Pete Rose vs. Derek Jeter

Publish date:

A comment from brilliant reader DJ:

"Rose vs. Jeter per 162 games:

Jeter: 207 hits, 120 runs, 17 HR, 82 RBI, .316 BA .386 OBP .458 SLG

Rose: 194 hits, 98 runs, 7 HR, 60 RBI, .303 BA .375 OBP .409 SLG

Jeter wins hands down. It's not even close."

Now, let's me say as kindly as possible that even though the above comment is technically accurate there are about 200 things wrong with it. But before I get to those I want to say that DJ's main point is exactly right: It's fun to match up Pete Rose and Derek Jeter. They are such comparable players. Both hit for high averages. Both would give you 200 hits a year. Both got on base. Both played for great teams. Both willed those teams. Both were hugely popular. Both made stunning postseason plays. Both had detractors who thought they were overrated. Both did TV commercials. And so on.

And, honestly, I'm not sure which one was better. I think this makes for a classic argument, right there with Mantle vs. Mays, Clemente vs. Kaline, Maddux vs. Clemens, Kuiper vs. Kid Gleason, Cruise vs. Costner, Twix vs. Kit Kat, Cocoa Krisipies vs. Cocoa Pebbles and so on.

So, let's match 'em up. But first, yeah, we need to point out why this is much more complicated than DJ's statistical breakdown makes it seem. We'll reduce those 200 things down to two main points:

If you want to match up Rose vs. Jeter per 162 games, you need to do it fairly. Jeter is 34 years old and seems to be beginning his decline (though he has been his old self the last 75 games or so). Rose' s breakdown numbers, meanwhile, include his final 11 years, long after his prime. So, if you want to compare them per 162, the numbers are badly, badly skewed. Let's now look at DJ's same numbers through the age of 34.

OK, so that's much closer. And Rose had one more terrific year when he was 35 -- we'll see if next year Jeter will match the .323/.404/.450 season that Rose had in '76.

Still, even with all this, Jeter still does have a slight statistical advantage. But that brings us to Point 2 (you already know what's coming, of course).

Rose played in a much, much, much harder hitting environment. A run was much more valuable in the National League in the 1960s and 1970s when Rose was playing than it was in the 1990s and 2000s American League of Derek Jeter. We all know there are statistics that take this into account. Take a look at the Runs Created Above Average through age 34:

Rose: 378

Jeter: 350

Take a look at the OPS+ through age 34.

Rose: 126

Jeter: 121

Take a look at the Top 10 seasons of Win Shares (this incorporates defense, by the way):

Rose: 37, 34, 32, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 27.

Jeter: 35, 32, 28, 27, 26, 26, 24, 24, 23, 19.

Take a look at the top five Equivalent Averages of each player by age 34:

Rose: .328 (1969), .324 (1968), .312 (1973), .311 (1972) and .306 (1975*)

Jeter: .332 (1999), .319 (2006), .310 (2000), .309 (1998) and .305 (2005)

Or you can look at the Baseball Reference neutralized statistics for the two men through age 34:

Rose: .323/.392/.449

Jeter: .315/.386/.458

We can keep going like this ... Rose's numbers when seen through the wider lens very clearly measure up to Jeter's and, in many instances, are a little bit better. Now, I don't think that necessarily makes Rose better than Jeter. I think this is worthy of a long post -- and by coincidence one follows. But my point is that I think this is not something you can just write off with a blanket statistical statement and no further explanation.

*Did I mention I'm writing a book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds?

Even now, I believe, baseball fans hunger for Pete Rose. They don't hunger for the old Pete Rose, of course, the crotchety Rose penciling himself into the lineup so he could break the unbreakable hit record, the manager Rose who had a standing bet on his team, the unrepentant Rose who would show up in Cooperstown to sign autographs for his very own Hall of Fame, the repentant Rose who will write "I'm sorry I bet on baseball," on a baseball and then sign his name for the right price.

No, it's the young Rose we're talking about here, the in-your-face Rose, the run-over-Ray-Fosse Rose, the run-to-first-base-on-a-walk Rose, the switch-hitting, double stretching, headfirst diving, double-play busting, Bud-Harrelson fighting, father admiring, often quotable, self-promotable, always notable Peter Edward Rose. I suspect that people who are younger than, say, 35 or so, have only fuzzy memories of that Rose, or no memory at all.

And still, I think, fans long for him. I say this based on three things I believe:

1. Dustin Pedroia seems to be the most likely winner of the MVP award this year, everybody loves/hates Dustin Pedroia, and Dustin Pedroia is like Pete Rose.

2. Johnny Damon has written a best-selling book, Johnny Damon gets booed and cheered in pretty much every ballpark in America, and Johnny Damon is like Pete Rose.

3. There is (I think) no player in baseball who is more talked about, argued about and known than Derek Jeter, and Derek Jeter, probably more than anyone else, is like Pete Rose.

Rose did not invent the grinder style of play that won him Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year and later made heroes out of more minor players like Steve Sax and Darin Erstad and, of course, David Eckstein. Rose and his father used to watch Enos Slaughter play baseball, and they saw him run to first base on a walk, and Big Pete told his son "That's the way you're supposed to play baseball." Country Slaughter was a hard-nosed ballplayer, often to the point of cruelty -- he famously spiked Jackie Robinson while running to first base on an infield ground ball. "A guy got in my way," Slaughter said. "I run over him."*

*The incident led many people to believe that Slaughter was a virulent racist, and there is more evidence than just the spike. He was, according to some accounts, one of the players who wanted to lead a league-wide strike after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. But there is also some evidence that he mellowed in his later years. Anyway, I still think of what Buck O'Neil said. Buck was part of the Hall of Fame veteran's committee that finally voted Slaughter into the Hall in 1985. And Buck's quote about Enos Slaughter is still one of my favorite parts of the a book I once wrote (Only $5.99!!):

"People said to me, 'Naw, naw, you can't vote for Enos Slaughter. He was prejudiced.'

"I said, 'What's that got to do with anything?' If we think like that we won't let anyone in the Hall of Fame. Look around: The Hall of Fame is filled with racists and drunks and all kinds of people. The world is filled with all kinds of people. You can't know what's happening in a man's heart. Could he play or couldn't he play? That's what matters."

Enos Slaughter did not create that style of baseball either; he learned it from Eddie Dyer, who was a minor league manager in the Cardinals system going back to the days of the Gas House Gang. Apparently one day Slaughter was walking in from the outfield and Dyer waited for him at the top of the steps and said: "Son, if you're tired, we'll try to get you some help." Slaughter, it is said, never walked anywhere again. Then, Dyer learned the style, probably, from Pepper Martin, a rough-and-tumble player on the Cardinals who would later, as a manager, be suspended for choking an umpire. And Pepper Martin didn't invent that style of baseball either, he learned it from many, including his manager Gabby Street, who like everyone else of his time was inspired and repulsed and overwhelmed by the roughneck style of the master, Ty Cobb.

"Cobb," Gabby once said, "had a ninety horsepower brain."

See, with Rose, everything goes back to Cobb.

But Pete Rose made the style all his own. He played baseball as hard as Cobb, as ruthlessly as Slaughter, as ferociously as Pepper Martin, but he added a modern touch. He played for money. He longed for fame. He bought expensive cars. He did goofy Aqua Velva commercials. There were those -- then and now -- who said much of what Rose did (the headfirst dives, the running to first base) was just show, and that's probably right. But, the larger point is still that he never turned off.

Here's a fun Rose statistic that tells you something: Rose is second all-time in doubles, and he led the league in doubles five times. But the thing that strikes a chord is that he never led the league in doubles BEFORE he turned 33. That seems to say that Rose never lost his drive, his need to make the wide turn at first base and dig for second whenever he saw a fielder move a bit slowly to the ball or tip off balance after he reached it. Here's another way to look at it. There are three men who hit 40 or more doubles three times after their 35th birthday. They are all Hall of Famers and all-time hustlers -- Tris Speaker, George Brett and Craig Biggio. ... Pete Rose did it four times.

In other words he may have been playing Charlie Hustle for show, for money and fame, but he never stopped, never, and if you are ALWAYS on, it becomes real. It reminds of my friend Chuck Culpepper's classic line when friends of his called Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden a phony. Chuck said, "Well, if he's a phony, he's been pulling off the act every day for 50 years so he's doing one hell of a job." Rose was the same way. After a while, if you are ALWAYS hustling, and always stretching singles into doubles, does it even matter why?

Rose tapped into people's feelings about the game in a way that, I thought, was unique -- he was the first person I ever heard used in the expression: "If he's on your team you love him; if he's on the other team you hate him." It was a perfect saying for Pete Rose, and also easily demonstrated. They hated him in Philadelphia for all those years when he played for the Big Red Machine. But in 1980, in Philadelphia, during the World Series, when that foul ball popped out of Bob Boone's glove, and Pete Rose (being Pete Rose) was somehow there and somehow caught it and then slammed the ball down in the turf, yeah, you better believe that every child born in the City of Brotherly Love for the next 72 hours was Christened Peter -- at least as a middle name.

That Bob Boone play defined Pete Rose in many ways ... much in the same way that the Jeremy Giambi play defined Derek Jeter. To remind you, it was Game 3 of the 2001 American League playoffs, Oakland led two game to none, the Yankees led the game 1-0, and Jeremy Giambi was inexplicably on first base (Art Howe would later say he thought about a pinch-hitter but, being Art Howe, didn't make the move). Terrence Long hit the ball down the first base line. There were two outs so Giambi was running on the play. He lumbered around second, around third, and third base coach Ron Washington waved him home. As that was happening, New York right fielder Shane Spencer grabbed the ball in the corner, whirled, and made one absolutely horrendous throw. He missed the first cutoff man. He missed the second cutoff man. The ball bounced wildly toward foul ground.

There were, in my mind, two amazing plays made at this point. The first, everyone knows about. Derek Jeter, seeing that the ball was wildly overthrown, ran across the field in a rather stunning display of awareness, chased down the ball, grabbed it and in one motion backflipped it to Jorge Posada, who grabbed the perfect throw and reached back and tagged Giambi, who had decided to forever taint the Moneyball style of baseball by not sliding.*

*Seriously, the Oakland A's with an absolutely nothing payroll averaged 97 victories between 2000 and 2004 and people still want to reduce the Moneyball achievement to goofy Giambi not sliding and a couple of defensive lapses in the playoffs.

My favorite quote on Jeter's play came, of course, from Johnny Damon: "What the heck was Derek Jeter doing way over there? ... Was he a high school quarterback or something? That was pure instinct."

The second great play, in my mind, was made by Posada, who did not go chasing after Spencer's bad throw. Talk about pure instinct. Posada saw Jeter running across the field and, instinctively, decided to stay at home plate and see what kind of magic the guy would do. I've always thought that as great as those passes were by, say, Pistol Pete Maravich or Magic Johnson, there should be some credit given to the person who anticipated the pass, grabbed it, dunked the ball home. As it turned out, Posada also hit the game winning home run and so the next day the questions to him were mostly about that ("It was a fastball, middle-in," he said). Because of that, I've never really seen a telling quote (and I've never thought to ask him) explaining WHY he waited at home plate when the ball was way over in foul ground. I really do think it was just a matter of waiting and hoping for Derek Jeter to save the day.

I know some people think I do not like Derek Jeter -- probably because I invented the word Jeterate and tend to get a bit worked up about Jeter's defensive issues. But I do like him, I admire him, and I've always thought that while that play gets shown about 583 times every postseason, it is actually an excellent way to describe Jeter's play. He has, in my mind, played with a heightened sense of life. You know that expression: "Be alive out there." I think Jeter has been alive as much or more than any player of his generation.

I don't mean that he's some great clutch guy -- I don't believe in that stuff much, I think great clutch players tend to be great players the rest of the time too -- but I mean that he has shown an ability to play at a high level more often and more consistently than many others. He seems to have a good grasp of the moment, and he doesn't fade out too often.

Example: I've never thought Jeter was especially fast but he has stolen 275 bases in his career, and he rarely gets caught. There is something about stealing a base that transcends speed, something about anticipation and quickness and a sense of the moment. I think Jeter has bucket loads of that stuff.

He has done all of those things that express consistency and equilibrium. He has cracked 200 hits six times in his career. He has hit 15 or more home runs seven times despite playing in a right-handed hitter's graveyard. He has hit .300 every year but two, he has on-based .370 every year but two, he has either led or finished second in the league in singles eight times. He has scored 100 runs or more every full year he's played (until this year -- he will need a big finish), and sure, it's true Jeter has been followed by great hitters his whole career but, hey, 100 runs is 100 runs and the only way you can get there is to play a lot, get on base, and take the opportunities when they come.

So, who was better, Rose or Jeter?

Let's break it down. While I just mentioned that Jeter is not a speed burner, he is considerably faster than the young Pete Rose. And you can see it in stolen bases -- through the same point in their career, Jeter has stolen than 275 bases, Rose stole 97. Here's a little tidbit for you: Rose was the only Machine regular to not steal a base during that 1975 season. Hey, I have these facts, I have to drop them on someone.

Rose, though, made up for a lot of that with his aggression, by stretching more singles into doubles (441 to 411) and doubles into triples (95 to 57).

Jeter hit for more home run power. Well, it's kind of interesting, but this wasn't always true. The younger Rose hit double digit home runs for seven straight years, from 1965 to 1971. So in those years, he really did hit with similar power to Jeter. Then, though, his home run power tailed off sharply -- and what I find intriguing is that happened around that time Rose was often quoted about how he was the first "$100,000 singles hitter." It's almost like he decided the lack of homers was an important part of his persona. Rose's homers suddenly were cut in half, but his strikeouts also went down by more than 20 percent. I suspect that Rose purposely decided to become a slightly different kind of player.* Anyway, Jeter has hit with better power.

*Duh. As brilliant reader David points out ... the Reds moved from Crosley Field to Riverfront Stadium in the middle of 1970. So, yeah, there's the difference.

Rose struck out a lot less often. Jeter has been a high strikeout guy -- about 100 per year -- and Rose struck out about half as often.

Jeter, on the surface anyway, should have more value defensively because he's been a Gold Glove shortstop while Pete played four different positions during his first 13 seasons. But this is probably closer than appears at first glance. Rose moved around to help the team. His willingness to move to third base in May of 1975 was, in many ways, the key to the whole season. He won Gold Gloves playing outfield in 1969 and 1970, and while Gold Gloves might have been a bit over the top -- he wasn't exactly a range rover out there -- he was quite a good and solid outfielder, either in left or right. And he came up as a second baseman, and while he wasn't especially good there, he held his own.*

*Later, Pete played first base and when he talks about defense he says, "Look, I may not have been a great fielder but I worked hard at it. And I'll tell you this, I was a DAMN GOOD first baseman. I mean maybe I wasn't Keith Hernandez, but I was the next best thing."

Meanwhile, Jeter's shortstop defense has probably been discussed and argued about more than the defense of any other player in baseball history. It is the opinion here that Jeter has been a dreadful defensive shortstop, and I say that mostly because I have never found a reasonable defensive statistic that shows anything else. At some point, if it looks like duck and quacks like a duck and has the zone rating of a duck, it's probably a duck.

So, I'm not willing to give Jeter a big advantage for his defense. I'm sure he can play shortstop significantly better than Rose could. But Rose never played shortstop.

They're both great, great players. But you know what? I'm picking Rose. Here's why: Because in the end, I think he just did a few more things well than Jeter. And I say that knowing and appreciating that Jeter does a hell of a lot and has those homer and stolen base advantages. Here are the major offensive categories Derek Jeter has finished among the Top 10:

In addition, Jeter led the league in hits once and runs created once. But he also finished in the Top 10 in negative categories like outs (five times), grounded into double plays (three times) and strikeouts (once). Rose led the league in batting average three times, OBP once, games three times, runs three times, hits five, doubles twice, adjusted OPS+ three times and runs created once. Rose finished in the Top 10 in outs eight times, more than Jeter, but he was not among leaders in doubles plays or strikeouts.

Rose, in my view, was just a more dominant player in his era. Of course, I am writing a book about the '75 Reds, who did you think I was going to pick?