Thursday November 26th, 2015

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

Like Mark McGwire, his rival in the great 1998 home run chase, Sammy Sosa was hailed at the height of his popularity as a hero, a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and a great international ambassador for baseball. In that same year that McGwire set a new single-season record with 70 home runs, Sosa hit 66 and took home the National League MVP award. Three times in a four-year stretch from 1998 to 2001, he surpassed Roger Maris's previously unbreakable mark of 61 homers, and he hit more homers over a three-, four- or five-year stretch than any player in history. In 2007, he became just the fifth player to reach the 600-home-run milestone after Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

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As with McGwire, the meaning of Sosa's home runs changed once baseball began to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs, and suspicions mounted about his achievements. He was called to testify before Congress in 2005, along with McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and several other players. Sosa denied using PEDs, but while he never tested positive once Major League Baseball began instituting penalties for usage, The New York Times reported in 2009 that he was one of more than 100 players who had done so during the supposedly anonymous survey tests six years prior.

Though his case doesn't exactly parallel with those of either McGwire or Palmeiro, Sosa received similar treatment from BBWAA voters in his 2013 ballot debut. He received just 12.5% of the vote, splitting the distance between the two aforementioned boppers (16.9 and 8.8%, respectively); since then, he’s sunk into the single digits, with last year’s 6.6% suggesting he’ll follow Palmeiro off the ballot. In 2014, he experienced the indignity of being snubbed for the festivities surrounding the centennial anniversary of Wrigley Field. How we got to this point—and why—is worth a refresher course.

player career peak jaws h hr sb avg ops+
Sammy Sosa 58.4 43.7 51.1 2,408 609 234 .273/.344/.534 128
Avg. HOF RF 73.3 42.9 58.1          

Born in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Sosa was discovered and signed for a $3,500 bonus by Rangers scout Omar Minaya in 1985. At the time, he was a raw 16 years old, standing 5'10" and weighing 150 pounds, with just two years of experience in organized baseball in the Dominican. Flashing more speed than power as he climbed through Texas' system, he nonetheless held his own given his young age; he was just 20 years old when he debuted for the Rangers on June 16, 1989. After playing in just 25 games for Texas—with a 20/0 strikeout-to-walk ratio—he was sent back to the minors, then traded to the White Sox on July 30 in a package for Harold Baines. In 58 games that year between the two clubs, he hit just .257/.303/.366, recording seven steals, four homers and a 47/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 203 plate appearances.

Sosa spent all of 1991 with the White Sox, but the holes in his game were as apparent as his natural gifts. He hit .233/.282/.404 with 15 homers, 10 triples and 32 steals, but he also struck out 150 times and was caught stealing 16 times. Though he homered twice on Opening Day in 1991, he struggled again that year and spent more than a month back in Triple A. On March 30, 1992, he was traded to the Cubs along with one other player for former American League MVP George Bell, the rare trade between the two crosstown rivals.

Sosa played in just 67 games that year due to a hand injury but finally established himself in the majors in 1993, when he hit 33 homers, stole 36 bases and batted .261/.309/.485. Though lacking in plate discipline, he was hardly without value, clocking in at 4.0 WAR that year. He hit .300/.339/.545 with 25 homers and 70 RBIs during the strike-torn 1994 season and earned All-Star honors for the first time the following year, when he hit 36 homers and ranked sixth in the league with 5.3 WAR.

Sosa hit a combined 76 homers in 1996 and '97, reaching 40 for the first time in the former year despite missing more than a month due to a broken bone in his right hand. He signed a four-year, $42.5 million extension in mid-1997, but hit a lopsided .251/.300/.480 with 36 unintentional walks and a league-leading 174 strikeouts. After spending the winter working on his plate discipline and using the opposite field at the behest of hitting coach Jeff Pentland, however, he re-emerged as a different hitter.

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Sosa bashed 66 homers in 1998, second only to McGwire in a memorable race full of camaraderie and good vibes, and set career highs in all three slash categories with a .308/.377/.647 line. His 416 total bases were the most of any player since Stan Musial in 1948, and he led the league in runs (134) and RBIs (158) as well as strikeouts (171). His 6.4 WAR ranked just 10th in the league, but he took 30 of 32 first-place votes in the MVP voting, handily beating out McGwire largely because the Cubs made the playoffs for the first time since 1989. Beyond the numbers, Sosa became a fan favorite, tapping his heart and blowing kisses to the TV cameras—gestures to his mother—after each home run. All of that helped him share SI's Sportsman of the Year honors with McGwire.

Though it didn't receive nearly the same level of adulation, Sosa followed up that monster showing with a similar .288/.367/.635 line with 63 homers in 1999. He slipped to 50 round-trippers in 2000 but led the league in that category for the first time and set career highs in batting average and on-base percentage via a .320/.406/.634 showing. He shattered those the following year, batting .328/.437/.737 with 64 homers (second to Barry Bonds's record-setting 73), 425 total bases and 116 walks, his first time surpassing 100—a goal that Pentland had set for him in the winter of 1997–98. Sosa's 10.3 WAR set a career high but ranked second in the league to Bonds (11.9), who beat him out in the MVP voting.

On Sept. 27, in the first game at Wrigley Field since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sosa carried a small American flag out to rightfield at the start of the game, bringing the crowd to its feet. When he homered off Houston's Shane Reynolds in the bottom of the first inning, he took that flag from first base coach Billy Williams (who had tucked it into his sock) and carried it around the bases in a show of unity, providing one of the most indelible images of the year, if not the decade.

In 2002, Sosa hit a league-leading 49 homers, walked 103 times and earned All-Star honors for the fifth straight year, but his rate stats took a tumble, as did his public image. In July of that year, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly used the bully pulpit of his back-page column to dare the bulky slugger to subvert the Major League Baseball Players Association and submit a urine sample to an independent lab to prove he was free of PEDs; Sosa refused. Slightly less than a year later, he was ejected from a game after umpires found his broken bat to be corked. Sosa claimed that the bat was "for batting practice—just to put on a show for the fans ... I like to make people happy and I do that in batting practice."

MLB officials confiscated a total of 76 bats belonging to Sosa, but none of the others was found to be corked; upon appeal, his eight-game suspension was reduced to seven games. For what it's worth, he hit .273/.334/.586 with 34 homers after the suspension, compared to .290/.407/.481 with six homers prior. His first home run of the year, hit on April 4 against the Reds' Scott Sullivan, was the 500th of his career, making him the 18th player to reach that mark. After helping the Cubs win the NL Central, Sosa struggled in the Division Series against the Braves but homered twice in a losing cause in the NLCS against the Marlins.

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Sosa's performance and value continued to decline; after being worth 2.7 WAR in 2003—despite those 40 homers—he slipped to 1.2 WAR in '04. He hit 35 homers but missed a month due to back woes that began with a sneeze that triggered muscle spasms, and his season ended on an even worse note, as the Cubs led the NL wild-card race by one game with nine games to go but went just 2–7 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. Sosa hit .250/.371/.536 with a pair of homers during the skid, but with the team eliminated, he asked out of the lineup on the season's final day and left the park early. A teammate (rumored to be Kerry Wood) smashed Sosa's boom box, sending a message to management: Get this guy out of here. The following February, Sosa was traded to the Orioles for three players, including Mike Fontenot and Jerry Hairston Jr.; Chicago agreed to pay $16.1 million of the $25 million remaining on Sosa's deal.

A month later, Sosa was called to testify in front of the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform's investigation into steroid usage within the game, along with McGwire, Palmeiro and seven other players and executives. As SI's S.L. Price wrote:

There was surgical parsing: Sosa declared that he had never taken "illegal performance-enhancing drugs ... never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I have not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic." That left a massive loophole for, say, the ingestion of steroids in pill form under prescription from a Dominican doctor.

Sosa's statement was read by a lawyer, and at times he spoke Spanish, a move which drew criticism from some quarters and was read by some as a tacit admission of guilt given the need to protect himself from the possibility of perjury with such a carefully parsed statement. He didn't win himself more fans that day, but then again, none of the players involved did.

Already off to a rough start in Baltimore, the 36-year-old Sosa's time there grew even more dismal once he hit the field. He slipped below replacement level, batting just .221/.295/.376 with 14 homers in 102 games en route to -1.0 WAR; he missed time in May due to a staph infection in his left foot and sat out the last five weeks of the season due to a growth under the big toenail of his right foot (for want of clean socks and a pedicure…). After spurning the Nationals' offer of a minor-league contract for 2006, he explored the possibility of playing in Japan, but wound up sitting out the season entirely.

Sosa returned for 2007, signing a $500,000 contract with the Rangers in January and making the team out of spring training. On June 20, 2007, facing the Cubs' Jason Marquis—who was wearing his old uniform number, 21—Sosa became the fifth player to reach 600 home runs. He finished the year with a superficially respectable .252/.311/.468 line with 21 homers, but playing primarily as a designated hitter, that performance was worth just 0.1 WAR. Sosa didn't pursue another job for the following season, and after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to make the Dominican Republic team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic and to parlay that into another major league job, he announced his retirement.

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Less than two weeks after that announcement, on June 16, 2009, the The New York Times reported that Sosa was among 104 players who had tested positive during the 2003 survey testing, which carried no penalty but was designed to measure the extent to which major league players were using PEDs. The test was supposed to be anonymous and its results destroyed, but the players' union failed to do so in a timely manner, and federal agents seized the results as part of the BALCO investigation; the agents had warrants for the drug-testing records of 10 players, but ended up obtaining the whole list. Amid a protracted legal battle, the names remained under court seal, but they began surfacing via leaks in Feburary 2009—first Alex Rodriguez that month, then Sosa, and in July, both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The leak of Sosa's name created the potential for a full-scale investigation into whether he perjured himself in front of Congress, but ultimately, no charges were pursued.

Steroid saga aside, the superficial statistics suggest Sosa is a Hall of Famer: 2,408 hits, 609 homers (eighth all-time), seven All-Star appearances, an MVP award and a whopping score of 202 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, where 100 is a player likely to be elected and 130 a virtual cinch.

The advanced metrics tell a different story, however. Despite that 12-year stretch with the Cubs during which he blasted 537 home runs and slugged .576, Sosa's career WAR total of 58.4 is nearly 15 wins short of the average among the 24 enshrined rightfielders. Even with defense that rated as 104 runs above average during his career according to Total Zone, he had just six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR and nine of at least 3.0; only three times did he crack the league's top 10 among position players. His peak total of 43.7 WAR is 0.8 wins above the average of the enshrined rightfielders, outdoing 15 of the 24 and ranking 12th all-time, but his overall JAWS falls 7.1 points short. He’s tied for 18th all-time among rightfielders in that metric, with 12 Hall of Famers above him and 12 below; Dave Winfield (63.8/37.7/50.8) is the closest Hall of Famer on either side.

In cases where a candidate is close to the overall standard but has a peak score above it, it's not too difficult to justify a vote in his favor; a year or two of playing out the string rarely flatters a player's resumé anyway. Such a significant distance below the standard as in Sosa's case is harder to overlook, even without reference to his PED-related allegations.

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In my previous pieces in this series, I've advocated distinguishing between infractions that are alleged to have occurred during the game's "Wild West" era—when the commissioner, owners, the players' union and the media all contributed to re-enforcing the status quo—and those for which we have the proof of a positive test. While what we know about Sosa falls somewhat short of the latter—laws were violated to bring forth the information that he failed a survey test, rather than the result being officially announced by the sanctioning body—they don't help his cause either.

When Sosa reached the ballot for the first time in 2013, I predicted that voters would give him something between 10 and 15% of the vote, and they split the distance exactly at 12.5, ahead of only Palmeiro among those who retained eligibility. In the two years since, Sosa has slipped, first to 7.2%, then 6.6, suggesting he’ll fall off the ballot before his ten-year window of eligibility expires—perhaps even this year. In the current environment, he may have a better chance in a Veterans Committee-type process, which isn't saying much.

Like McGwire, the shame of it all isn't that Sosa is unlikely to wind up in Cooperstown, or that the gaudy numbers that placed him in such select company will be largely disregarded. It's that the joy he brought to fans and throughout the game during that considerable peak is so easily swept aside, as though it meant nothing at the time. He deserves better than that, and so do we.

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