Hitting a home run is the best and coolest thing a player can do on a baseball field. Sammy Sosa was very good at hitting home runs. Better than just about everyone else in the history of Major League Baseball, in fact.
Sosa’s 1998-2002 was one of the most remarkable stretches for a player all-time, but few probably need to be told that. No one has ever hit more home runs over a five- or ten-year span, and Sosa’s 292 home runs in his five-year peak are nearly one and a half times more than the tenth-best home run total over five years–a total held by Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, and Ken Griffey, Jr., for perspective. We know the numbers—describable only with an excess of superlatives.
Great imagery accompanies them. Three times Sosa hit more than 60 home runs, a feat no one else has accomplished; he led the majors in home runs twice and finished second three times over that five-year span. His dual chase with Mark McGwire of Roger Maris’s single-season home run record is indelibly marked on baseball fans’ memories, and his exuberant bunny hop following each home run, paired with his sprint out to right field as if to greet his fans with the most possible outward joy, endeared him to many.
And so, like every other player who has arrived on the ballot in the past decade or so, Sosa’s Hall of Fame case is overwrought and over-thought, a fount of frustration and pettiness rivaled in few other spaces of the baseball world. I’m going to take a look at his case anyway, because I think it illustrates a wrinkle rarely discussed when assessing Hall-worthiness.
The Hall of Fame’s existence is contingent on comparisons. “No player there is an island entire of itself,” one might write. “Every player is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Numbers do not stand alone–756 home runs mean nothing without comparison to other totals. It’s a basic formulation, but it’s a necessary one for this exercise. A player’s Hall credentials are rooted in how that player compares to his peers and his antecedents. In Sosa’s case, how does he compare to other hitters of the 1990s and 2000s, and how does he compare to right fielders historically?
The former case is somewhat simpler. Sosa hit 332 home runs in the 1990s, and 273 in the 2000s. That’s good for sixth and 20th, respectively, and impressive for a player whose career peak perfectly straddles the two decades. He and Larry Walker are, without a doubt, the two best right fielders of the era, whom I compared with an eye to Walker’s case elsewhere. Sosa won the 1998 NL MVP and finished in the top 20 in nine straight seasons, from 1995 to 2003. Sosa even landed 26th on the 1990s’ stolen base rankings, a far cry from fellow slugger Barry Bonds, but, with Bonds, Sosa is the only other player with 200 stolen bases and 200 home runs in the decade.
By all accounts, his defense was solid until he reached his thirties, and then it diminished significantly, coinciding with the atrophy of his base stealing. Importantly, Sosa’s rate stats throughout his career do not compare to his peers as well as his counting stats, but Sosa is either the best or second-best right fielder of his era regardless.
More complicated is how Sosa compares to right fielders, all-time, and this is where we find an interesting conundrum with the Hall writ large.
Hall of Fame right fielders have the highest average career bWAR and second-highest JAWS (Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame assessment metric) for any position besides starting pitcher, and even then it’s quite close. An average Hall of Fame right fielder boasts 73.2 career bWAR and a 58.1 JAWS rating. Every right fielder with above-average career bWAR is in; every one but the underrated Walker has a higher JAWS. So, Hall voters actually did pretty well in not omitting anyone glaringly obvious for induction (although the average is a reflection of who they did induct, so this is somewhat tautological). When you gaze upon the right fielders below the average, the situation becomes much hairier, as one might assume.
Only three right fielders with their careers ending after 1945 have gained induction with below-average bWAR and JAWS: Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, and Andre Dawson (who, despite playing 1800 more innings in right field, is filtered as a center fielder for because he accumulated more WAR there). Those players’ peaks occurred in the late-’70s to early ‘80s for Winfield and Dawson, and in the late-’80s for Gwynn, representing a very small era in the large expanse of baseball since the end of World War II. Gwynn is the only right fielder who has played in the past 20 years to gain election. As is well-documented, Hall voters have become stingier, and it’s not just due to PED prudishness.
How does Sosa fit into this complex schema of borderline Hall cases, ballots bogged down with too many good candidates, and voters who wield their power with dubious knowledge and superiority complexes?
Despite ranking eighth all-time in home runs, Sosa is third among right fielders due to Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. He’s tenth in slugging percentage, ninth in RBI, 20th in OPS, and even 30th in stolen bases. His OPS-plus of 128 is underwhelming, a product of the inflated offense of the 1990s, and ranking behind Walker, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Tim Salmon, Brian Giles, and Juan Gonzalez, not a very inspiring comparison. Sosa’s situation somewhat paradoxical: While he is an all-time great right fielder in WAR and home runs, boasting a peak better than most, he’s only “good” when compared in some other categories, due to a slow-starting, oblong career.
Perhaps it’s instructive to compare Sosa to another right fielder who will land on the ballot in a few years. Although their skill sets inhabit opposite poles of the offensive spectrum, Sosa and Ichiro Suzuki have surprisingly similar holistic cases for the Hall of Fame. Now, if you’re a “small hall” person, you might dismiss both candidates’ prospects out of hand, and that’s fine.
But many believe that Ichiro’s resume in the United States alone warrants induction. Thus far in Ichiro’s career, he’s accumulated 50 WARP and 60 bWAR in 15 seasons, and he averaged a little over five WARP in his relatively long nine-season peak from 2001 (his rookie season) through 2009. Since, he’s been little more than a replacement-level player.
Sosa, comparatively, racked up 61 WARP and 58 bWAR in 18 seasons, or an average of three three-WARP seasons more than Ichiro. Of course, Ichiro didn’t debut until he was 27—an important consideration. Both players were effectively done by age 37: Sosa took a year off before coming back for one hurrah at 38, and Ichiro has not put up a league-average season since he turned 37. Most cite Ichiro’s 3000-plus career hits, as well as his long peak, 500-plus stolen bases, and cannon of an arm as the reasons for his prospective induction. Sosa socked 600 home runs, stole over 200 bases (including three seasons of 30-plus), and played good defense until about the middle of his career, with an arm to rival Ichiro’s. Their total offensive contributions actually favor Sosa, as the Cubs slugger managed a .293 TAv to Ichiro’s dwindling .274. Considering their similar offensive environments, they have Hall cases that mirror each other.
Someone like Vladimir Guerrero also offers a good comparison for Sosa, in their below-average cumulative stats compared to other Hall right fielders, but singular standout skills and great peak periods. Ichiro, Bobby Abreu, Guerrero, and Sosa rank consecutively in right fielder bWAR, and they all have similar JAWS scores. There have been no inner-circle Hall of Fame right fielders in decades; rather, we’ve seen a spate of just below-average candidates, with similar holistic cases but wildly different skill sets. This has made it very difficult for one player to garner a voting bloc strong enough to gain induction. Voters simply value these players’ qualities too differently to push one 60-ish WAR right fielder into the Hall of Fame.
If Sosa is to gain entry to the Hall, he would be the first to poll as low as he has and still be inducted. Last year, he only nabbed seven percent of the vote, just barely enough to stay on the ballot for this round. Public ballots, dutifully tracked by Ryan Thibodaux, so far reveal that Sosa needs three more tallies to remain for a sixth try next offseason. He is currently polling behind Jeff Kent, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, and Wagner. Guerrero, barring a coup in the privately counted ballots, will be close to the 75 percent induction threshold in his first year on the ballot, and Walker will likely make modest gains from last year’s 15.5 percent.
It would be a shame not to induct a right fielder from this generation or the last. Voters might be a little shy about electing a below-average Hall of Fame outfielder in the wake of 2009’s induction of Jim Rice, who amassed only 47 bWAR and 48 WARP, but it would be a mistake to retreat so starkly to a higher standard of induction. The next year, the BBWAA inducted Dawson, but only Ken Griffey, Jr., has gained induction as an outfielder on the last five ballots.
If Guerrero is now the standard-bearer, it’s difficult to bar Walker, Sosa, Ichiro, or Sheffield from serious consideration. There are no active right fielders who are obviously poised for a Hall of Fame career, except for Bryce Harper. We could be in the midst of an unprecedented drought in Hall of Famers from the position. Sosa’s candidacy is one of the drought’s first victims, but it won’t be the last.
Lead photo courtesy Gregory Fisher—USA Today Sports