Despite Cloud of Suspicion, Sammy Sosa’s Career is Still Hall-Worthy

The BBWAA announced the selections for entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I couldn’t be happier for the deserving candidates that got in. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Craig Biggio, and John Smoltz earned their way in, and there really is no debating that. Of course, what many have been debating are the qualifications of the other guys on the ballot.

Usually, the topic of conversation turns to steroids. I don’t think many would argue that they like performance enhancing drugs being involved in baseball, but the simple fact is they are. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, many members of the hallowed fraternity that is the Hall of Fame used some sort of drug to enhance performance, whether it be injecting steroids with a needle or popping greenies in the 70’s.

The list of suspected steroid users on the ballot consists primarily of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and former Cub Sammy Sosa. Bonds and Clemens both got around 37% of the required 75% vote, while Sosa dropped from 7.2% last year to 6.6% this time. A lot of the hand-wringing has been that ignorant and regressive voters are holding out Bonds and Clemens, who should be in the Hall. I’d like to see the ballots of the same guys voting against Bonds and Clemens when David Ortiz and Andy Pettitte are eligible.

But if popular opinion is that those guys are good enough to beat the steroid issue, why not Sosa? First, let’s attack the steroid topic head on. I’m okay with steroid users getting in. It’s as much an illegal part of the game as the spitball, whatever was on Kenny Rogers’ arm, whatever was on Jon Lester’s hat, the aforementioned greenies (essentially amphetamines), and stealing signs from the catcher. People try to argue that keeping cheaters out of the Hall is their due punishment, but I’d argue that their punishment is the negative effects of putting steroids in their bodies.

You can only assume a lot of this information, too. While there is a preponderance of damning evidence against Bonds and Clemens, the evidence on Sosa is really only a leaked failed drug test from 2003. And even that has a lack of complete information. We don’t even know what substance he tested positive for, so we’re really guessing. All we know is that he supposedly came up on a list of guys who tested positive for a banned substance a single time.

Don’t take this as me championing his innocence; rather, I’m merely pointing out that while the other guys were caught red-handed (or openly admitted it, like McGwire), Sosa’s link to steroid use is less about evidence and more about public opinion. In front of congress in 2005, Sosa testified that he had never used PEDs, saying “I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything.” I’d love to take Sammy at his word, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

Now let’s look at the numbers. Some argue that Sosa’s numbers are fueled purely by steroids, and that’s somewhat true and somewhat false. The most valid argument for Bonds and Clemens being worthy of the Hall while Sosa is not is that the former pair were Hall of Fame players before their supposed use of PEDs. However, because of the nature of the information we have, we really don’t know when any of them started using.

But back to Sosa. From 1993-2004, a span of twelve seasons from age 24-35, Slammin’ Sammy put up a .285/.360/.576 slash line with 537 home runs, 1389 RBI, and 166 steals in 7607 plate appearances. According to his Baseball Reference page, his average per 162 games was 50 homers and 130 RBI during that span. That’s his average. No matter the era, those are insane numbers.

Let’s go ahead and break his prime years down into two sections. In the 1993-1997 time period, he hit 40 homers and put up 117 RBI per 162 games. That’s pre-suspicion. Sosa averaged 31 stolen bases per 162 games during that period as well. A lot of people forget that Sosa was a good base-stealer and was considered a decent outfielder with a cannon for an arm early in his career.

That brings us to the 1998-2004 period, or the period of swollen arms and crazy home run totals. Sosa put up 57 home runs and 137 RBI per 162 games during this period while posting a 1.006 OPS. He won the MVP in 1998, hitting 66 home runs and leading the Cubs to the playoffs. Sosa would finish in the top 10 in MVP voting seven times in his career (1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003).

Sosa’s best season is also one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. In 2001, Sammy hit .328/.437/.737 with 64 home runs and 160 RBI in 711 plate appearances. That looks like the kind of numbers you’d see in High Heat Baseball 2001 (it’s sooo real!). Sosa finished second in the MVP that season because that’s the same year that Bonds put up the record-shattering 73 home runs.

Sosa doesn’t benefit from having played for great teams and only made the playoffs twice in his career, famously falling just short of the World Series during one of those runs. He also lead the Cubs to contend for the playoffs in 2001 and 2004, but they came up short. You can’t totally blame him for lack of playoff success; the unworthy teams lacked either impact pitching (1999, 2000, 2002) or a supporting lineup (2001).

It’s a shame that Sosa is trending downward on his Hall of Fame chances, because I’d love to see him up on stage explaining his career. I think there are a lot of ways to do it right, but Major League Baseball needs to come up with something agreeable to accommodate the Steroid Era. Whether it be a special wing of the Hall or putting asterisks on plaques, almost anything would be better than the current system of subjective voting by writers that are sometimes less-than-informed.

When the day comes that Major League Baseball caves and suspected cheaters start flooding the Hall, I hope that Sammy Sosa still has a chance to be inducted. If the other guys deserve to be in, so does Sammy.

Ryan Davis

Ryan is a returning member of the original Cubs Insider staff. In addition to co-hosting Talking Cubs, he writes for Forbes and various others. In his spare time Ryan likes to play with his daughter, argue about Star Wars and Marvel movies, and eat healthy foods.

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28 Comments

  1. Great stuff Ryan. I would say my take on Sosa was the 1993-1997 time period you referred to when he hit 40 homers and put up 117 RBI per 162 games. THAT is Sosa to me. Is it Hall worthy if he just continued that type of career? Quite possibly, yet Sosa’s arrogance and stubbornness hurts his cause IMO.

    1. I agree, and I think there’s almost zero chance he actually gets in someday. But if he never takes steroids and finishes his career with 400ish home runs and 300ish steals, I think he’s still borderline. But probably earning more than 6.6% of the vote.

  2. Sammy was a great player at a time when the Cubs weren’t. Management let Sammy be Sammy because he brought in fans, and I am sure many of the readers bought his jersey and kept or sold one of his home run balls. With that being said he has to make peace with the Cubs…his exit was a sloppy end to a great career with a team with high expectations that always got derailed. The Cub management need to extend an olive branch…let some fans boo, let some cheer…invite him to Spring training, Ala Manny…invite him to the winter Cub Fest…let him coach in the Dominican Republic. If writers see that and he admits to any use of steroids and asks for forgiveness. ..then he may have a chance.

  3. Lots of Sammy haters and I get that. Clemens and McGuire getting 7 times more votes than Sammmeeee I don’t get. They all cheated and don’t belong maybe take a seat along side Shoeless Joe Jackson. Bud Selig should be sitting there as well.

  4. Where did it say on any official report that Sosa used PED’s?

    Did Sosa fail any MLB drug test?

    Any film of Sosa using PED’s ?

    Please speak up!

    1. There was a report in 2009 that he tested positive for a “banned substance” in 2003. Link is in the article, if you missed it.

      1. A report that NEVER came out with the full list of names. Sosa’a name was “leaked” out from a lawyer ( there is the first red flag) who was not identify.

        So what we have is ” Hear Say” rumor information.

        That can be filed under the same “hear say” category of the rumor that me and Mrs Davis shared a sandwich together at Max & Bennie’s last week with Bruce Levine.

        1. Substantiated or not, I find it hard to believe that you can possible think Sosa was clean. I’ll not belabor the point, as my thoughts on the topic occupy several thousand words already, but I fully believe he juiced and I really don’t care that much.

          1. It is not what I or you think, it is what was official ruled about Sosa’s PED test results.

            Without that official ruling being posted, opinions are “hear say” in courts.

            Let say you get stopped on the road and tested you were DUI, but you had nothing that night. That DUI will follow you forever, even if there was mistake that never was corrected in the court system. Will you want people to know you as a DUI driver rather all the good things you did in life?

          2. That may be true, but if I’m constantly drinking and lots of evidence, albeit circumstantial, points to the fact that I very well could have been driving drunk, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

            Let’s not forget that this isn’t a guy who never got caught cheating in other ways either. Sure, maybe he came by all that muscle naturally. Maybe the corked bat was really just for BP shows. Perhaps the stats are all legit.

  5. I was going to tell my Top Ten Cubs Catchers list, but I reviewed the names, it was a really a bad list of players after #4.

    So lets say it was Jody Davis, Joe Girardi. Geo Soto, Wellington Castillo as the top four.

    Tomorrow, Cubs top outfielders.

  6. Here’s my take, FWIW — performance enhancers have been around since the first Olympic Games when athletes would eat bull/sheep testes to gain strength and endurance. That was like 780 B.C.

    But the pill, powder and injection-based PEDs, like steroids and HGH, led to what I call statistical absurdity. It started in the 1970s and you could probably assume first-time benefactors came later, guys like Bret Boone and Brady Anderson. Of course ground zero is usually associated with Ken Caminitti [sp].

    Babe Ruth took testosterone injections in 1925 according to some historians. Pud Galvin, a pitcher in the 1880s took testosterone injections in 1889.

    Still, what happened from about 1989 through 2006 is a whole different ballgame. Statistical analysis of the suspected and verified users eclipses video-game numbers. The body mass indices of those players was off the charts. It was cartoonish.

    In Sammy Sosa’s case, he probably wouldn’t have been HOF-worthy without the PEDs. And, FYI, Sosa was among 104 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003 according to an article published in the NY Times. Before the PED years, he had 191 HR in 8+ seasons. His fielding, statistically, was average (about .980), though he did have a cannon arm. His SB numbers were already in decline, and he was about an 11 WAR player over his career up to that point. Afterward, in 8 seasons, he hit 418 HR with a total WAR of about 38, and in 2001 ALONE his WAR was just shy of 10.0.

    Guys like Clemens and Bonds most certainly were Hall of Famers before they doped up. But how do you not lump cheaters together?

    And what about Mark McGwire? He is only guilty of taking a substance that was not only legal in this country, it wasn’t even on the banned list of allowable supplements. Bud Selig was able to buy Andro at a pharmacy here in town, over the counter the year McGwire hit 70 HR. I look at McGwire as a guy who circumvented the integrity of the game more than I do as a cheat. He probably knew what he was doing was ethically wrong, but he didn’t break the rules (if Andro is all he took).

    The problem with this discussion is the same with every other “era vs. era” debate. You simply cannot compare amphetamines users to caffeine users to testosterone users to HGH users. Nobody who took amphetamines saw the same statistical spike as the recently named dopers.

    Lance Armstrong was stripped of all of his titles. I agree with that. Olympic medalists had their medals rescinded for doping. I agree with that also. Because I agree with those punishments, I have to agree with the BBWA blackballing of suspected users when it comes to induction into the Hall Of Fame.

    But in Sosa’s case, he is, statistically speaking, the most obvious of the cheaters and/or suspected cheaters. The discrepancy in statistics pre and post 1998 is too much to ignore. He didn’t just get THAT MUCH BETTER going into his age 30 season, other than plate discipline, which is not a byproduct of PED usage, though a case can be made for strengthening ocular muscles through PEDs..

    All that being said, I think the biggest problem with the HOF voting procedure is that it is the dumbest, most clique-ish and most subjective process that exists, anywhere. But then again, baseball wouldn’t even allow black players into the game until 1947. What else should we expect?

    Sorry for writing a column here.

  7. So if I understand this correctly – even if a player WAS proven to to illegally cheat in baseball – he should be lionized for his ability to cheat if others were?

    Or is the argument that when a player suddenly increases his biceps by 5″ in 3 months, we should simply accept that if he isn’t caught – he shouldn’t be held accountable?

    I’m confused. Somebody help me here.

    1. The point was that this is a part of the game, and has been for a long time. You can’t just subjectively pick and choose which ones are okay and which ones aren’t.

      If you want to tell me that all players caught or suspected of cheating or using performance enhancers shouldn’t be allowed in the Hall, I can respect your opinion. You’d just have a pretty empty Hall of Fame.

      1. Exactly how I feel. Either let them all in or don’t even bother w the hall of fame anymore. IMO if you don’t have the hr King, mr cy young, and the hits leader ( for a game where stats / numbers are sooooo important ) , is it really a hall of fame ?

        I just find it laughable when I hear people say that blow is a PED and rock Raines should not be allowed in. For all those, go do a couple lines and then go to the batting cages.

  8. The problem with Hall of Fame voting is this: Player A didn’t get in last year or the year before that or the year before that, but managed to get in this year. How is that even possible?

    How s Player A all of the sudden Hall of Fame worthy? Last year he wasn’t good enough, but after a year of doing NOTHING he is all of the sudden HOF-worthy? C’MON! It needs to be along the lines of either you’re in or you’re out. And if you’re out, then you had your shot, and you are permanently out. The only reason it is not like that is because the BBWAA can’t trust themselves enough to allow only a true two-outcome scenario on a early basis. .

    That, in a nutshell, explains exactly how flawed an inconsequential this Hall of Fame really is. It is a popularity contest, warded over by baseball writers who are still confused as to why a typewriter is no longer a thing; guys whose careers should have passed into the history books long ago; guys whose interest in baseball falls somewhere between their morning routine and their Geritol with a Highball or Old Fashioned for a chaser nightcap.

    The wrong people vote, the people who do vote have agendas, especially former players on the Veteran’s Committee, clears throat, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, clears throat again, and some of the best players are on the outside looking in because they don’t meet the strict guidelines imposed by voters who for the most part never played the game (well) and were probably the last ones picked for intramural baseball during their own wonder(less) years.

    It’s farcical. And pointless. This is the “Who wins in a fair fight, Batman or Superman?” argument taken to a real life level. A confederacy of dunces. Indeed.

  9. I literally detest the Hall of Fame. I can’t think of anything more pretentious and unnecessary than a shrine dedicated to players who were picked on a subjective whim of a polling of idiots. It gives legitimacy to a board that is essentially ad-hoc in nature, construed of a lot of people who really need to get over themselves and their hurt buttholes. Pardon my gutter-ese.

    Enjoy this site: http://www.notinhalloffame.com/baseball

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