Pete Rose's historically bad final seasons

I was struck perusing Baseball-Reference.com on Saturday to see Pete Rose had -13.7 Wins Above Average over his final seven seasons, 1980 through 1986. It’s long been well-known Rose stuck around a few seasons longer than he maybe should have as he chased the all-time hits record. Rose got 884 hits those final seven seasons, passing Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and finally Ty Cobb on the hits list. But those seasons cost Rose in other ways.

If Rose had retired at 38 after the 1979 season, he’d rank 49th all-time with 42.3 WAA; instead, he’s tied for 130th at 28.6. He’d also be two hits shy of averaging 200 hits a season for his career and likely would have been ushered into the Hall of Fame in 1985, four years before his lifetime ban for betting on baseball. In more ways than maybe any other player in baseball history, Rose’s career and life is a story of not knowing when to quit. Ironically, it’s the same compulsive drive that made him great.

By Wins Above Average, Rose’s final seven seasons rank 29th-worst among position players in modern baseball history. With the help of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, here are the 29 worst seven-season runs by position players since 1900:

  • Bill Bergen, -14.3 WAA, 1901-1907
  • Bill Bergen, -14 WAA, 1902-1908
  • Bill Bergen, -14.9 WAA, 1903-1909
  • Bill Bergen, -16 WAA, 1904-1910
  • Bill Bergen, -16.3 WAA, 1905-1911
  • Ralph Young, -14 WAA, 1916-1922
  • Walter Holke, -13.8 WAA, 1918-1924
  • Walter Holke, -14.7 WAA, 1919-1925
  • Chick Galloway, -15.3 WAA, 1920-1926
  • Tommy Thevenow, -13.8 WAA, 1928-1934
  • Tommy Thevenow, -15.6 WAA, 1929-1935
  • Tommy Thevenow, -14 WAA, 1930-1936
  • Doc Cramer, -15.8 WAA, 1936-1942
  • Doc Cramer, -13.8 WAA, 1937-1943
  • Ken Reitz, -15 WAA, 1973-1979
  • Ken Reitz, -16.2 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Jerry Morales, -15.3 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Dan Meyer, -14.3 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Ken Reitz, -15.7 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Dan Meyer, -15.4 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Jerry Morales, -14.9 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Doug Flynn, -15.9 WAA, 1976-1982
  • Dan Meyer, -14.1 WAA, 1976-1982
  • Doug Flynn, -17.6 WAA, 1977-1983
  • Dan Meyer, -14.7 WAA, 1977-1983
  • Doug Flynn, -17 WAA, 1978-1984
  • Doug Flynn, -14.7 WAA, 1979-1985
  • Pete Rose, -13.7 WAA, 1980-1986
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, -16.7 WAA, 2007-2013

There’s another side to this that I’d be remiss to not mention. For one thing, Rose’s WAA would be higher had he not played first base for the Phillies. According to this page of Baseball-Reference.com, which @LoveSportsFacts showed me on Twitter, WAR sets average offensive production for first basemen at .797 OPS. It’s set at .707 for third base, Rose’s position before he signed with the Phillies in December 1978. Assuming Rose had been able to keep playing the bulk of his innings at third, his .687 OPS from 1980 through 1986 would be close to average for the position. It seems a little unfair to penalize Rose, given that he switched positions to accommodate Mike Schmidt.

Rose’s greatest value may have come in the clubhouse, which makes me wonder why he didn’t manage Philadelphia, which had four skippers during his five seasons in town. Dan Mallon shared a few pages with me via Twitter from the 2013 book Almost a Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the 1980 Phillies, which describes Rose’s immediate impact in Philadelphia. This included Rose diverting attention away from Schmidt by grandstanding with the press, “a wonderful salesman for the team almost from the beginning of his tenure.” He also helped build Schmidt and other teammates’ confidence. The book includes a quote from Schmidt, who said of Rose:

In 1980, Pete provided the kind of dynamic leadership that took the pressure off the other players. He was the finest team player I had ever seen. He always had something to say to pump you up, to play harder every game. At the same time, he was the kind of athlete who was boastful and could go out on the field and back it up. That allowed the rest of us to raise our level of play and ultimately go on to win the World Series.

Mallon told me Rose that Schmidt, like Phillies teammates Larry Bowa and the late Tug McGraw and manager Dallas Green have all publicly credited Rose for getting Philadelphia over the hump to win its first World Series in 1980. After all when Rose joined the Phillies as a free agent in December 1978, the team was coming off three consecutive years losing the National League Championship Series. As a player, Rose was worth -2.8 WAA in 1980. Given the outcome that year, the point is moot.

It’s a different story for 1983, where 42-year-old Rose hit .245, was worth -4 Wins Above Average and struggled to keep his starting spot. Nicknamed “The Wheeze Kids” at an MLB-high 31.8 years average age that season, Philadelphia somehow made a pennant run. Rose hit .345 in the playoffs, but the Phillies lost to Baltimore 4-1 in the World Series and released Rose one week later. Roger Angell wrote of it, “It is painful for us to see old players go, and infinitely harder when they prolong the inevitable process.” Bill James wrote in his 1984 abstract, by which point Rose had signed with the Montreal Expos:

Pete’s selfishness in sacrificing the good of his team to forge on in sub-mediocrity after his own goals is, in its own way, what you would expect from a spoiled beauty. It’s a sad way to end a distinguished career, but you’ll do us both a favor if you’ll just pull the plug on it, and let him get his 4,000th hit two years from now in an empty parking garage in a dark corner of the nation, at a far remove from the pennant race.

Baseball, of course, did nothing of the sort with a seven-minute celebration and new Corvette presented on field when Rose got his record on September 11, 1985.

0 thoughts on “Pete Rose's historically bad final seasons”

  1. Fantastic list!!! Thanks for sharing!

    Before WAA and WAR, and not taking into consideration his position, I thought only Rose’s last season (plus 1983) was sub-par. His OBAs (.359 and .395) were a deciding factor for me. But, the fact he played firstbase from 1979 has to be factored in.

    I guess WAA and WAR doesn’t factor in where in the batting order a player is; Pete put himself in the second slot in his last season. (He should get additional penalties for that.) He put himself in the second or THIRD slot in his second from last season.

    Pete like to say that winning teams just seemed to follow him around. Bill James said that that applied more to Joe Morgan than Pete Rose.

    Also, any stat that can go down as well as up, such as WAA, WAR, batting average, etc, penalizes those who stuck around, and rewards those who were still good players but quit early, such as Drysdale, Koufax, and, ahem, Joe Jackson.

  2. The Phillies won 101 games in both 1976 and 1977 without Rose. Their 1979 record (without Rose) was practically identical to their 1980 record WITH Rose. And in 1981
    the Phillies finished with a very similar record to their 1979 and 1980 teams but did not
    go to the World Series. So where is the evidence that Rose (as Schmidt said) enabled the other Phils to raise their level of play?

    The 1980 Phils beat the Astros in one of the most thrilling championship series of all time. Four of the 5 games went extra innings, which means that the Phils came within one bloop hit or (un)lucky bounce of not going to the World Series that year. I point this out because to me it indicates that the Phillies of 1980 were not better than they were in 1976 or 1977 or 1979 or 1981, they just came out on the right side of small sample size post-season playoff dynamics for a change. Rose’s leadership was valuable to be sure, but so were the contributions of many other players.

  3. Wow, Bill! Bit of a history revisionist work going on here, in my opinion. Rose only hit .400 in the 1980 NLCS, & scored that huge run in bowling over the Astro catcher in game 4 of the playoffs. The Phillies of 1980 were better – even with Rose’s “off-year” that included 185 hits, NL-leading 42 doubles, and 163 games. Yes, credit for more than a full season of games, @ 100 BB, & a .282 BA. Many Phillies of that Era say they played better baseball, because of the inspiration of seeing 39-year-old Rose go all-out each and every game. The 1976-78 Phillies didn’t have that everyday inspiration, AND they were swept handily by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in 3 games back in 1976. The starring Red of that NLCS in ’76? Peter Edward ROSE. 🙂

  4. Legends earn the luxury of hanging on past their primes, especially if ownership is willing to put up with subpar play in exchange for increased ticket sales.

  5. J Carey, I did make a serious error in my comment regarding Rose but that error actually caused me to UNDERSTATE the case Schmidt’s hazy recollection of Rose teaching the Phils how to win. My mistake was in assuming that 1980 was Pete’s first year with the Phils when it was actually his 2nd. When I add the 1979 season into the mix it weakens the case for Schmidt’s claims even more.

    In their 3 years prior to Rose (1976-78), the Phils won 60.4% of their games.

    In their first 3 years WITH Rose (1979-81) the Phils won 54.2% of their games.

    Anyone who can interpret a drop from 60.4% to 54.2% as an improvement is not thinking rationally. Clearly the Phils were a much better team PRIOR to ROSE than they were WITH Rose. Yes they won a World Series with Rose but the World Series is a classic example of small sample size distortion.

    It seems clear to me that it was not me but SCHMIDT who was guilty of revisionist history in his comment crediting Rose with showing the Phils how to raise their level of play and win the championship as a result. Players regularly use hyperbole when praising other players. I’m not saying Rose didn’t play well in the 1980 post-season, but his mediocre 1980 season (.282, 44 extra base hits, 40% caught stealing rate and .708 OPS ) produced a NEGATIVE WAR in 1980. So according to modern day player rating systems, Rose actually HURT the Phils chances of even reaching the World Series in 1980. Based on the numbers, the Phils got to the post-season despite Rose, not because of Rose.

  6. Ah, the old “intangibles that don’t show up in the stats” argument. It appears Bill wins the case hands down. The 1976 Reds? What, was Pete the best player on that team, or the 5th best player on that team? (Hint; the 5th best.)

  7. FWIW, the first story in the latest SABR publication is about Doc Powers, who twice had seven year WAAs of -8.6. (1901-1906 and 1903-1908.)

  8. Are we sure the Phillies released Rose after the 1983 season? I thought he had signed a 5-year deal in 1979, which would have ended after the 1983 season.

    The Phillies did bench Rose for a chunk of September 1983, in favor of Len Matuszek, who was a big help in that final stretch. They also played Juan Samuel in place of Joe Morgan at times that month.

  9. Baseball Reference states he was released by the Phillies on October 19, 1983.
    It also states Rose signed a 4 year contract prior to the 1979 season. Surprisingly, it has no salary data for 1983.

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