Slammin’ Sammy Mashed

This will be my last individual player profile of the year, I will reveal who I'd vote for in the unlikely event the BBWAA ever gave me the ballot (they wont). I finish with Sammy Sosa, both to discuss a case which is fascinating in its own right, as well as briefly discuss steroids.

1998 Season

Before 1998 Sammy Sosa was a defensive marvel who could run, and also hit for some pop. From 1989 to 1997 Sammy Sosa produced more from his glove than his bat, producing 107 fielding runs, and only 20 with the stick. Sammy also stole 199 bases, but was not quite as valuable a baserunner as he was a fielder. Sosa's OPS+ in the time period was a measly 107, good but certainly not stellar for a corner outfielder. Sosa rarely walked, but did boast a .469 SLG, with over 200 homers.

Then 1998 came, and Sosa changed basically overnight. In 1997 Sosa hit 36 home runs, batted .251 and barely managed to scrape a .300 on-base percentage. He stole 22 bases that year as well. Needless to say: Sosa changed. He mashed 66 home runs in 1998, which would have been a record had Sosa not engaged in the famous (or infamous if you prefer) home run chase to beat Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in '61.

Sosa mashed home runs like few did before him. Sosa only hit 13 homeruns the first two months of the season, then in June: Sosa pummeled 20 homers in the month. He slowed a bit in July, but hit another 13 in August and 11 in September. Overall, Sosa could not quite keep up with McGwire in '98, but Sosa started an offensive trend which he continued for several years.

Sosa won the MVP in 1998 over Mark McGwire which, in retrospect, is rather stunning Roger Maris won the MVP in 1961, despite pretty clearly not being the best player on his own team let alone the American League. Mark McGwire probably was the best player in the NL in 1998, he not only out homered Sosa (obviously), but he also added over 100 points on his on-base percentage, and a better slugging percentage.

1999 Season

Sosa continued to mash home runs in 1999, smashing 63 home runs (which again finished behind Big Mac's total of 65). Sosa started slow in '99, the same way he did in '98, but quickly picked up the pace mashing 13 homers in May and June, slipping to 10 in July, and adding another 15 in August. He slipped in September, hitting only 8 taters. Overall, Sosa posted a similar season in 1999 as he did in 1998. He drew fewer walks (including a surprising drop in intentional walks) which did place a slight damper on his value.

2001 Season

Sosa's third, and final, 60 homer season (and also his most valuable according to Baseball Reference). Sosa terrorized the league again, mashing 64 home runs (he again did not lead the league thanks to a Barry Bonds, who set the Major League record this season). Sosa, once again, started slow: hitting only 7 home runs in April, and 8 in May. He then turned the home run swing on and swatted 11 home runs in June, 9 in July, 17 in August and 12 in September.

Sosa also benefited in 2001 from being walked a league leading 37 times, which boosted his on-base percentage to a career best .437 (along with a shiny .328 batting average).

600th Home Run

Sosa slipped fairly rapidly after 2001. Sosa did lead the league in homers in 2002, a strong but obviously far less eye catching 49 homers, but it would be his last great season. In 2003 Sosa's home run total dipped to 40 (his walk rate also plummeted, nearly cut in half), and in 2004 Sosa was no longer a good player, hitting a solid 113 OPS+ but now with well below average defense and baserunning. Chicago traded Sosa to Baltimore the following year, where he truly was dreadful (a well below average 84 OPS+). Sosa skipped 2006 and resigned with Texas in 2007.

Sosa served as Texas's primary DH, and was serviceable. Sosa batted a fine .251/.311/.468 (OPS+ 101) with 21 home runs. Most notably Sosa hit his 600th home run in June, becoming only the fifth player to hit his 600th home run.


OK, before I get to Sosa's actual Hall of Fame case, let me say a few words about PEDs. First and foremost, I do not consider PEDs in my Hall of Fame analysis, neither for players who played in (what Jay Jaffe calls) the "Wild West" Era, nor even players who used PEDs after they became banned. The reasoning is simple: I don't know how much PEDs impacted the careers of any player, nor am I going to try. Stars took steroids, and scrubs took steroids. Steroid taking batters faced off against steroid taking pitchers, and we will never know how much they impacted the game. The Hall of Fame's use of the character clause has never made sense to me, and starting to use it now for PED users is absurd. I am far more disgusted by Roger Clemens' statutory rape of a teenager than I am of Sammy Sosa's potential steroid use. I am far more concerned about Curt Schilling's hate speech than I am Barry Bonds juicing up to break the single season and all time home run record. The outrage over PEDs, in my opinion, is misplaced.

I do not pretend that I will convince anyone of my opinion, nor do I think anyone can make an argument to convince me otherwise. If you disagree: I understand, if you agree: I understand. There is nothing left of interest to say anymore.

With that out of the way, Sosa is an unusual case First, because Sosa's career is basically bisected into two. When Sosa was a young man he played great defense (as previously mentioned) with a mediocre bat. From 1989 to 1997 Sosa provided five times as much value with his glove than he did with his bat and was at least a league average baserunner. From 1998 on Sosa was a well below average baserunner, a below average fielder, and provided over 300 batting runs. He regularly stole over 20 bases before 1998, he stole 18 bases in '98 and never more than 7 after that.

I find the strange bifurcation of Sosa's career a struggle to deal with, on the one hand unlike a similar player, Mark McGwire, Sosa provided real and relevant value on the basepaths and defensively. Big Mac is 51 runs below average for his career in baserunning, and -29 with the glove (despite his Gold Glove). Sosa is 25 runs in the red on the basepaths (almost all of this coming 1998 onward), but 86 runs positive defensively. Ostensibly this should greatly benefit Sosa, and I typically find players with an expansive skill set more compelling than specialists.

Unfortunately, when you look at where Sosa truly excelled in his career you see a picture more clearly painted as Sosa the specialist.

Sammy Sosa ranks below the JAWS average overall, but above the average in peak value. However only two of the peak seasons came from Sosa's pre-1998 career (his 5th and 6th best seasons. Almost all of Sosa's offensive value came from his career from 1998 onwards. What drove Sosa's value post 1998 was entirely his ability to hit home runs.

To start, before 1998 Sammy almost never walked, he only ever walked over 50 times once before '98, and his on-base percentage was .308 for his career at that point. From '98 onwards: Sosa walked a ton, walking over 100 times twice, and no less than 73 times when he was arguably the greatest home run threat in the game. I firmly believe Sosa's walk rate only increased as a function of his ability to hit home runs, in other words: pitchers forced Sosa to take walks. From 1998 to 2002 (a period in which Sosa smacked 292 homers) Sosa averaged 92 walks a season, a period which covered 3,500 PAs. From 1989 to 1997 Sosa only hit 207 homers over 4,300 PAs, and averaged 42 walks a season. To prove Sosa's walk rate was a function of his home run hitting ability, we helpfully have his decline years: from 2004-2007, over 1,400 PAs Sosa only hit 70 home runs and averaged...43 walks a season.

It is true that for Sosa's career he led the league in numerous offensive categories. Home runs & RBIs twice, Total Bases and Runs thrice, and intentional walks once. However, all of these leads were entirely dependent on Sosa's ability to hit homeruns. Sosa was not a great contact hitter (he only ever finished in the top 10 in batting average once, 8th in 2001), nor did Sosa get on base at an historic pace (once again, he only finished in the top 10 in OBP once, 3rd in 2001). Sosa did hit for power, but it was all home runs: Sosa never finished in the top 10 in doubles.

And again, most of Sosa's best seasons came from 1998 onward, when Sosa was hitting more homeruns than anyone besides Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Importantly Sosa was not a good defensive player in this period, nor was Sosa a good baserunner this period: all his value stemmed from his bat, and hitting home runs was the only true ability Sosa offered. Granted, obviously hitting home runs is the most powerful offensive weapon in the game: it's a guaranteed run scored, and never an out. But here's the rub for me: is hitting home runs, in the most juiced era in baseball history, enough to enter the Hall of Fame? I am not so sure.


This then brings me to another mild quandary: Sosa played in an era loaded with great right fielders, who all happened to bunch together in JAWS. Those right fielders are: Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa and Ichiro Suzuki. All are rough contemporaries, and all brought vastly different skillsets to the game:

-Abreu was the best all around player, but not the strongest in any skillset
-Ichiro was the best defender and baserunner
-Vlady was not quite the best hitter, but possibly the second best defender
-Sheffield was the best hitter, overall, but the worst at almost everything else
-Sosa hit more than 600 home runs

Of the five I would rank them:

-Vladimir Guerrero
-Bobby Abreu
-Ichiro Suzuki
-Gary Sheffield
-Sammy Sosa

Vlady is already in the Hall of fame, and I firmly believe Abreu & Suzuki belong. Sheffield is just on the edge for me, which leaves me with Sosa. WAR would tell me if one is worthy they all are, but I do pause at Sosa. In context, I am not sure he belongs. Those homeruns were excellent, but his OPS+ of 128 is not nearly as elite as his home run hitting prowess would suggest.

I tend to say Sosa is outside the Hall, but I am leaning towards being perfectly content if they elect him. He's right on the edge, and I'd rather include more players than exclude them.

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