Baseball

The Curious Case of Sammy Sosa

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With a serious lack of baseball news, the current influx of Hall of Fame ballots being published has taken the foreground in the media for the sport. The era of judgement for alleged PED usage is coming to a head with the final year of candidacy for players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and yet Sammy Sosa seems to get significantly much less attention than those two. Also in his last year of eligibility, Sosa seems sure to conclude his eligibility distantly under the 75 percent threshold required to gain entry to Cooperstown.

The legendary-yet-controversial Chicago Cub peaked last year in terms of voting percentage with 17 percent, a slight increase from the 13 percent a year prior. With the exception of those two years, as well as his first on the ballot back in 2013, Sosa has spent the majority of his time on the ballot under 10 percent. The question is, why? Purely on a statistical basis, with no outside factors considered, Sosa is a slam dunk Hall of Fame case.

With seven All-Star appearances, 609 career home runs, and an MVP award, Sosa’s resume is exactly what a Hall of Fame resume should look like. Yet despite that, he does not get the same love. The reason is obvious, Sosa is among the names released in a New York Times article back in 2009 confirming that he tested positive for steroids back when the MLB conducted anonymous testing in 2003. 

There is also the corked bat issue, in which Sosa was caught using a bat filled with a corked core during a 2003 game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Sosa’s bat splintered on a groundout to second, with cork visible amongst the bat, umpire Tim McClelland was forced to eject Sosa. The Chicago Cub would later write the issue off as an honest mistake, claiming the corked bat was used in batting practice to impress fans with moonshot homers (as if he needed any help). Sosa would receive an eight game suspension for this transgression.

While the debate rages on as to whether or not a corked bat actually provides a significant advantage (read more here), it seems like some fans point to this minor rules violation as something to distance Sosa from the rest of the PED group, arguing that this makes him somehow less fit for Cooperstown than others.

Why That is Wrong:

The argument for why a given individual should make the Hall of Fame is simple. I cannot track the original quote down, but I remember reading a baseball writer’s take on the qualifications for the hall of fame, saying something along the lines of “if you cannot tell the story of the times in baseball when excluding their name, they belong in the Hall of Fame.” Sammy Sosa IS the late 1990’s. The home run chase between him and Mark McGwire (who should also be in the HOF) in the summer of 1998 is a defining story in baseball history, and could be argued as a major revitalization of interest nationally in baseball.

Not only does Sosa statistically impress enough to justify inclusion into baseball immortality, but he deserves entry on the immeasurable qualities of this sort too. The story of baseball is not the same, nor anywhere near as exciting in the late 1990s in a vacuum in which Sammy Sosa does not exist. For all his controversy, he is equal in talent and production, and the lack of consideration he has received by BBWAA voters feels deeply hypocritical if players like Clemens and Bonds do end up squeaking in on their tenth go-around on the ballot.

Counting Stat Perspective:

You can say Sosa deserves to be in based on his status as a folk hero, but his corked bat speaks for itself all the same. His career slash is not all that eye-popping, but still solidly above average at .273/.334/.534, with a career OPS of .878. In terms of total counting stats, Sosa ended with 2408 hits, 609 HR, 1667 RBI, and 58.6 bWAR. Sosa ranks 9th all time in HRs, with everyone in front of him already in the Hall with the exception of Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Sosa hit 60 home runs not just once, but three separate times. 60 in a single season has only been done eight times in the history of baseball, and Sosa stands alone as the only one to crack that mark on three occasions.

Hall of Fame Metrics:

When it comes to Sosa measuring up against the rest of the current Hall of Fame, the two main analytical minds in baseball in regards to Hall of Fame probability are split. Bill James, on one hand, views the playing career of Sosa as unquestionably deserving of Cooperstown. His Hall of Fame Monitor ranks the slugger as the 44th best batter in the history of baseball with a score of 202, ahead of noted legends like Hank Greenberg, Lou Brock, and Eddie Matthews among many other current members of the Hall. While it only accounts for on field performance with no outside factors considered, Sosa’s score places him 70+ points above the 130 mark that usually signifies a Hall of Fame lock. In the James-created Black Ink Test Sosa proves his case even more, ranking above the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Roberto Clemente, and Frank Thomas.

James’ stats make the case very clear, Sosa is deserving of induction. Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs tells a different story. In comparison to an average of all of the other current inductees to Cooperstown at the RF position, Sosa produced less career bWAR by a good amount, 58.6 to 71.9. He finds himself slightly above average in the peak WAR section, 43.8 to 42.4, and lastly finds himself once more below average on the JAWS scale, 51.2 to 57.2. So in the eyes of Jaffe, Sosa is no slam dunk case, instead a borderline player who seems destined for the Hall of Very Good.

What Does it All Mean?

The point of all of this is not to argue that Sosa deserves to be in or out, but instead to point out that voting patterns regarding him seem to not make any sense. If a voter is under the impression that no player ever associated with PEDs should grace the Hall of Fame, should Bonds and Clemens be so distantly ahead of Sosa in voting margins? And if a voter believes that PED related transgressions pre-enforcement are not a big enough of a stain on a career to bar entry, did Sosa not have a good enough career to receive significantly more votes than he is getting? The corked bat incident serves nowhere near as much value as people seem to be giving it, and setting Sosa apart from Clemens and Bonds serves no purpose. They all were stars of relatively similar eras, and the history of baseball should be told with all of them, or none of them. BBWAA voters, please make up your mind and stop the hypocrisy. 

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