Should playing days’ ‘Fame’ play a factor in Hall of Fame cases like Sammy Sosa?


As we run through the Hall of Fame cases each day leading up the big reveal later this month, I’m now tasked with discussing former Cubs superstar Sammy Sosa (who also had stints with the White Sox, Orioles and the Rangers, twice). 

We’ll go through the bare bones of his case a bit later in case anyone wants to peruse those, but I’m saving all that noise because by now I think pretty much everyone has made up his or her mind about Sosa when it comes to the Hall. He’s not going to get in, absent some remarkable, unforeseen circumstance. Through five turns on the ballot, the highest Sosa has garnered is 12.5 percent and it’s been as low at 6.6 percent. Last season, he rose, but only to 8.6 percent. He’s likely to hang between 5-15 percent before falling off the ballot. 

For a large number of fans and media members, Sosa in the Hall of Fame is a nonstarter due to his alleged connections to PEDs. The general public has long judged Sosa, specifically, because he once got caught using a corked bat in a game and seemed to forget how to speak English in front of Congress when questioned about PEDs despite having given interviews in English quite capably for years. 

We don’t need to litigate anything there. The overwhelming majority of people who care about the Hall of Fame believe Sosa “juiced” in some way, shape or form. That ship has sailed. For those who believe no one of this ilk belongs in the Hall of Fame, there isn’t much reason to further discuss. 

As such, what follows is for the people who either don’t care about PEDs or only care about PEDs when it comes to the players who were suspended under the MLB testing system, once it was in place. 

(For the record and for those who haven’t already seen, I fall into the latter camp). 

What about the Fame component? 

First off, it’s called the “Hall of Fame,” not the Hall of Elite, Well-Rounded Players. The voting rules say: 

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.  

Let’s focus in on the “contributions to the team,” part. If a player is wildly beloved and popular for a pretty decent stretch of time, in theory, he helps the team sell tickets, he definitely sells merchandise for the team and on a team like the Cubs back then — and every team now — makes a big impact on local TV ratings. 

That’s a pretty big contribution to the team. I’m not suggesting that Tim Tebow should be a Hall of Famer if the Mets bring him up for five years and merchandise and TV ratings blow up. I’m saying we can use this “Fame” component as bonus points to an existing Hall of Fame case, such as we could with exceptional career postseason numbers. 

So, yes, I’m gonna let “Fame” play into the equation when it comes to special cases. 

Wasn’t Sosa a special case? For those who remember watching baseball from 1998-2003, how many guys in baseball were definitely a bigger deal than the rock star that was Sammy Sosa? Maybe five, if that. He was a celebrity and it wasn’t just in the world of baseball. Non-baseball sports fans knew of Sosa. Non-sports fans in the Midwest couldn’t escape him. He was a monster. 

Circa 1998, there were few stars as big as Sammy Sosa.
Getty Images

Many these days in making out their Hall of Fame ballots or hypothetical ballots (for those who don’t have votes) have Larry Walker not only ahead of Sosa, but comfortably. I’m not picking on Walker nor arguing against his candidacy. I’m just grabbing a fellow right fielder to illustrate the “Fame” case. Go back in time to, say, 2003 and I imagine it would’ve been pretty hard to imagine a hardcore internet movement for Walker to make the Hall of Fame over Sosa. 

I’ve come to realize as the years have passed that Walker is a much more well-rounded candidate and overall better player for several reasons. I just can’t get past how things seemed at the time. Context like this has mattered in the past. Jim Rice got into the Hall due to this “fear” factor (pitchers were more fearful of him at the time he played than most other sluggers, so the story goes). Andre Dawson’s career on-base percentage is pretty bad, but it wasn’t a focus when he played and — as a middle-of-the-order hitter — he was supposed to expand his strike zone to drive in runs instead of taking walks, so the story goes. 

All of this is to say that, for me, Sosa’s rock star status for a six-year period provides bonus points in his subjective Hall of Fame case. I’m fine with those who disagree, as this is a subjective matter, but I really feel like it should count in constructing his case.

Ah, right, the case …

The case

Sosa’s got a great case — again, we’re ignoring the PED connection, because those automatic “no” vote people should be gone by now, yelling into the internet abyss about how stupid everyone else is — in terms of both his peak and his counting numbers. 

His five-year peak was 1998-2002 and his average season in there was .306/.397/.649, 167 OPS+, 58 homers, 141 RBI, 124 runs. Ridiculous. Outside that, he actually had two seasons with at least 40 homers, three more with at least 35 and yet another with at least 30. 

Sosa won the 1998 MVP, finished second in 2001 and in the top 10 five other times. He led the league in runs three times, homers twice*, RBI twice and total bases three times. 

*[One of my favorite oddities is that Sosa is the only player in baseball history to hit at least 60 home runs in a season three times, yet he didn’t lead the league any of those three times]

The career counting numbers, as noted, are nice as well. He is ninth all-time with 609 home runs and 29th with 1,667 RBI. He sits 39th in total bases, 31st in extra-base hits and 77th in runs scored. He even threw in 234 career stolen bases. 

Knowing all this, why is he not automatic for the “I don’t care about PEDs” people?

Thanks in part to defense, relatively-low walk totals for most of his career, high strikeout totals and the heightened offensive environment while he played, numbers like WAR drag him down a bit. 

In terms of the JAWS system, Sosa ranks 18th all-time among right fielders and a bit below the Hall of Fame average. He’s ahead of some Hall of Famers there, including Dave Winfield, Enos Slaughter, Willie Keeler, Sam Rice and others. He’s also behind non-Hall members like Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith and, yes, Larry Walker. 

JAWS gives a boost for peak, too, so if we went to career WAR, Sosa drops to 23rd, behind players such as Gary Sheffield and Bobby Abreu. 

My stance on Sosa remains the same as it has ever been since he came onto the ballot. I’m only going to keep alleged “PED” guys off my ballot if they were caught and suspended once MLB put a system in place, so, for example, I’d be a no on Manny Ramirez on this ballot. Sosa doesn’t apply here, as he was never suspended for PEDs. I understand he falls slightly below the average standard on JAWS and WAR, but the gap there I make up with the “Fame” argument laid out above. His peak and counting stats shown above look like a Hall of Famer, too. 

He’d be in for me, but I certainly understand the strong arguments against. I respect them and they make sense. There’s always room for respectful disagreement.





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