Friday, February 17, 2006

Sammy Sosa

Big news came recently when Sammy Sosa declined a contract offer from the Washington Nationals. Since that was the only offer he had, it seems (according to several sources) that Sosa will retire. Sosa hasn't formally announced retirement, and it's entirely possible that he will change his mind, get an offer from another team, or reconsider the Nats' offer. This could all be a publicity stunt. But it seems now that Sammy Sosa is going to retire.
Given Sosa's likely retirement, the question being asked is how we should look at Sosa's career. Is Sammy Sosa a Hall-of-Famer? Five years ago, the answer would have been yes; everyone thought Sosa was well on his way to Cooperstown. But a lot has changed since Sosa was one of the nation's favorite ballplayers. Steroids, corked bats, an ugly exit from Chicago, and an embarassing season in Baltimore have all contributed to the dismantling of Sosa's reputation.
This still leaves us with the question, though: was Sosa a Hall-of-Famer? That's what I'm here to determine. First, I'll start by coming to grips with the numbers; defining Sosa's career as well as possible in relation to his context, and compared to other Hall-of-Famers. Then, I'll consider all of the off-field issues that have cast a dark cloud over his career.
The Numbers
Sammy Sosa was a home run hitter. That's about the most obvious statement one can make. But it's also the essence of his value as a baseball player: the home runs. If you had to describe Sosa to someone who had never seen him before, you would start with the homers. In fact, Sosa's value is tied up almost exclusively in the homers. He wasn't like Willie Mays; he wasn't home runs and . . . No, he was a slugger. Sosa hit 588 career HRs (5th all-time) and posted a lifetime .537 slugging percentage, good even by today's standards. But other than that, what did Sammy Sosa do?
The short answer is, not much. Sosa hit for a .274 career average, but then the league average for his career was .268. Sosa's career OBP was .345, but the league OBP over his career was .338, again not much of an advantage. He did drive in a lot of runs, but that's simply a function of his home runs and the lineups he hit in, not much of a comment on the man himself.
He stole bases, at least early in his career. Sosa has 234 career SBs with 107 CS (caught stealing), for a 69% success rate -- about average. He was a good defensive right fielder, but not great. He certainly deserves credit for these things, but not so much as you may think. His stolen base success rate indicates that he didn't add much to his team's offense, as his CS nearly cancelled out his successful steals. He did have good defense, but right field isn't an incredibly important defensive position. So Sosa gets a bonus from these areas, but not a whole lot.
Oh -- I forgot the strikeouts. Sosa racked up 2,194 career Ks, second all-time to Reggie Jackson. That's a big number, especially considering his mere 895 career walks.
So is it possible for someone to homer their way into the Hall of Fame?
Yes, but not easily.
It's quite possible for someone to hit so many home runs that their home runs alone can get them into the Hall. Is it possible that Sosa, given average or slightly above-average skill in other areas of the game, could swat his way into the Hall with 588 dingers?
Yes, it's possible.
So now that we understand Sosa, we have to try and put his career numbers into some context. I said that it's possible, under the right circumstances, for a player to homer his way into the Hall. Let's see if Sosa played under those circumstances.
The best thing is to try and condense Sosa's career into a single number -- a dicey proposition, but something that several statistical metrics have been created to do.
Win Shares: Sosa has 312 career Win Shares. This ranks him 25th all-time among right fielders, behind Harry Hooper and Jack Clark, and just ahead of Manny Ramirez (for now), Harold Baines, and Bobby Bonds.
But total Win Shares don't tell the whole story. Was Sosa a better player than these guys? It's possible that Sosa's low number of Win Shares is due to his short career, having "retired" at the relatively young age of 37.
The answer is that Sosa's best seasons obliterate anything these guys did. Sosa's 1998 was great (377/647/308, with 66 HR), and his 2001 was even better (437/737/328, with 64 HR).
Hall-of-Fame value is determined by how good a player was over a long time. It's possible for someone -- a la Sandy Koufax or Earl Averill -- to get elected to the Hall with a short, brilliant burst of a career. Koufax's raw career numbers rank him as about the 150-175th greatest pitcher ever; but when you take into account how good he was at his peak, he gets into the Hall. Because the Hall isn't just for people like Don Sutton, who were pretty good for so long that they compiled big numbers; it's also for guys like Koufax, who were far superior over a shorter amount of time.
Does Sammy Sosa qualify for the Koufax treatment? Bill James suggests determining Win Shares per game, which gives you an idea of how good a player was, regardless of career length. I used WS/162 G (to simulate an average season) and compared Sosa to his contemporaries. Was Sosa a greater player, per game, than guys like Jack Clark, Reggie Smith, and Andre Dawson, other comparable right fielders not in Cooperstown.
The answer I got surprised me: No, he is not. Not even remotely. Sammy Sosa produced 22.56 Win Shares per 162 games. Here's a ranking of RF by career WS/162 G (min. 300 career WS):
1. Babe Ruth (48.93)
2. Hank Aaron (31.58)
3. Mel Ott (31.33)
4. Frank Robinson (29.94)
5. Gary Sheffield (29.66)
6. Manny Ramirez (28.75)
7. Sam Crawford (28.70)
8. Paul Waner (26.88)
9. Harry Heilmann (26.84)
10. Reggie Smith (26.49)
11. Bobby Bonds (26.45)
20. Harry Hooper (22.53)
21. Sammy Sosa (22.56)
22. Sam Rice (22.03)

So not only does Sosa have a relatively small career Win Shares total, there's nothing to suggest that he was a greater player, per year, than his career total would indicate.
What about other statistical metrics? It's certainly possible that Win Shares is missing something that other methods have picked up on. Just to check, I compared Sosa via these other stats:
Equivalent Average:
A statistic that takes into account a player's hitting and baserunning (but not defense) and condenses it into one stat, similar to batting average. .300 is a good EQA, .200 is bad, and .400 is great. It's an all-in-one statistic that's easier to comprehend that abstract numbers like Win Shares.
Among all RF (with more than 300 Win Shares, to retain the same sample used above), Sosa ranks here:
1. Babe Ruth (.364)
2. Manny Ramirez (.333)
3. Mel Ott (.326)
4. Hank Aaron (.323)
5. Frank Robinson (.322)
22t Sammy Sosa (.294)
22t Enos Slaughter (.294)
24. Harold Baines & Rusty Staub (.293)
Keep in mind that since EQA is an average, it's kinder to active players like Ramirez who haven't gone through the decline phase of their careers yet. What EQA does give us is a better idea of who was good, not necessarily over any length of time. Ruth and Aaron are where we would expect them. Pete Rose, however, sports an EQA of .288. So while Rose wasn't really great, what he was was good for an exceptionally long time. So EQA leaves us with almost exactly the same answer as WS/162 G: Sosa was very good, on a per game basis, but not great. He ranks around some Hall-of-Famers, but they're mostly the marginal ones.
An uber-statistic developed by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to take into account a hitter's total contribution. WARP stands for Wins Above Replacement Player, and the 3 denotes the third variation of the stat, one which places adjusts for all time, not just one year. WARP is a counting stat that rewards long careers as opposed to pure quality. The relationship between WARP and Win Shares on one hand, and EQA and WS/G on the other, is similar to the relationship between hits and batting average. One measures quantity, the other quality. The truly great can combine both to some degree. Here is where Sosa stands:
1. Babe Ruth (224.7)
2. Hank Aaron (199.8)
3. Mel Ott (171)
4. Frank Robinson (153.3)
5. Pete Rose (151.3)
19. Rusty Staub (96.8)
20. Enos Slaughter (96.2)
21. Sammy Sosa (93.7)
22. Harry Heilmann (92.8)
Again, we come to the conclusion that Sosa was about the 21st or 22nd-greatest RF in history. He seems to be a borderline Hall-of-Famer. His name appears a couple time next to resident HOFer Enos Slaughter, but Slaughter lost 3 prime years to World War II; Sammy has no such excuse.
To sum up, we can see little in the statistics to say that Sosa is a true Hall-of-Famer. He falls on the ever-hazy borderline, along with players like Andre Dawson or Jack Clark, of players who might be good enough, but just as likely might not.

Sosa played in one of the most hitter-friendly eras in history. It was, in fact, the most home run-friendly era in baseball history so far. This is instructive for someone who made his name on home runs, almost exclusively. It's interesting in compiling this study, because going in I thought Sosa was almost an exact clone of Reggie Jackson. Both were generally good hitters who made their name almost exclusively by homers and strikeouts. Jackson's other hitting stats were better, but Sosa has the edge in defense and baserunning. While their career numbers are fairly similar, it must be said that Jackson made his name mainly in the late 60's and 1970's, when run production was down dramatically from present levels. So Jackson's 563 HR are much more important, in context, than Sosa's 588.
Stats like WS and EQA take ballparks and era into account, though. So what we're left with is a player who is, at best, a borderline Hall-of-Famer.

Other Issues
This is where Sosa's Cooperstown case is undone. Whereas Reggie had his great October performance to hang his hat on, fans and writers will remember Sosa largely in a negative light. His 1998 heroics were forever tainted by alleged steroid use, his being caught with a corked bat, and stories of his egotism and self-involvement. Even his exit from the game is rubbing people the wrong way. Sosa had an offer for a 1-year, %500,000 contract with the Nationals and decided to retire rather than take it. It's not a great way to cement your legacy. Early fan responses show a split opinion. The ESPN poll linked in the last sentence shows, after over 20,000 votes, an exact split 50.0% each for yes and no, on the question "Does Sosa deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?".

How is it possible that someone like Sammy isn't a Hall-of-Famer? He just seemed so much like one, at least to me. The main reason is that we, as fans, don't think of the big picture when examining someone's career. We look at two or three memorable moments. And if we do look at statistics, we look at the wrong ones (career hits, career batting average) without even putting them in context. While I can't deny the excellence of Sosa's 1998 and 2001 seasons, the rest of Sammy Sosa, all those years that we don't remember, doesn't add up to a Hall-of-Famer. The statistics don't see him as a clear choice for the Hall, and I really have no reason to doubt them. And based on his recent actions, I don't see many people arguing on his behalf come 2010. It's a tough choice and a complex one, but I don't think Sammy Sosa belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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