Longtime Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa makes his second appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. With a host of fantastic candidates on the docket, it will be tough for Slammin' Sammy to draw overwhelming support. He earned only 12.5 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, so he's already got his work cut out for him.
The conflicting nature of Sosa's resume might work against him. His traditional "baseball card" stats are impressive, whereas his advanced numbers leave a bit to be desired. Conversely, his status as a PED suspect is likely to alienate him from the old-school voters who might appreciate his home runs and RBI, while the new-school voters, who may be willing to overlook his drug-related transgressions, will scoff at his lackluster WAR and JAWS totals. Only a small minority of the electorate will see the best in Sosa while ignoring the worst.
Why he's a Hall of Famer
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Hall of Fame coverage
Sosa's case starts and ends with home runs. Sure, there was more to his career than just power -- he stole 234 bases, he rated as a fantastic defender in right field during his 20s, and he eventually developed good plate discipline in his early 30s. However, it is his 609 home runs (eighth on the all-time list) and his three seasons in excess of 63 long balls (there are only six such seasons in history) that drive his argument.
In 1998, Sosa and Mark McGwire participated in the famous chase for Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Although Sammy fell short in the race for the record, he still finished with 66 home runs and endeared himself to fans worldwide as a charming, sportsmanlike competitor. What's more, his 1.024 OPS and MLB-leading 158 RBI and 134 runs scored earned him MVP honors as a member of the wild-card-winning Cubs; the team hadn't been to the playoffs in a decade. He and McGwire were credited at the time with "saving baseball" by rekindling the nation's interest in the sport at a time when the public hadn't fully moved on from the 1994 strike.
The bulk of Sosa's value came during an 11-year peak from 1993-2003. Starting with that '98 season, Sosa put on one of the greatest five-year power displays in baseball history. He hit 292 home runs (average: 58 per season), batted .306/.397/.649 and drew at least 100 walks in two different seasons. His seven-year peak measures as 43.7 bWAR on Jay Jaffe's JAWS scale, which is slightly above the average Hall of Fame right fielder. He also played long enough to rack up good career totals -- in addition to being one of only eight players with 600 home runs, he recorded 1,667 RBI (27th all-time) and 2,408 hits.
Sosa has strong career numbers, had a great peak in which he was one of the best in history at one aspect of the game, and was, most of all, famous.
Why writers won't vote for him
Sosa probably did steroids. Or some sort of performance-enhancing drug. He appeared on the list of 104 players who tested positive in a private screening in 2003, which was never meant to become public. Although he never received a suspension for drugs, that's a lot of evidence to overcome. All of that goodwill that he earned in the late '90s may have been ill-gotten. And if you're not convinced that he's a cheater, he also got caught corking his bat in a game in 2003; granted, he explained that he'd used the bat by accident, and corking doesn't even help you hit homers, but still. Sammy just couldn't play by the rules, and that will be enough for many voters.
Even if you get past the PED issue, Sosa's credentials are still questionable. The home runs are great, but he didn't particularly excel in any other category; even his steals came at a low success rate (69 percent). He is third on the all-time strikeout list, and his career .344 OBP is merely pedestrian. His defense was nearly as bad in his 30s as it was good in his 20s. His career bWAR total (58.4) falls far short of the average Hall of Fame right fielder (73.3), and, although his peak helps his case, he doesn't measure up in overall JAWS rating (51.1, below the RF average of 58.1).
Sometimes, players who are borderline candidates might get extra credit for anecdotal achievements and things that set them apart. However, Sosa went to the playoffs only twice and never reached the World Series, and he was only good in one of the three postseason series in which he played. It might seem unfair to judge any player for not winning a title with the Cubs, but them's the breaks. His extra credit is all tied up in the '98 home run chase, and the general perception is that that was a chemically enhanced feat. As far as tiebreakers go, the PED cloud and lack of postseason fame trump the one magical year.
Whether or not you care about Sosa's PED history, and regardless of your perception of his career, there is a legitimate chance that he could fall off the ballot this year. The field is flush with deserving players, and voters who don't immediately disqualify Sosa for drugs might not have space for him on their lists. There is virtually no way that he will be enshrined this year, and his only (slim) chance will probably be some kind of Steroids Era Veterans Committee in the distant future.