Slammin’ Sammy

No one really knows what to think about Sammy Sosa. We used to. He was once every fan’s favorite player, Slammin’ Sammy, hitting home runs into orbit and celebrating by clapping for himself. In an era when players were criticized for showboating, Sammy was always let off the hook—he wasn’t showing off, he was celebrating because he loved the game, and the excitement.

He was the excitement. Until his production fell off.

We have a way of turning on people as soon as they lose a bit of their luster. When they’re successful, everyone is a fan; when they trip up, we always hated them. I call it the Britney Spears syndrome.

Sammy was a prime example. His first big year came in 1993, when Sosa hit 33 home runs and stole 36 bases. He had a lot of natural power, natural speed—and no one knew who the hell he was. From 1994 to 1997, here are Sosa’s home runs per 160 games (to adjust for the strike-shortened years): 38, 40, 52, 36. His stolen bases per 160 games: 34, 38, 23, 22.

Here we had a player with the best power/speed combination in the major leagues since Jose Canseco, and yet nobody was noticing. But Sosa was going to make them notice. He was going to take the leap.

It was May 25, 1998. Mark McGwire was lighting the world on fire. He had 24 home runs on the year, in only 45 games. Man was on pace for 85 homers. He wasn’t just going to break Roger Maris’ 37 year-old record; he was going to shatter it. McGwire was bringing the fans into the stands. A whopping 42,038 fans came to Busch Stadium to see him hit home run number 25 on the year that day against the Colorado Rockies. Exactly one year and one month prior, 29,675 fans showed up to watch the same matchup in the same stadium. But this time Big Mac was in the building.

Entering that day, Sammy had 9 home runs. He was hitting well, living up to the hefty four year, $42 million deal the Cubs had given him in the offseason. But that day, Sosa decided he didn’t want to be merely living. He didn’t want to be a mortal. He didn’t want to be Sammy Sosa. He wanted to be Slammin’ Sammy—America’s favorite hero. So he went out and hit 2 home runs, scoring the only 2 runs Kevin Millwood would allow in an otherwise stellar 7 innings of work that day.

The Cubs had a day off the 26th but the next day, Sosa hit 2 more home runs. He didn’t hit any on the 28th, but then he hammered another 2 homers the next game, June 1. On the 2nd, he was once again held homer-less. Are you sensing a pattern? Well, on June 3, Sosa only hit 1 home run, and, in order to balance things out, he hit 1 the next day, and the next day, and the next, until he had a 5-game home run streak going. Then he rested.

Going into the All Star Game, Sammy had 33 home runs; 20 in the month of June alone. He was hot as a firecracker, suddenly only 4 behind McGwire. America prepared itself for a race. They were going to be racing against Maris, against each other, and possibly against some other contender, like Greg Vaughn or Ken Griffey Jr. In a game with no clock, there sure was a lot of rushing to the finish line going on.

And with Sosa and McGwire chasing the record, the two were going to meet head-to-head as history was being made. In the second week of September, the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs met for a two game series in St. Louis. It was only two months after the All Star game, and the gap had narrowed even further. McGwire had 60 Home Runs; Sosa 58.

Sammy would be held homer-less those two games. McGwire would tie Maris in the first game. He would beat him in the second. Less than a week later, five days to be exact, Sosa too would pass Maris, first hitting his 61st in the fifth inning, then his 62nd in the ninth.

Sosa hit 66 home runs in all that year. He hit 63 the next, then 50, 64, and 49. The three years he hit 60+ home runs, Sosa finished second in the league each time. The other two seasons, he led the league.

But the strange, in many ways unlucky, twists in Sammy’s career did not end there. He started to struggle with his health, playing 137 games in 2003 and 126 in 2004. His power started declining. And then, it happened. The tipping point. Sosa’s fall from grace. He cheated.

It was June 3, 2003. Sammy was struggling. He had only 6 home runs on the season, and his slugging percentage in May had been a paltry .357. The man was losing it. So he did something stupid. He went out onto the playing field with a corked bat. The bat broke. He was suspended. If he was willing to go this far to regain his power, Americans asked, what else would he be willing to do?

Steroids had taken over the game in the previous decade. In 2003, after a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed, players were being tested for the first time. Enough players tested positive that season that a permanent testing policy was put into place, with punishments and everything.

But Congress decided that the policy sucked, and so it gathered five current and former major leaguers at a hearing just a year ago. Sammy was one of them. He spoke terrible English—much worse than his true level—and Congress left him alone for the most part. He was acting; why was he so afraid? Screw innocent until proven guilty, America decided: The man cheated. He was officially branded: Steroid User.

Here’s where the objective statistician in me comes out. Did he cheat? Do we have any evidence of it? Here’s the evidence most would present: 33, 25, 36, 40, 36, 66. One of those numbers doesn’t fit. Sosa was clearly a 30-40 Home Run hitter before 1998. What changed? Must be ‘roids.

I don’t buy it. Let me present to you another set of numbers: 47, 43, 44, 57, 40, 66. Those are the number of Home Runs Sosa hit between 1993 and 1998 if you adjust the number of pitches he saw each season to his ’98 level, and if you adjust for the home run-happy atmosphere of ’98.

To me, Sosa’s jump in home runs wasn’t so unnatural; it was only 9 better than his previous best, which might be expected at a player’s peak. To me, his jump in home runs was more due to the overall rise in home run hitting in all of baseball, and increased selectivity at the plate. The first point is obvious, the second you could argue with. Maybe, you could say, he was seeing more pitches because he was being pitched around more, pitchers were afraid of him. Maybe, but he was also obviously being more selective. Hopefully, the two cancel out.

But, you might point out, Sosa had two more seasons of 60+ home runs. No one has ever done that. Again, if we adjust for these two things, you’ll see that his 60+ home run seasons weren’t really 60+ home run seasons; in fact, they were in-line with the rest of his career. Let me present all of this in graph-form, to make it easier to see.

image

The green line represents Sosa’s adjusted home run totals; the blue represents his raw home run numbers. If you look at the green line, you’ll see a player who gained power as he got older, peaking in 1998 and then gradually falling back down. You’d see a player who hit at high home run levels for a long time: from 1993 to 2004. If you look at his actual home run totals, as everyone does, you’ll see a player whose power went up sharply in 1998 and then fell precipitously after a few years at astronomical levels.

That’s where most people get confused. It wasn’t that Sosa was taking steroids, it was just a perfect storm of changing league conditions and a new philosophy at the plate. Sammy was slammin’ nothing but home runs.

So where does he stand now? I personally will remember the man with 588 home runs. The man who infatuated a nation with a hop, skip, and a jump. Slammin’ Sammy.

But I doubt that most of America is on the same page. Whereas I see the green line, they see the blue. They see a hero who rose to the top, and then fell just as quickly. They see a bat-corker and steroid user.

It’s America, after all. We love you when you’re great, but let us down, and we’ll turn on you in a second. Sammy wants to retire now, but maybe it’s not that he can no longer play. Maybe it’s not that without steroids, he’s a nobody.

Maybe it’s that he’s a somebody, and we’re chasing him off the field.

References & Resources
Retrosheet, the greatest website in the world (except for THT, of course).

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