Absent, shall we say, a complicating factor, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa would be ultra-mortal locks. Based on the numbers, there wouldn’t be the slightest hesitation in checking the box next to their names.
That quote comes from longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan in a piece the other day.
Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are three of the 23 new names on the Hall of Fame ballot this year (see Jim Caple's piece here) and the three are commonly grouped together for obvious reasons. But should they be? One of these numbers is not like the others:
Bonds: 158.1 Wins Above Replacement
Clemens: 133.9 Wins Above Replacement
Sosa: 54.8 Wins Above Replacement
Bonds and Clemens are all-timers -- they ranked third and seventh in our recent Hall of 100 survey -- while Sosa is clearly way behind them, at least in terms of statistical evaluation (he ranked 95th in the Hall of 100).
Sosa hit 609 career home runs but much of his value was packed into a remarkable five-year run from 1998 to 2002, in which he hit .306/.397/.649, averaged 58 home runs, 141 RBIs and 124 runs scored and won an MVP Award. He totaled 31.9 WAR over those five seasons, including 10.1 in 2001, when he hit 64 home runs, slugged .737 and drove in 160 runs.
Those weren't the only good seasons of Sosa's career. He was also a five-win player in 1995 and 1996, when he averaged 38 home runs and grades much better on defense (Baseball-Reference rates him third in the NL in 1995 in defensive WAR and second in 1996.) But Sosa didn't really get started until 1993, when he was 24 years old, and his last good season came in 2003, when he was 34, so we're talking about a relatively short span of productivity for a Hall of Famer, leading to his somewhat modest career WAR (modest by Hall of Fame standards, that is).
Let's compare him to other outfielders in the Hall of Fame and other prominent outfielders on this year's ballot.
So Sosa's case -- absent the PED cloud -- does hang on that peak run. As you can see, he easily created more runs compared to the average hitter of his era over those five seasons than the outfielders on the list. He may not have had the all-around game of Larry Walker or Carl Yastrzemski or the defensive ability of Kenny Lofton or Richie Ashburn, but for a few years there he mashed the ol' horsehide.
Still, it's a short peak, and Sosa doesn't have a lot to go around it. Historically, Hall of Fame voters have rewarded longevity over peak (with notable exceptions like Sandy Koufax or Bruce Sutter), but despite those 609 home runs, I see Sosa as a borderline Hall of Famer -- which, getting back to the Bob Ryan quote, puts him in a completely different class than Bonds or Clemens. Another strike against Sosa is that he wasn't exactly pushing the Cubs to glorious new heights -- they did win the wild card in 1998, but lost 95 games in 1999, 97 in 2000 and 95 in 2002. That's not Sosa's fault, of course, but you can argue that one aspect of greatness is playing on great team. By the time the Cubs returned to the postseason in 2003, Sosa had started to slide and rates as the fifth-best player on the club (behind four pitchers).
If I had a ballot this year, I'd probably want to vote for Sosa -- "fame" and historical significance and high peak barely putting him over the top, for me -- except I wouldn't be able to fit him on my ballot, as there are 10 other players I would rate higher.
Of course, in the end, it's a moot argument. Sosa and friends won't sniff the Hall of Fame this year, but his case wouldn't have been automatic even without the PED complications.