The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
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 the 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‘ previously unbreakable mark of 61 homers, and he hit more homers over a five- or 10-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.
As with McGwire, the meaning of Sosa’s home runs changed once baseball began to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs, with suspicions mounting 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, getting just 12.5% of the vote, and then sinking into single-digit territory for the next six cycles, with a low of 6.6% in ’15. With ballot space opening up, he improved to 13.9% last year, all but assuring that he’ll complete his 10-year run without slipping below the 5% mark, à la Palmeiro. Even beyond the Hall of Fame voting, however, he’s been snubbed by the Cubs, first frozen out of the centennial anniversary of Wrigley Field in 2014, then similarly shunned amid the team’s 2016 championship run. While Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others have crept above 60% as voters have reconsidered their hardline stances and their position as the morality police, it’s worth considering Sosa’s exile.
2021 BBWAA Candidate: Sammy Sosa
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg. HOF RF||71.9||42.4||57.2|
Born on November 12, 1968 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, Sosa was a raw 16 years old, standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 150 pounds, with just two years of experience in organized baseball in the Dominican Republic.
Flashing more speed than power as he climbed through Texas’ system, Sosa 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 — highlighted by his first homer, off Clemens on June 21, but also featuring a 20-to-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-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 203 plate appearances.
Sosa spent all of 1990 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.
Sosa was late in reporting to spring training in 1991 because a judge in the Dominican Republic barred him from leaving home after his ex-wife, U.S. citizen Karenlie Bright, filed charges alleging that the previous November, he beat her, hit her on the head with a rum bottle, and threatened to kill her after she refused to grant him a divorce. She also alleged that he stuck her with a $1,600 hotel bill, and that when she couldn’t pay, she was arrested and fined. Sosa denied the claims, and the matter disappeared from view to such a degree that it received no mention when he ascended to stardom, and scarcely any mention thereafter, even in the context of a Hall of Fame ballot on which multiple candidates (namely Bonds, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, and now Omar Vizquel) have been credibly accused of domestic violence.
Though he homered twice on Opening Day in 1991, Sosa struggled again that year and spent more than a month back in Triple-A. An unnamed teammate told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Goddard that he tuned out legendary hitting coach Walt Hriniak. “Sammy never changed. He was doing the same things he’s always done,” said the player. “All athletes have to be coachable. He’s not-coachable.”
On March 30, 1992, Sosa 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; just three have occurred in the 28 years since.
Sosa played in just 67 games that year due to a right wrist fracture 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, checking in at 4.1 WAR thanks in part to a powerful arm; his 17 outfield assists ranked second in the NL. He hit .300/.339/.545 (127 OPS+) 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 posted his second 30-30 season (36 homers, 34 steals) — making him just the fourth player with multiple seasons reaching those twin plateaus — 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 (99 OPS+) with 36 unintentional walks and a league-leading 174 strikeouts. But after spending the winter working on his plate discipline and using the opposite field at the behest of hitting coach Jeff Pentland, he re-emerged as a different hitter.
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 6.5 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, though bad baserunning and average defense limited his WAR to 4.8. Despite slipping to 50 round-trippers in 2000, he led the league in that category for the first time and set career highs in batting average and on-base percentage with a .320/.406/.634 showing. After signing a four-year, $72 million extension in the spring of 2001, he shattered those highs, batting .328/.437/.737 with 64 homers (second to Bonds’s record-setting 73), 425 total bases, 146 runs, and 160 RBIs (the last three all league bests). He surpassed 100 walks — a goal that Pentland had set for him in the winter of 1997 — with 116, including a league-high 37 intentional passes. 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 September 27, in the first game at Wrigley Field since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Sosa carried a small American flag out to right field 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 declined. 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 2003 season, 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.
Sosa’s performance and value continued to wane; his 40-homer 2003 season had been worth a comparatively meager 2.7 WAR as his walk rate plummeted and his defense deteriorated, and his 2004 season weighed in at just 1.3 WAR. 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. 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, with the Cubs paying $16.1 million of the $25 million remaining on his 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 that 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. That’s grossly unfair; no lawyer worth his salt would have let a client take such a risk, particularly one whose English was shaky enough that he had been the subject of mockery even from fellow major leaguer Curt Schilling. In retrospect, Sosa’s statement was to everyone’s benefit, as the US government wasted tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money pursuing Bonds and Clemens for perjury and obstruction of justice charges that didn’t hold up in court; going after Sosa likely would have been just as fruitless. That isn’t to say that he won himself any fans in front of Congress that day, but then nobody did.
Already off to a rough start with the Orioles, the 36-year-old Sosa’s time in Baltimore 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 amounted to 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’s team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic and parlay that into another major league job, he announced his retirement.
Less than two weeks after that announcement, on June 16, 2009, 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 February 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 (ninth 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 somewhat different story. Despite that 12-year stretch with the Cubs during which he blasted 537 home runs and slugged .576, Sosa’s career WAR total of 58.6 is more than 13 wins short of the average among the 27 enshrined right fielders, though it does outdo 12 of them. Even with defense that rated as 86 runs above average during his career according to Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved, he had just six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR and nine of at least 3.0. Up through 1997, defense provided a huge chunk of his value, offsetting his hacking ways, but by the time he became better hitter, he was average or worse in the field — a pattern not unlike that of 2020 Modern Baseball candidate Dwight Evans, and this ballot’s Torii Hunter. Sosa cracked the league’s top 10 in WAR only three times.
That said, Sosa’s peak total of 43.8 WAR is 1.4 wins above the average of the enshrined right fielders, outdoing 17 of the 27 and ranking 13th all-time, but his overall JAWS falls six points short. He’s 18th all-time among right fielders in that metric, with 13 Hall of Famers above him and 14 below; Dave Winfield (64.2/37.9/51.1) is the closest Hall of Famer on either side of him, while 2020 ballot newcomer Bobby Abreu (60.0/41.6/50.8) ranks 20th, 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero (59.4/41.2/50.3) 21st, and ballot holdover Gary Sheffield (60.5/38.0/49.3) 23rd. Here it’s worth noting that the right field career WAR standard (71.9) is the highest of any position, and the JAWS standard (57.2) the second-highest, with the latter about two points higher than the average Hall hitter thanks to the fact that five 100-WAR players (Ruth, Aaron, Musial, Mel Ott, and Frank Robinson) are classified there.
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, though it’s worth considering the extent to which PED-related allegations amplify the perception that he doesn’t belong.
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. What we know about Sosa, which is limited to rumor, eyeball tests, and the Times report, clearly falls short of the second category. Not only were laws violated to bring forth the information that he failed a survey test rather than the result being officially announced by the sanctioning body, but the legitimacy of the results is also more in question than ever.
In the context of remarks about Ortiz in October 2016, commissioner Rob Manfred underscored the flimsiness of whatever conclusions have been drawn about survey test results, saying,
“There were double digits of names, more than 10, which we knew there were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those truly were positives…. Those issues and ambiguities were never resolved because they didn’t matter. We would have sorted that out if we ever thought those names would become public. At the time, we knew we had enough positives to trigger the testing the following year.”
Whether or not Sosa is among those 10 is unclear, but the lack of any true positive test or admission means that there’s less to hold against him than most of the other big name players connected to PEDs, though that genie hasn’t been stuffed back into the bottle yet. When Sosa reached the ballot for the first time in 2013, he received just 12.5% support, ahead of only Palmeiro among the PED-connected players who retained eligibility. In each of the next six years, he failed to garner even 10%, with a low of 6.6% in 2015 and a high of 8.6% in 2017. All of that took place as Bonds and Clemens passed 50% in 2017 and Ramirez — who tested positive twice beyond the reported survey positive — debuted at 23.8% (higher than McGwire’s peak voting percentage) that same year. Sosa should have been similarly ripe for reconsideration. But that hasn’t been the case, with or without Hall of Fame vice chairman Joe Morgan’s plea to voters not to honor players connected to steroids. Sosa did jump 5.4 percentage points in the 2020 cycle, to 13.9%, but with only this year and next before his eligibility runs out, he’s not going to get anywhere close to 75%.
Beyond the ballot, Sosa is largely in exile. He’s been publicly mocked for undergoing skin lightening treatment, and was shunned by the Cubs during the Wrigley Field 100th anniversary celebration in 2015 and their championship run the following year. Owner Tom Ricketts apparently feels as though Sosa must apologize and admit to PED use before he’s welcomed back into the fold via a visit. Never mind that the likes of Bonds, Clemens, and Rodriguez have been employed by teams without any expectation of apology, or that Ricketts didn’t even own the Cubs during Sosa’s tenure (he bought in 2009). According to Sports Illustrated’s Jason Buckland and Ben Reiter — who caught up with Sosa for a feature in their 2018 “Where Are They Now?” issue that found the slugger lounging in Dubai, where he has established residency for business purposes — in 2014, Sosa met with a PR firm representing the Cubs and agreed to make a statement, then backed out. “I felt like I was being swept up in a PR machine that was moving way too fast and not adhering to the spirit of our agreement,” he said.
Cubs icons such as Wood and Williams (a Hall of Famer) have expressed hope that Sosa could find his way back, but as Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller summarized in 2015, “[An apology is] the hurdle that cannot be cleared: A truculent man-child who will not mumble the words ‘I’m sorry’ pitted against an intractable organization on the verge of its next big moment, unwilling to expose itself to a potential tsunami from the past unless the conditions are minimized.”
Like McGwire, the biggest 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 — as though commissioner Bud Selig and the owners weren’t profiting by orders of magnitude beyond any player. Sosa deserves better than to be confined to that fiction, and so do we.