Ballot 13: Sammy Sosa

Sosa.jpg

Sammy Sosa

Played 18 years with four teams

Seven-time All-Star and MVP winner hit 609 homers and topped 60 three times. 58.4 WAR, 28.0 WAA

Pro Argument: Hit 292 homers in five-year span, no one else is even close.

Con argument: PED questions, relatively low average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Deserves to be in Hall?: Depends on your view of era.

Will get elected this year?: No.

Will ever get elected?: less than 5%.

* * *

There are, I think, two basic arguments for keeping pre-drug testing PED users out of the Hall of Fame. We’ll say up front that Sammy Sosa has consistently denied using steroids and the reports of a failed drug test were both illicitly leaked and came from a test only intended to determine if drug testing should be triggered. Everyone can, and will, draw their own conclusions.

First, let's talk PED arguments in general.

The first argument against allowing PED users in the Hall is what I would call the “Authenticity Argument.” It is based on the belief that players only became Hall of Fame players BECAUSE of their steroid use. Bob Costas is a big advocate of this argument. The premise is that the player's PED-infused career is inauthentic, that the player likely would not have been Hall of Fame caliber without cheating. Mark McGwire would be a good example of this, his career was in the tank, he hit .201 one year, he missed the better part of two seasons because of injury.

And then he went on to become the greatest home run hitter the game has ever seen.

The argument: McGwire’s career was inauthentic, he was destined to be, say, Nate Colbert or Big John Mayberry or Pete Incaviglia or someone else who hit with power as a young man and then faded away around age 30. The argument is that PEDs MADE Mark McGwire great.

OK, so that’s argument No. 1 – the authenticity argument.

Argument No. 2 is what I would call the “Morality Argument.” It is based on the belief that it doesn’t matter if the player would or would not have been a Hall of Famer without steroids … by using drugs they cheated the game, cheated those players who chose not to use, cheated the fans who so desperately want to believe in baseball and compare numbers through the years and so on. Tom Verducci is a big advocate of this argument. Barry Bonds would be a good example. He put up a Hall of Fame career BEFORE the common narrative has him taking steroids. I don’t think there are many who would argue that Bonds, without steroids, is anything but one of the 25 or 50 greatest players in baseball history.

The argument: It doesn’t matter how good he was, he cheated the game, he cheated history, he illegitimately passed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list. The Hall of Fame is baseball’s greatest honor and Barry Bonds does not deserve that honor.

There is some power in both arguments, but both have counterarguments too. The authenticity argument requires us to rewrite history. Baseball wasn’t like the Olympics or the Tour de France. There was no drug testing. People in and around the game did not actively or passively discourage steroid use. Every incentive – money, fame, peer pressure, competitive fury – pushed players toward PED use. We do not know who did or did not use -- and I suspect we are kidding ourselves to think we do – nor do we do have a great handle on what the PED effects actually were.

You might remember that Chad Curtis once estimated that 40-50% of players used steroids. Victor Conte estimated that at least half of baseball was using steroids in 2012, that's after testing. Jose Canseco estimated that 85% of players used steroids. Heck, there were 103 positive steroid tests in 2003, after America had grown disgusted by it all, when players KNEW they would be tested (and we also know that many PEDs do not show up in drug testing so it's likely the number of users was substantially higher).

All of this certainly paints an incomplete picture … but it also mocks the very idea that we can go back into the past and, with a surgeon’s knife, cut out the bad stuff. There are no refunds. The game happened as it happened. I don’t know how many people used steroids in 1998 and neither does anyone else. I suspect it was a lot and that we would be shocked by some of the names. Someone else might suspect it was a few bad apples and we have a pretty good handle on who they were. The one thing we do know for sure is that Mark McGwire was the only one of them to hit 70 home runs.

The second argument, the morality argument, doesn’t ask to rewrite history so much as ignore it. Professional baseball began with cheating, with baseball teams surreptitiously paying players under the table in order to beat amateur teams. And cheating – or at least bending the rules – has been baseball’s dance partner from the very beginning. Babe Ruth probably corked his bat. Ty Cobb definitely gambled on baseball games and probably was part of a plan to throw one. Whitey Ford cut baseballs. Gaylord Perry spit on them. Henry Aaron and Willie Mays among just about every good player of their time tried amphetamines. Mickey Mantle used steroids in an effort to recover from injury. The list goes on and on and on from the smallest bits of cheating – stealing signs, beanballs, illegal equipment, any and every kind of illegal supplement – to the largest.

Players have always – ALWAYS – pushed the edge in order to win, in order to keep their jobs, in order to make a name for themselves in the game. Give them a chance to push the edge with no chance of getting caught ... I think we all know where that will lead.

This is not to say that counterarguments are more powerful than the original arguments, by the way. That’s a matter of opinion. That’s WHY we argue. But here is something I would say: People rather nimbly bounce from one argument to the other and that’s not cool.

Follow this argument line:

  1. Person A makes the authenticity argument against Roger Clemens (If it had not been for his unnatural aging, he wouldn't have had a Hall of Fame career).

  2. Person B counters by saying that Roger Clemens is so far above the Hall of Fame line that it is ridiculous to argue that steroids made him a Hall of Famer.

  3. Person A says, that doesn't matter, Clemens cheated the game (Notice we have switched to the morality argument).

  4. Person B counters by saying that many have cheated the game. The Hall is filled with spitballers and amphetamine users, just for starters.

  5. Person A says, no, steroids are different and more powerful than any other form of cheating (We have switched back to the authenticity argument).

  6. Person B counters by saying that Clemens’ greatness was apparent and recorded long before he is accused of anything.

  7. Player A says that doesn’t matter, he’s the worst kind of cheater (back to the morality argument).

And round and round we go.

What will surprise you, perhaps, is that I’m sympathetic to the authenticity argument. I know some people here think that I just love steroid users, and that's OK, I learned a long time ago that people will think what they want to think.

But I have spent a lot of time thinking about the steroid era of baseball. And one thing I firmly believe, looking back on the players of that time, is that we must look at them in context. For instance, in the 1960s, '70s and '80s -- when only 13 players managed multiple 40 home run seasons and four players hit 50 -- 500 career home runs certainly made for a strong Hall of Fame argument. Five players hit 500 in those three decades – Aaron, Reggie, Schmidt, Killer and McCovey – and, yes, they all surely belong in the Hall of Fame.

OK, but since 1990, FORTY-FIVE different players have multiple 40 home run seasons. SEVENTEEN different players have hit 50.

And in this era, no, 500 home runs does not mean the same thing.

We know this instinctively. Take two pitchers.

One won 203 games with a 3.38 ERA.

The other won 182 games with a 2.28 ERA.

Who was better? You already know that it’s a trick, that I have used pitchers from different eras to give a false illusion. The first pitcher is Roy Halladay, who was a great pitcher in a crazy hitting era. The second is Ed Reulbach, who was a fine but ultimately forgotten pitcher from the Deadball Era.

We have learned to look at Deadball Era pitchers as their own thing … and I think we have to do that for power hitters in the 1990s and 2000s. Whatever magic numbers there once were for the Hall of Fame, like 500 home runs, they are not applicable to the new era.

Which brings us, finally, to Sammy Sosa. Start here: He was an absolute joy to watch in the 1990s. He had that contagious smile, that boundless energy, and that glorious home run swing. It wasn’t just home runs for Sosa at first. By Defensive WAR, from 1993 to 1997 – before the home run thing began – he was not just a good outfielder, he was an excellent one. He was a fast baserunner who stole as many as 36 bases in a season. And he hit with power – 33 homers as a 24-year old, 36 homers two years later, 40 homers the year after that.

All these wonders came with various costs. He struck out a lot. He more or less never walked. His career batting average entering the 1998 season was .257, his OPS+ was 107.

Then, in 1998, he transformed into a whole other player. It’s kind of striking to look at his advanced stats. He immediately became a sub-par outfielder. He immediately became a negative base runner.

Only now, suddenly, he hit everything hard. Everyone knows about the 66 home runs, but his batting average jumped to .308. His walks almost doubled. He had never had a .900 OPS for a season (though he had come close in 1994). He had a 1.000 OPS in 1998 … and would for the three years following.

For four years, from 1998 to 2001, Sammy Sosa hit .310/.396/.662, averaged 61 homers, 90 walks, 149 RBIs and 125 runs. It was mind-boggling. While Barry Bonds broke baseball and Mark McGwire played Superman, Sosa was like this bold, wonderful life force for baseball. His story of coming from nothing is touching. The way he tapped his heart and sent kisses tot he sky was wonderful. He was all that was good about the game at least for a while.

In 2002, everything came down a notch but he still led the league with 49 homers and 122 runs. That was the year Rick Reilly made news by asking Sosa to come take a voluntary drug test. The wonder was gone.

Then Sosa hit 40 homers, 35 homers, 14 homers … and he was out of baseball.*

*He did come back for one more year with Texas, managed his 600th homer, and retired from the game.

So what do you make of it all? For me, Sammy Sosa’s Hall of Fame case begins and ends with home runs (and the various stats that go with home runs ike runs and RBIs). He is one of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history. And … he offers almost nothing else offensively.

Here’s what I did – I looked at the 250 players who have gotten 8,000 plate appearances since 1901. And, for all of them, I took out their home runs just to see what else they did.

Sosa had the eighth lowest batting average, the ninth lowest on-base percentage and the seventh-lowest slugging percentage of all of them. Here are the OPS bottom ten when you take out home runs.

  1. Adam Dunn, .530

  2. Graig Nettles, .538

  3. Joe Carter, .539

  4. Sammy Sosa, .539

  5. Lee May, .542

  6. Gary Gaetti, .543

  7. Andruw Jones, .544

  8. Harmon Killebrew, .544

  9. Jose Canseco, .549

  10. Alfonso Soriano, .557

Now, I’m not really trying to take away Sosa’s home runs or anyone else’s – I’m just making the point that without the home runs, Sosa didn’t contribute very much. A look at that list of 10 is illuminating. Adam Dunn, well, we know he was a home run and walk guy entirely. Nettles was a fantastic defensive third baseman, which is why there are still those who push his Hall of Fame case. Joe Carter hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series history. Andruw Jones has an argument as the greatest defensive centerfielder since Willie Mays. And so on.

I would say the two people on the list who have Hall of Fame credentials based entirely on their home runs are Sosa and Harmon Killebrew. Sosa did offer a bit more in defense and base running than Killebrew but, in the end, we're splitting hairs. It's like saying that Edgar Martinez was a little bit faster than Frank Thomas, which might be true but doesn't help his Hall of Fame case.

I think Harmon Killebrew should be in the Hall of Fame. And I am not voting for Sosa. Why? Well, there’s your context. There’s your authenticity question. The eras were different – if you neutralize their numbers, Killebrew hit 581 home runs and Sosa 595, almost no difference at all. Killebrew led the league in homers six times -- even tying Carl Yastrzemski in '67, the year Yaz won the Triple Crown. Sosa led the league in homers twice. It was just a different time.

And Sosa probably used steroids. He had that humiliating appearance before Congress. He definitely corked his bat. I don’t think any of the things Sosa did should eliminate him as a Hall of Fame candidate. I am not making the morality argument. I don't think Sosa did anything that numerous other players of the time did.

But I think if you add it up, what we know and what we can deduce, you can come to the reasonable conclusion that it was only by pushing the edge and taking PEDs that Sammy Sosa hit enough home runs to be considered a Hall of Fame candidate.