Trying to Make Sense of Sammy Sosa’s Floundering HOF Odds

As Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens sneak ever closer to the magic 75% threshold that would ensure their Hall of Fame enshrinement, I have to wonder a bit about former Cubs star Sammy Sosa. Although I’ve never been the guy who gets worked up about BBWAA voting, the fact that Bonds and Clemens have become more and more accepted by voters while Sosa has not leaves me scratching my head a bit.

Not everybody is the same, and that’s fine. But how do Bonds and Clemens appear on upwards of 70% of the ballots while Sosa hovers around 23%?

For example, St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist and Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold put Bonds and Clemens on his ballot while excluding Sosa. Notably, Bobby Abreu also earned Goold’s vote despite being a major longshot at just 16% as of this writing. Goold also voted for Todd Helton, who is unlikely to be enshrined in 2021 at just 54.6%.

This isn’t intended to ridicule Goold’s choices, it’s just an easy example. What argument exists for a ballot that includes Bonds, Clemens, Abreu, and Helton but not Sosa? To vote for Bonds and Clemens, the first thing you would need to do is admit to yourself that PEDs alone aren’t enough to disqualify a player. But to exclude Sosa, you’d need PEDs to play some role in your decision-making.

Abreu is the best example of why this is true. Performance-enhancing beliefs aside, Sosa (609 home runs, 127 OPS+, 60.1 WAR) was as good as or better than Abreu (288 homers, a 127 OPS+, and 59.8 WAR). If you’re completely disregarding steroids and voting for Abreu, I don’t see how you can exclude Sosa from your ballot.

It’s possible that a voter could view Sosa’s gaudy numbers as heavily related to PEDs, whereas an argument exists that Bonds and Clemens were worthy Hall of Famers prior to juicing up. But there’s a problem with this line of thought.

When, exactly, did Bonds and Clemens start using PEDs?

With Bonds, the earliest known date of use was 1998. If this is true, the case for Bonds becomes more clear. He was putting up Hall-worthy numbers well before the ’98 season. But he also didn’t begin to put up the truly eye-popping numbers we associate with his steroid use until 2001, when he hit a record 73 homers. If he did begin taking PEDs in ’98, then there are at least two seasons where he was juicing prior to the aforementioned 2001 season.

Bonds had a 175 OPS+ in 1999 and 2000 as compared to an aggregate 177 over the four previous seasons. So just because the earliest known instance of PED usage is 1998 doesn’t mean he wasn’t using them prior, and therefore we can only make an assumption that Bonds would’ve been in the Hall of Fame without steroids.

With Clemens, the presumed start of PED usage is even more harder to pin down. We know that his former trainer, Brian McNamee, produced evidence for the federal government that contained Clemens’s DNA and traces of anabolic steroids. The timeline shows that Clemens began using PEDs as early as 1998, which would also make him a strong candidate for the Hall based on his career stats prior to that point. But Clemens may have lied under oath about using PEDs at all, so everything is pretty murky.

The point is that we simply don’t know when these guys starting using PEDs. The same goes for Sosa, who has disputed the report that he tested positive in 2003 and who otherwise has never been tied to any physical evidence of steroid use. Well, other than the eye test.

There’s an argument that while Bonds and Clemens put together Hall of Fame résumés over the course of their long careers, Sosa’s is heavily tied to a questionable five-year period of utter dominance. This is true; Sosa had a 167 OPS+ with an average of 58 home runs per season from 1998-2002. The steroid suspicion makes it even easier to simply discount that whole period.

But the same argument could go against Helton. The former Rockies first baseman had a similar five-year stretch from 2000-2004, posting a 160 OPS+ and batting .349 while playing half his games at Coors Field. If you subtract that run of dominance, Helton’s 117 OPS+ for the remaining 12 years of his career isn’t quite good enough, is it?

His offensive surge running parallel to the likes of Sosa, Bonds, Mark McGwire, and others has to be looked at critically.

The last point is the “character clause,” which is open to interpretation by voters. Some writers, like Forbes’s Phil Rogers, choose to ignore poor character entirely in their voting process. Others will cast aside any player with a poor reputation as a teammate, a history of violence, etc.

Even setting aside PED suspicion, Sosa’s case is made more difficult by an accusation of domestic violence by his first wife, Karen Lee Bright, back in 1990. Although the allegations went away quietly and nothing was ever proven, that fact shouldn’t be simply discarded.

On the teammate front, it’s well known that Sosa was a me-first kind of guy. He often said the right things to the media in terms of winning, but he cared most about socking a few dingers and building his brand. There’s a reason an “unnamed” Cubs teammate took a bat to Sosa’s infamous boombox on the final day of the 2004 regular season. Sosa wanted the fans to love him, but the team had to pry him out of his home in South Florida to get him to the annual Cubs Convention in January.

However, if being an egomaniac and a questionable teammate was enough to exclude great players from the Hall of Fame, its ranks would be a lot smaller. And going back to our example above, Goold voted for Curt Schilling. So, go ahead and negate the character clause in this case.

Again, take this as more of a thought exercise than an attack on Goold, who is an excellent writer and a thoughtful individual – even if you can’t look past his proximity to the Cardinals. Whether you believe Sosa should be in Cooperstown or not really isn’t the point, and I’m not trying to persuade you one way or the other.

Determining which players should be in the Hall is not a job I want because the mental gymnastics involved are enough to tie your brain in a metaphorical pretzel. I’m just trying to understand why some players seem to get the benefit of the doubt when Sosa frequently does not.

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