I caught a little heat in the comments a couple weeks ago when the Hall of Fame ballot was released, and I commented that Sammy Sosa was probably rightly just shy of the level of play necessary for enshrinement, even if you set aside the possible PED stuff. I’d like to defend that position now, briefly, while also saying that I was always a huge Sammy Sosa fan, and have been quite vocal in pushing for fans to get over any lingering bad feelings and for the organization to bring him back into the fold. This is not a Sosa-bias blind spot for me. It’s just a statistical analysis.
Sosa was an incredible player for his 18+ years of big league ball, albeit mostly limited to the offensive side by the time he was 30 (overall, he was -6.0 UZR/150 for his career in right field, just slightly below average). His .273/.344/.534 line is excellent, even when weighted by wOBA (.370) and adjusted for era, league, and ballpark context (124 wRC+).
But here’s my problem with saying Sosa is clearly a Hall of Famer: if you accept that the vast majority of Sosa’s value came from his bat, then it follows that, to be a Hall of Famer, he’d need to have been one of the most elite offensive players of his era. Right?
If we look at the years Sosa played, and construct a leaderboard at FanGraphs of all the players in that era, we can compare Sosa’s offensive performance against others in baseball.
During the years he played, Sosa’s 609 homers were second only to 697 from Barry Bonds during those same years. So that’s good. But, because other guys’ careers didn’t perfectly overlap Sosa’s, that doesn’t really tell us much, does it? So, we should probably focus on rate stats. And that’s where Sosa’s performance suffers, relatively speaking.
During that 18-year stretch, among players with at least 6,000 plate appearances (so they were in there for at least 10 years, give or take), Sosa’s .370 wOBA is 37th, a spot behind Ryan Klesko. Sosa is eight spots behind his former teammate, Moises Alou. He’s 14 spots behind Ellis Burks and 15 spots behind Tim Salmon. Sosa is 29(!) spots behind Jason Giambi, whose wOBA only drops to .394 when you include Giambi’s post-Sosa’s-career struggles.*
By wRC+, the story is even worse, with Sosa falling to 40th, a spot behind Bobby Bonilla.
*(In case you were wondering, if we just look at all qualified players in baseball history for their entire career, Sosa’s .370 wOBA is tied for 333rd.)
And, even if we look at a cumulative valuation stat like WAR solely for the years Sosa played – which is completely unfair to the other players who may have had some additional time to accumulate WAR outside of Sosa’s 18-year window – he’s just 18th among position players, behind, among others, Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Martinez, and Andruw Jones.
And then you say, “But what about his peak?” Well, even if we pretend that the standards for Hall of Fame enshrinement should ignore a player’s lesser seasons at the front and back-end of his career, Sosa’s peak wasn’t as strong as you may have thought. If we take Sosa’s peak 10 years between 1993 and 2002, and set up the same kind of leaderboard (minimum 4500 plate appearances to get rid of outliers, and include guys who played at least 7 to 8 years in that 10-year stretch), his peak wOBA of .394 is just 19th, a spot behind Mo Vaughn. And he’s still behind Ellis Burks. (I’m starting to think folks should be pushing for Burks’ Hall of Fame candidacy. That guy was sneaky good!)
Sosa pops up to 15th by wRC+. But we just cherry-picked his best 10-year stretch. And, by the most useful, least noisy offensive statistic, he was only the 15th best offensive player during his best offensive stretch.
Anyway you slice it, if you believe Sammy Sosa’s Hall case rests on his offense – and it really does – then it’s hard to put together an argument that he was among the top players in his era without chopping down his “peak” to a mere three or four-year window. You just can’t do that when you’re talking about a Hall of Fame career.
To me, Sammy Sosa was a very, very good player in his era. A Hall of Famer? Not quite.
I still hope the Cubs bring him back into the fold, though.