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What if? Sammy Sosa

Today, I'm going to examine a common assumption: that Sammy Sosa started using PEDs in 1998. That year, he went from being good to great, and his numbers were "artificially inflated." People assume Sosa wasn't actually that good because the majority of his home runs wouldn't have happened had he not been juicing.

The major argument against Sammy Sosa being in the Hall of Fame is that his game was based around his power. If that power was infused with PEDs, then it's not nearly as impressive. So if we estimate that PEDs helped him hit a certain number of home runs, those career statistics aren't nearly as impressive. I'm going to try and determine what his numbers would be if he maintained the same career path without the assumption of PEDs.

The main evidence against Sammy Sosa is his jump in home runs from '97 to '98: 36 to 66. It's suspicious. But as always with baseball, you can't just rely on one statistic to tell the whole story.

These are the raw numbers I'll be digesting today. Feel free to skip by for now and then reference them later.

Sammy Sosa's career path is an uneven one. Sosa comes up as a young player. Decent power and speed, but low contact. Too many Ks, reasonable walk rate, but makes too little contact. He finds himself traded twice and onto the Cubs in '92. In '93, as a 24 year old, he starts to put it together. He still strikes out too much, but his batting averages goes the .230s to the .270s. OBP from under .300 to .330. SLG from .390s to .510. He'll steal a few bags, gets thrown out too much. Essentially, he becomes a reasonable big leaguer who takes too many risks for not enough reward.

In 1996, he takes the next step forward at age 27. He has a career year cut short by injury. The .888 OPS is a tad higher than his previous high. His then career best SLG is .564 is 20th in baseball. He has 40 home runs in 124 games, a full 162 game pace for 52. He's basically coming into his peak, before the injury.

1997 becomes a nightmare. His RC+ plunges to below league average as his K rate spikes, power drops, and just never quite figures it out. He still hits 36 home runs in a full season, but it's a year of struggles. Mentally, he seems to be in a fog most of the year and reverts back to a lot of his early career tendencies.

Then 1998 happens, his age 29 year. 66 long balls, a walk rate goes from 6.5% average to over 10. His stats remain like this for 5 years, then level off his last few years. In his peak, he sets the record for most home runs over a 5 year span. This peak is what generates his hall of fame candidacy, as the video game numbers boost him into the stratosphere as other HOFers. This peak also leads to suspicion. He goes from 36 home runs to nearly double at 66. His previous high was 40. Because of that one number, steroids are assumed.

Overall career numbers: 609 home runs, 234 SBs, 1,475 R, and 1,667 RBI. Solid numbers that are middle of the pack compared to other HOF outfielders. Except the home runs, which is 9th best overall and 6th among OFs.

Basically, his career stats are padded because of the 5 year peak. But what if that peak was PED fused? We should try to reduce his numbers for potential steroid use. I'm going to kind of throw out 97 since it was an outlier year in terms of struggle. I'll be basing his baseline stats off his 1996 peak, which theoretically he should be able to maintain.

The big jumps in statistics include:

-RC+ 127 ('94), 122, 127, 99, 160 ('98). Fairly consistent before the dip and spike.

-BB% 5.5 ('94) 9.2, 6.3, 6.5, 11.9 ('98) Fairly consistent, but had spiked in 1994 before his MVP 1998.

-AB/HR 12.5 in 96, 9.5 in 98. Another spike, but not as major as I might have guessed.

-HR% 7.4 in '96, 9.1% in '98. So a 1.5% bump from previous career high to his rise in '98.

-HR/FB: 21% in '96. 26.5% in 98 (career high). Also note rates of 25.5%, 19.7%, 25.8%, and 22.3% for '99-'02. Career average 18.6%. Definitely a bump up in how many of his fly balls left the yard, but his 1996 rate is in line with 2 years during the alleged PED peak. Kind of surprising considering how one might assume that PED infused strength would cause an increased rate.

-IF/FB 19% average from 93-97, 13% in '98 on (on average). It then averages 13% for the rest of his career. I'm not sure if this statistic is because the juice makes infield popups fly further, or because he figured out how to square the ball up better. My hunch is the later.

-RC+ 125 in '96. 159 in '98. From a great hitter to an insane one.

-ISO: '96 was .291, '97 was .229, and '98 was .339. His power exploded.

Not big jumps from previous career marks to post boom Sosa:

-BABIP: .329 ('94) .290, .293, .286, .321 ('98), .295, .363 ('00), .336, .302. His best years had the best BABIP, no surprise. But it's not like most of his BABIPs were outliers. There was a definite increase from pre '98 to post, but it's not as sharp as I'd expect. Keep in mind that HRs do not count as hits towards BABIP since technically they have left play.

-XBH% 11.7% in 96. 11.9% in '98. Another surprising stat that helps indicate that Sosa's 1998 might not have been PED infused. His doubles might have been leaving the park, but this figure clearly indicates that he already had extra base hit abilities.

-GB/FB: '96 .57, 97 .90, '98 .67, '99 .61. These numbers show part of Sosa's struggles in 1997. Too many ground balls, where he hits much less when he was on. the .04 difference between his solid '96 and great '99 is surprisingly small.

Overall, these metrics don't quite give us as clear circumstantial PED evidence as going from 36 home runs to 66. There's certainly an increase in most stats with Sammy's 1998, but most of these underlying numbers don't stand out as a suspicious spike as the extra 30 home runs. Sammy maintains his innocence in using PEDs, and if you ignore the home runs, there just isn't quite the same smoking gun. But none the less, let's compare his rates from his 5 year HOF peak to his previous career best year of 1996. Here's where I will ding the stats for his assumptive guilt of juicing from 1998 to 2002.

HR rate:

Maintaining Sosa's '96 rate of 12.5 AB per home run, his HRs per season drop like this by multiplying the '96 rate for his ABs for the 5 year peak:

98: 66->51

99: 63->50

00: 50->48

01: 64->46

02: 49->44

Overall, he loses 53 Home Runs for a grand total of 556. 9th all time to 15th (assuming nobody else gets dinged).


In 1996, he needed 5 ABs for an RBI. Apply that same rate to his peak and we get:

98: 158->128





Overall, down 113 RBI, From 1,667 and 31st overall to 1,554 and 47th. Once again assuming we don't ding anybody else.


In 1996, Sosa scored 84 runs in 498 ABs, or a 5.92 ABs to R ratio:

98: 134->109

99: 114->106

00: 106->102

01: 146->97

02: 122->87

Overall down 121 R, 78th with 1475 to 1,354 and tied for 110th.

Overall, Sammy loses basically a full year's worth of production. 53 HRs, 113 RBI and 121 R. Honestly, It's a bit less than I would have assumed. Most of his career counting stats maintain their HOF worthiness.

Not that my ideas are foolproof. If Sammy is hitting less home runs, perhaps he won't be walked as much, which will affect the stats per AB approach I took. Maybe Sammy juiced before 1998. Maybe he figured out how to drive the ball that year. Maybe he learned to lay off more junk. Maybe he matured in his approach. Maybe he laid off the juice in '97. We'll never know. But by this examination, Sammy Sosa's 1998-2002 peak does not appear to be as big of an outlier as the home run jump indicates. He certainly got better, but most of his stats are reasonably close to how his career was shaping up to be.

Just to put it in perspective, here's a list of Sosa's percentage increase from '96 to '98 on 3 key stats:

HR% 1.6%, BB% 3.7%, HR/FB 5.2%.

Here's Javy Baez for the same stats from '16 to '18, as he matured from a free swinger into an MVP candidate.

HR% 2.2%, BB% 1.2% HR/FB 6.5%

We've seen other players in the post steroid era have larger jumps in production than Sammy Sosa did. Perhaps I'll make a list someday. But for now, please understand my main point.

There is not clear cut statistical evidence that Sammy Sosa's incredible peak was because of steroids.


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