Joe Posnanski wrote a terrific piece on Roger Maris a few weeks back discussing his Hall of Fame case where he really asks a simple question: how much value do we place on superb single season performances? In the case of Roger Maris how much value do we place on breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record in 1961? For most other major statistics the single-season record holder is in the Hall of Fame. In some cases this is because the leader really belongs in the Hall (Nap Lajoie truly was a great player and did not need to set the modern record in 1901 to enter the Hall). In others the choice is quite dubious, as is the case of Hack Wilson who's 191 RBIs should not have earned him induction.
However, Roger Maris's record looms large in my thinking. Maris hit 61 home runs in 161 games played, which was 10 more games than Babe Ruth played in 1927. In short: it is quite hard to hit 60 homers. In fact, no player has hit even 60 home runs since Maris did (unless they took PEDs). Here's the list of players who have hit at least 57 home runs in a season at least once (57 being 95% of a 60 HR season):
57: 2 players hit 57
Alex Rodriguez hit 57 homers in 2002, his career high, in Texas in what might have been the best offensive season in his career. Luis Gonzalez also hit 57 home runs, in 2001, in a crazy season which he never came close to replicating.
58: 4 players hit 58
Mark McGwire hit 58 home runs in a run up to him breaking Roger Maris' record in 1998, the deep breath before the plunge so to speak. Ryan Howard hit 58 homers in his MVP season in 2006. Hank Greenberg hit 58 in 1938 and Jimmie Foxx hit 58 in 1932 (a big decade for home run hitting sluggers).
59: 2 players hit 59
Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 homers, the record for the most home runs by a non-PED tainted player since Roger Maris, in 2017. Babe Ruth hit 59 homers in 1921.
60: 1 player hit 60
Babe Ruth, in the aforementioned 1927 season.
61: 1 player hit 61
Roger Maris stands alone here in his 1961 season.
63: 1 player hit 63
Sammy Sosa is the one of two players to hit back-to-back 60 home run seasons swatting 63 in 1999.
64: 1 player hit 64
Sosa is also the only player to hit 60 home runs 3 times hitting 64 in 2001. This is also probably Sosa's best offensive season in his career.
65: 1 player hit 65
Mark McGwire followed up his 1998 with a similarly monstrous 1999.
66: 1 player hit 66
Sosa did not quite catch Big Mac in '98.
70: 1 player hit 70
Mark McGwire broke Maris' record in '98 (as I am sure everyone here knows) and also reached stunning heights only one other player ever reached...
73: 1 player hit 73
Barry Bonds smashed 70 homers, which is simply unfathomable, in 2001 (completing the neat trivia piece that Sammy Sosa is the only player to hit 60 home runs three times in a season and did not lead the league in any of those seasons).
So in total 11 players have hit within 5% of 60 homers (or more): A-Rod, Luis Gonzalez, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Ryan Howard, Big Mac, Sammy Sosa, Giancarlo Stanton, Babe Ruth, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Even today, with so many home runs flying out of the ballpark nobody has hit 60 homers (despite playing more games than they did in the '20s and '30s). This is rather astonishing when you think about it.
But importantly, while home runs are important when determining the value of a season: it's not the only one. Roger Maris' 1961 season is impressive, especially in context, but it's hardly close to being the best 60 home run season in baseball history. Here is this list by bWAR:
Big Mac '97: 3.1
Sammy Sosa: 4.8
Ryan Howard '06: 5.2
Big Mac '99: 5.2
Hank Greenberg '38: 6.5
Sammy Sosa '98: 6.5
Roger Maris '61: 6.9
Big Mac '98: 7.5
Luis Gonzalez '01: 7.9
Giancarlo Stanton '17: 7.9
Alex Rodriguez '02: 8.8
Sammy Sosa '01: 10.3
Jimmie Foxx '32: 10.4
Barry Bonds '01: 11.9
Babe Ruth '27: 12.6
Babe Ruth '21: 12.9
As we can see, Roger Maris's season (just with home runs) is not all that impressive, especially when we consider the value produced by other similar home run seasons.
Which brings me, finally to the main topic of this post: Sammy Sosa.
Sammy Sosa, RF 184.108.40.206/51.2 (18th); AVG: 72.1/42.5/57.3
Sosa's career is fascinating in many regards. He started as a good fielding, good base running, outfielder who had some pop. Now, by JAWS Sammy Sosa is a close but borderline case (he ranks 18th in RF which is quite good). But what is most interesting about Sosa is how Sosa completely transformed, starting in 1998, from that glove first outfielder into a prodigious home run threat overnight. From 1989 to 1997 Sosa produced 22.4 bWAR in value, nearly all of it from his glove (20 runs above average with the bat, 107 with the glove). Sosa also stole 200 bases (although Baseball-Reference reckons he did not actually add much value with on the bases). Then in 1998 Sosa ceased providing defensive value but became a home-run hitting juggernaut.
Sosa generated 333 runs with the stick according to B-Ref which is obviously quite good. However, nearly all of that value comes from a handful of seasons where Sosa was a prodigious home run threat: five seasons from 1998-2002 he generated 291 rBAT. The rest of Sosa's career he was average. During those five seasons Sosa was a below average baserunner and a below average fielder. Furthermore, nearly all of Sosa's value during those five seasons came from the long-ball.
Before Sosa started smashing home runs he rarely walked; a career OBP of .308 with only 31 walks a year. During his tear Sosa walked a ton, and led the league in intentional walks in 2001 (with 37). During Sosa's peak he got on base at a .397 clip, which to be fair was not all new respect for his power: he batted over .300 those seasons. Again though: this occurred despite Sosa, not because of his ability to draw walks. From 2003 onward Sosa walked only 48 times a seasons, OBP: .327.
Did Sosa hit doubles well? No, Sosa only had 379 doubles in his career and never ranked in the top 10 in the league. Was Sosa a great average hitter? No, Sosa ranked in the top 10 in batting average once (8th) and never finished in the top 10 in hits. Overall, this leaves us with a hitter who did hit a prodigious number of home runs: 609 in his career. But while Sosa hit a ton of homers, he is not an historic offensive force in right field. The exercise I did for Sheffield applies for Sosa as well: Sosa ranks behind Brian Giles in obWAR7 (and career obWAR).
Overall, if you call Gary Sheffield a specialist, then Sammy Sosa was a specialized specialist. Sammy Sosa hit lots of home runs. I suspect if Sosa had played in a different era, where home runs were not as prevalent, we would not be talking much about Sosa's home run case. Sosa ranks 9th all time in career home runs. Here is that list ranked by OPS+: Babe Ruth: 206, Barry Bonds: 165, Henry Aaron: 155, Willie Mays: 155, Jim Thome: 147, Albert Pujols: 144, Alex Rodriguez: 140, Ken Griffey Jr: 136, Sammy Sosa: 128. Again, Sosa was a prodigious home run hitter, but he was not a prodigious home run force.
Sosa was not even the most prodigious home run threat of his era. Mark McGwire hit home runs more frequently and ranks first all time at a homer ever 10.61 ABs, Sosa ranks 8th at 14.47 behind Harmon Killebrew and is closer to Adam Dunn (14.90) than the leader. I also would suggest Sosa was not as good an offensive force as Big Mac or any of the other players in the Hall for home runs. Ralph Kiner, Jim Thome, Big Mac, Harmon Killebrew and Giancarlo Stanton all got on base at a much healthier clip than Sammy.
Sammy Sosa was a prodigious home run hitter. But it does not follow to reason that Sosa was also an all time offensive player; at least not one who would enter the Hall of Fame purely on his offense. When you place Sosa's home run hitting talents in context, I believe you find that his offensive output simply is good enough to earn induction. As I have said before: I value players with multiple talents over specialists. Sosa is a specialist's specialist who did one thing tremendously. While his case is close, it falls below the line for me.