Connect with us

Baseball

JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Sammy Sosa

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
Sammy Sosa 58.6 43.8 51.2
Avg. HOF RF 71.9 42.4 57.2
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,408 609 .273/.344/.534 128

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

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.