Last night, Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run, becoming just the fifth player in baseball history to do so. Ironically, he hit it against the Chicago Cubs, the team for whom he walloped 545 of those homers, including 243 over a four-year span. While that barrage arguably made him the game’s most popular player at the time, it has since raised numerous eyebrows as BALCO and other steroid scandals have come to light. Most famously, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly smugly challenged Sosa to pee in a cup to prove his innocence; when Sosa refused, Reilly wrote a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife column about it. Sosa, for his part, made a lackluster showing at the 2005 Congressional Steroid Circus, and many other writers treated his 2006 quasi-retirement as a de facto admission of guilt, working steroids into their narrative of his departure.
For all of the innuendo surrounding Sosa, there’s no smoking gun, and far less circumstantial evidence surrounding him than his two other contemporaries who crossed the 61-homer Maris threshold, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds (corked bats, on the other hand…). Earlier this year, reports surfaced via a leak that the dubious Mitchell Investigation had called for Sosa’s medical records; Mitchell refused comment as to any justification for doing so. In most quarters, that’s called a smear.
But enough about steroids for the moment. Multiple readers have asked me about Sosa’s JAWS case, so here goes. Coming into the year (working with January 2007 set again), Sosa had 103.1 career WARP3 and a seven-year peak total of 64.3, good for 83.7 JAWS. The average Hall of Fame rightfielder (including freshly-elected Tony Gwynn) scores 119.8/65.5/92.7, leaving Sosa significantly short on the career front, a consequence of him ceasing productivity after his Age 35 season. ESPN’s front page trumpets his 30-homer/131-RBI pace, but 12 homers into his comeback, Sosa’s hitting just .242/.297/.458, good for 0.7 WARP1, and a projection of 2.3 WARP3. In other words, he’s not helping his cause beyond padding his career totals and distracting the focus away from the Rangers’ myriad other problems.
Here’s how Sosa stacks up among rightfielders (* = BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer, ** = Veterans Committee-elected Hall of Famer:
Player Career Peak JAWS
Babe Ruth* 234.2 107.0 170.6
Hank Aaron* 209.9 85.0 147.5
Mel Ott* 175.8 84.8 130.3
Frank Robinson* 165.1 76.2 120.7
Al Kaline* 129.9 64.6 97.3
Roberto Clemente* 126.3 67.7 97.0
Paul Waner* 124.7 68.2 96.5
Tony Gwynn 124.4 68.4 96.4
Dave Winfield* 131.6 61.0 96.3
Reggie Jackson* 126.3 64.6 95.5
Gary Sheffield 120.2 68.0 94.1
Dwight Evans 119.1 63.0 91.1
Manny Ramirez 108.6 63.6 86.1
Sam Crawford** 112.3 57.3 84.8
Sammy Sosa 103.1 64.3 83.7
King Kelly** 103.3 64.0 83.7
Larry Walker 106.5 58.7 82.6
Enos Slaughter** 102.4 61.3 81.9
Harry Heilmann* 101.2 61.9 81.6
Willie Keeler* 102.3 59.4 80.9
That’s the top 20; seven VC selections are strewn among the next 43 spots in the rankings. If elected by the BBWAA, Sosa would hardly be the lowest-ranked rightfielder among that subset, and it’s worth noting that his peak score compares well with that of no-doubters like Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline. Still, he’s no lock according to JAWS.
That metric aside, Sosa’s shot at the Hall of Fame is up in the air. Cynics have suggested that his comeback is a means of deferring his day of judgment at the hands of the BBWAA, an electorate that granted McGwire just 23.5 percent of the vote in his first ballot appearance back in January despite otherwise solid credentials. Under the rosiest scenario, the five-year gap between retirement and appearance on the ballot may help put the so-called steroid era in better perspective, the lack of a smoking gun may trivialize the allegations against him, and the home runs will carry the day as they did back in 1998. But as McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and perhaps even Bonds reach the ballot before him, we may already know Sosa’s fate before any writer casts a vote.