performing best during his career).

Towards evaluating this criterion it is worthwhile to look at a player’s career year by year:

Pete Rose had an impressive and sustained peak, maxing out at 8.1 WAR in his age 35 (!!) season. A season of 6 or above WAR is a good baseline for near league leading performance (top 10% ish) and Pete Rose had 8 years at such a level. Rose passes this criterion with flying colors too.

Integrity/Character: We will take these two together as they are essentially getting at the same thing. This is an attempt to evaluate the morality of a player. Did he contribute to the community he lived in? Was he well liked by teammates? Was he arrested and convicted for any crimes?

Morality is inherently a difficult concept to quantify because each person has a different standard. However, in the case of Pete Rose, a man who bet on a sport in which he was participating and proceeded to lie and deny his guilt, there can be little doubt that he fails with regard to this criterion.

Sportsmanship: This criteria attempts to account for the nature in which a player participated in MLB. Did the player support his teammates? Did he act in a respectful manner with regards to the umpires, his opponents, the media, and any other baseball affiliates?

Again it must be concluded that this is not the case. Betting on baseball calls the integrity of the game into question. This harms all people associated with the game of baseball, and discourages fan interest. This can lead to losses in fan base and therefore revenue. This actively harms the livelihood of all those involved with the game and is definitely not sportsmanship.

Contribution to the Game of Baseball: Any special accomplishments of particular importance towards changing the way the game of baseball is played or managed. This includes the development of new hitting, pitching, fielding, or managerial approaches.

Pete Rose did not contribute to changes in the way baseball is played. He fails this Criterion.

As a manager, Pete Rose should never be inducted into the Hall of Fame, if only because he continued to play himself beyond the point that it was reasonable. As a player, Pete Rose merits induction to the Hall of Fame. He played at a superior level for a long period of time. However, Pete Rose should never be admitted into the Hall of Fame. He bet on baseball. Major League Baseball has a rule against betting on baseball. It is one of the few rules associated with the sport which carries the punishment of a lifetime ban. Considering the repercussions of a player/manager actively wagering on an event in which that person is a participant, the punishment is entirely justifiable. The implication that Major League Baseball is in any way not a competition between players attempting to win undermines the foundation of the sport. This is inarguable. The rule existed at the time of Pete Rose’s playing and managing career. He was aware of it. He broke it anyway, and if short choppy sentences are not enough to convince you that a lifetime ban is an appropriate punishment for betting on baseball, consider the following:

Baseball history is full of gambling scandals. Well, at least the early portion of baseball history. To wit:
  • In 1877, the Louisville Greys were found guilty of throwing games in exchange for bribes.
  • In 1908, an attempt was made to bribe the umpire before the league champion-deciding final game between the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants.
  • In 1917 and 1918, amid mounting suspicion of game fixing, Heinie Zimmerman and Eddie Collins were banned for life from baseball.
  • 1919: The Black Sox. This is the most well-known occurrence of gambling influencing Major League Baseball. Eight players on the Chicago White Sox conspired and accepted money to throw the World Series. By this point fans were beginning to lose faith in the integrity of baseball and drastic measures had to be taken. All 8 players were banned from baseball for life.
In the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, most notably in 1920, several players received lengthy suspensions for simply being in the presence of known gamblers. Notably Leo Durocher, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was suspended for the entire 1947 season. Baseball developed and enforced incredibly stringent policies against gambling out of necessity. And, strict adherence to those policies worked. From 1947 till the 1980’s there were no further suspensions for any baseball players with regards to gambling. Why only till the 1980’s? Pete Rose. It is worth mentioning here that since Pete Rose’s banishment from baseball, there has not been another occurrence of gambling-related issues in Major League Baseball.

Pete Rose bet on baseball. Betting on baseball is a bad thing for a player/manager to do. The league has a clearly defined rule against this practice and its strict implementation has prevented corruption effectively for nearly 100 years. Pete Rose’s personal pain is not a justifiable reason to overturn a policy that effectively provides an essential safeguard.

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