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World Series 2009: Grab Your Helmets

[The series heads to NY with the Yanks leading the Phils 3-2.]

Chase Utley better borrow Brian Westbrook’s helmet when he goes to the plate Wednesday night. If I was his opponent, I’d throw at him. Somewhere Alex Rodriguez has got to be making some noise about his pitchers protecting the not-so-loveable third baseman—and their ERAs—by making some Phils dance in the box. Apparently, that warning the umps issued after Blanton plunked A-Rod had a longer-than-usual expiration date, because it spilled over into Game 5. I disagree with Tim McCarver; Joe Blanton lined up A-Rod like gunslinger eyeing a silhouette with a ten gallon hat in his crosshairs. It was a purpose pitch with a capital P.

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I remember how ultra-historic it felt to witness Reggie Jackson hit those three home runs on three pitches in the ’77 series. I was never a big fan of #44 because of his “I’m the straw” attitude. But I was a huge fan that night. It seems like Utley matching Reggie’s incredible feat of five homers in a single World Series hasn’t registered. We’re too distracted trying to figure out other things—like who’s starting Game 7. The prophesy Joe Morgan made during Utley’s explosive, 25-homer first half of 2008—that he could become the greatest hitting second baseman ever—just got a brand new set of wheels and is geared for the long haul.

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I love the peek of the catcher’s signs. How cool is it to know something the batter doesn’t? Seeing Sabathia shake off his hook for the heater in Game 1 against Utley, then watching that heat go yard, was priceless.

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If Pedro does his job in Game 6 and delivers us to Game 7, and considering Cliff Lee’s performance, the MVP of the series should go to…rookie GM Ruben Amaro Jr. If the Yanks win, the award should go to the screwed-up economy of baseball. The way they were able to dig into their pockets for, oh, about a quarter of a billion dollars or so to fill in “some gaps” last winter doesn’t do much for the spirit of FAIR COMPETITION. Of course the team is talented! It’s like holding a fantasy draft and owning the top five picks, without losing any picks in the later rounds!

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Was Shane Victorino really sacrificing when he took a hard one to the knuckle in the first inning? With this lineup? Who did Manuel think was batting, Tito Fuentes? Charlie, please don’t ever do that again, unless that’s the only run you are interested in getting.

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It was weak for Joe Buck and Ken Rosenthal to bring up the Cole Hamels quote without including the all-important context, regardless of how stupid it was for Hamels to utter those words. It was like they wanted to start their own little bonfire of a story to see if it would catch into the trees. Cole definitely has some issues, like the fact that his threshold for getting frazzled has now been reduced to finding a stitch out of place on the baseball. But please, Joe and Ken, read the rest of your notes.

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Rosenthal photo from http://thesportshernia.typepad.com/

World Series Bluff Sends Johnny to the Bench

Fans of baseball, more than any other sport, seem to treat the game like family. No matter how many times it embarrasses or disappoints us, we’re still willing to welcome it back into our living rooms.

Why is that? My theory is that our unconditional love of the game stems from the memories we’ve stashed inside the neural closets of our minds from when we were kids. It’s that nostalgic sense that something’s been with us our entire lives. Like Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) said to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”

A classic gem from my streaming collection of favorite baseball memories happened during the 1972 World Series. It featured a unique slight of hand that was pulled off under the game’s brightest lights.

In that ’72 series, the Oakland A’s were up two games to none against the Cincinnati Reds. The future Big Red machine held a 1-0 lead in Game 3 going into the top of the eighth. Oakland pitcher Vida Blue, a disappointing 6-10 that season after sweeping the AL Cy Young and MVP awards the year before, was in relief of starter John “Blue Moon” Odom. After Pete Rose led off with a lineout, Joe Morgan worked a walk, one of his many specialties. Bobby Tolan followed with a single to centerfield, with Morgan taking third on the hit. That was all for Blue, with Oakland manager Dick Williams waving Rollie Fingers into the game to face one of the biggest slugging stars of the day, Johnny Bench.

johnnybench

Later that fall, young Bench would collect his second NL MVP award and fifth Gold Glove, all before turning 25. In the meantime, here he was digging into the batter’s box smack in the middle of a key World Series moment against a future Hall of Famer, with his team down in the series but holding the slimmest of margins in the game.

Tolan, who stole 42 bases that season, immediately swiped second, an event which opened up some options for the A’s. First base was now open with one out and Tony Perez on deck. Bench had already been caught looking at a third strike twice in the game.

The A’s elected to go after Bench. But strangely, when the count reached 3-2, Dick Williams sprung from the dugout to hold a conference on the mound. What could he have possibly been talking about with a 3-2 count? Apparently, Williams had second thoughts. He held up four fingers then walked back to the dugout. They apparently decided to walk Bench after all. Behind the plate, catcher Gene Tenace repeated the four-finger sign as he held his arm wide for the 3-2 pitch from Fingers.

Suddenly, Tenace ducked behind the plate just as Fingers was delivering. Despite Morgan’s desperate yell from third to “be alive,” Bench froze—dumbstruck with confusion—as the ball found the outside part of the plate for strike three. Bench went down looking a third straight time. Fingers called the pitch “the best slider I’ve ever thrown.”

After the Bench strikeout, the A’s got out of the jam by intentionally walking Perez, then getting Denis Menke to popup. Although the Reds held on to win the game 1-0, the A’s eventually won the series four games to three.

As a baseball maneuver, you have to believe Oakland’s bluff could never happen again. And it took a prestigious cast to pull it off. Manager Dick Williams was the brainchild behind the scheme, with Rollie Fingers his executor. Johnny Bench, ironically one of the most intelligent catchers ever, played the victim while Joe Morgan stood 90 feet away as the helpless bystander. Tony Perez, on deck while Bench was at the plate, was hot enough during the series—five hits in 10 at bats—to influence the decisions that were made. All five are now Hall of Famers.

As a young boy watching the drama unfold on TV, I remember it being the coolest thing I ever saw in baseball. Might still be.

- John Cappello

>>> Recollection assisted by John B. Holway’s article in the October 1992 issue of Baseball Digest, as well as the play-by-play logs at BaseballReference.com.

Drama King

So I’m sitting in the stands at Game 4 of the NLCS in Philly. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and Jimmy Rollins is up with two on and two out—and I’m having the surreal moment of my life. Leaning back on my retracted seat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch. Out maker or party starter? It was as if my very young blogging career had quickly arrived at the front step of judgment’s door.

The beautiful panoramic view of Citizens Bank Park 28 rows up from behind the Dodger dugout was breath-taking. The blimp with its jumbo display floated across the sky. Thousands of white towels waved nervously. Over in the left-field stands, J-Roll’s face was all over the huge video board, and I swear his eyes are looking at me saying, “Don’t worry, JC, I will be starting THIS party tonight.” Then came the 1-1 pitch from Jonathan “100mph” Broxton. Bam! The sight of the baseball’s scorching trajectory toward right-center was a millisecond in time I will never forget (glad I watched). What followed was a crazed exhibition of hugging, screaming, moshing, and texting that felt like a World Series celebration.

Hold that thought, Phils.

Jimmy Rollins: Out Maker or Party Starter?

Number crunchers call him an “out maker.” But that’s not keeping J-Roll from helping the Philadelphia Phillies become an offensive powerhouse.

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It’s baseball’s newest insult, along the lines of being labeled “one-dimensional” or having “warning track power.”

The Out Maker.

Baseball followers have grown to the idea that “not making outs” at the plate is the most effective mindset for creating runs, winning games, and judging a batter’s true offensive worth. Actually, sabermetricians have been preaching the theory for years. It just took Michael Lewis’ Moneyball to get it mainstream. Getting on base any which way, which places a high value on drawing a walk, is the key to sustaining a rally and increasing the probability of scoring.

Those who don’t comply are branded as “out makers.” In some circles, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Omar Moreno is king of the out makers for holding the record for most offensive outs made* in a season (560 in 1980) along with two other top-ten finishes. I personally think someone like shortstop Ed Brinkman is more worthy of this dubious title. At least Moreno walked 81 times one year, had 196 hits in another, and possessed all kinds of worldly speed. Brinkman, on the other hand, brought absolutely zilch to the table offensively. In 15 seasons, he batted .224 with an on-base percentage (OBP) of .280 and a slugging percentage (SLG) of .300—and he was even caught stealing 35 times out of 65 attempts. This guy gave away outs on offense like they were hot dogs at Dollar Dog Night. But he was also a deluxe out maker at shortstop, which is how he hung around long enough to accumulate 6,640 plate appearances.

For years, fans and experts have been harping that Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins makes too many outs. Even winning league MVP in 2007 and a World Championship in 2008 couldn’t calm his detractors. Though he has cut down on his excessive strikeout totals from his first three seasons, the charges against him are all too familiar: He doesn’t get on base enough. He doesn’t work a count. He doesn’t bunt and use his speed. And when he goes into a funk, he gets into “drunken Samurai” mode, slicing and dicing at pitches until the base hits start to fall instead of being more selective.

The “problem” with Jimmy is that he’s not following the stereotype. Undersized at 5’8″ and blessed with blazing speed, the switch-hitting, offensive-minded shortstop has been atop the Phillies batting order for nine years now shouldering the damning title of “leadoff hitter,” a role critics expect him to fill in a certain way. If you listen long enough to their gripes about his shortcomings, you might come away thinking that Jimmy Rollins just doesn’t do his job very well.

He was viewed as a “flawed” MVP in 2007, despite embodying the very definition of what an MVP winner is supposed to be about. He led the Phillies to their first post-season trip in 14 years by winning his first Gold Glove at shortstop and throwing up a dizzying explosion of offensive production: 139 runs scored, 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, and 41 steals out of 47 attempts. One of the arguments was that Jimmy’s lustful EBH line of 38-20-30 isn’t as impressive if you consider the plate appearances it took to accumulate them—778—a major league record. Yet, Sunny Jim Bottomley in 1928 is the only other time a player cracked 30-20-30 in a season. The team of baseball thinkers at Baseball Prospectus used their own smorgasbord of statistical benchmarks and ranked Rollins sixth in that ’07 MVP race, hammering the point that his .344 OBP wasn’t even close to those of the other candidates.

After a dismal .229 first half in 2009, Rollins rebounded nicely during the second half to help get the Phillies to their third-consecutive playoffs. But that didn’t stop online discussion groups from shouting “out maker” after Jimmy recorded his sixth 500-out season of his career. One SABR member went as far as to observe that Rollins had “the equivalent of a hitless season,” slyly noting that Rollins made more outs than the minimum number of plate appearances required to claim a batting title, 502. Just like that, the positive notes to J-Roll’s 2009 season—100 runs scored, 43 doubles, 21 home runs, and 31 stolen bases in 39 attempts—were tossed aside like last week’s leftovers.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Rollins still ain’t gettin’ the respect.

There’s more. In their 2009 Baseball Playoff Preview, The Sporting News graded the leadoff hitters of the eight playoff-bound teams and squashed J-Roll at the bottom of the barrel, saying “he is capable of greatness, but his on-base percentage this season (.296) was anemic and he led the majors in outs made.”

Rollins does make a ton of outs. The reasons are fairly obvious. He leads off and comes to play every day, so he accumulates an inordinate number of plate appearances. And, of course, he avoids walks like an eight-year-old would broccoli. But is this degrading label of “out maker” really justified for this talented and valuable shortstop?

Taken individually, a walk is not nearly as good as a hit. A walk sets up the potential to score a run, but you still have three bases to go before you cross the plate. A walk doesn’t advance baserunners except if first base is already occupied. Base hits, especially those that go for extra bases, are more of an immediate impact on scoring runs; they are more effective in chasing runs home, and standing on second or third after a double or triple is much closer to home than being on first after a walk.

But there is context to when it pays to walk, especially at the top of the order. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin chew through real and simulated baseball data to support the theory that walks are very important to leadoff hitters. They also mention that leadoff hitters and home runs aren’t such a great combination, if it means sacrificing selectivity. Why is this? The leadoff hitter will, more often than any other hitter in the lineup, bat with nobody on base and bat with nobody out, because they are most often leading off the inning or following the lineup’s weakest hitters. Walks are valued in those situations because with nobody out, there is time to get that runner to score—where “time” is measured in outs.

We know J-Roll likes to jack a ball out on occasion; it’s part of his arsenal. Unfortunately, home runs are valued least in the leadoff position than any other lineup spot, as The Book states, again because the odds are nobody will be on base. Not that if a home run occurs, the Phillies should send Rollins back to the plate to try again. But if a leadoff hitter sacrifices a bevy of walks trying to launch a rare four-bagger, that’s just not good team play.

So according to baseball theory, Rollins is a mismatch for batting leadoff on at least two counts. But the guy must be doing something right. Because if he doesn’t stop doing what he’s doing, he just might play his way right into the Hall of Fame.

Rollins will turn 31 the day after Thanksgiving. At the pace he’s been going, he’ll carve out a delicious set of lifetime statistics by the time he’s through that will one day place him among the most productive middle-infielders ever.

Check out his total bases. Rollins is on pace to accumulate more TBs than every Philadelphia Phillie in history, even “the greatest third baseman who ever played,” Mike Schmidt, who is currently the Phillies career leader by far (Schmidt: 4,404, Delahanty: 3,230). With 2,607 total bases entering the 2010 season, Rollins could eclipse Schmidt in 2016 by averaging 257 TBs a year over the next seven years (he has averaged 287 TBs per full season so far).

Let’s project a few other numbers. Let’s assume that over the next five seasons, Rollins will put up stats that reflect his average production over the past five seasons. We’ll throw an aging factor into the mix and knock that production down to 85% over those five seasons. We do this because Rollins is already past a ballplayer’s typical peak age of 27, a number Bill James and numerous researchers have come up with in separate studies. Next, we’ll degrade that same production to 65% between ages 36 and 37, and then 50% between 38 and 40. We’ll call it a career at 40. It’s a conservative look, considering that many stars—including Schmidt, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth—produced to their norm through age 37. We’re not using any trends here, so we’re not going to postulate that J-Roll’s ’08 and ’09 seasons are indicative of some type of early career decline.

Jimmy’s projected lifetime totals then become:

The Projected Career Totals for Jimmy Rollins

(2000–2019)

Statistic

Career Total

All-Time Rank

H

2,928

35

R

1,730

22

2B

635

10

3B

171

25

HR

286

141

TB

4,761

27

RBI

1,138

169

SB

602

18

It will all depend on J-Roll’s longevity, but you have to admit that this is a historically impressive suite of numbers for an elite-fielding shortstop. Let’s round-down these accumulating numbers to even more conservative totals for our “projected” Rollins:

2,800 hits, 1,500 runs, 500 doubles, 125 triples, 250 home runs, 400 stolen bases

Trivia question time. What players in baseball history have reached all of these numbers for their career?

Answer: No one.

Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker lacked the homers (they had 117 each), although they did play half their careers during the Dead Ball Era. Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, and Paul Molitor fell short on the triples. Honus Wagner was 34 hits shy. Several other no-names (Ruth, Mays, Musial, Yount, Brett, Hornsby, and Simmons) didn’t have the steals.

If you’re surprised that Rollins has been doing all this before your very eyes, you are probably still numb from the way his approach at the plate has been knocked almost as much as Michael Vick’s character. It’s that darn OBP. How could someone so guilty still be so good? Is OBP overrated in his case?

I don’t disagree with the beauty of how OBP, along with SLG, capture a player’s overall offensive contribution neatly using two easy-to-calculate numbers. That’s why the stat OPS (OBP+SLG) was created. But it makes you wonder whether somewhere along this line of judging a player’s overall value, that Rollins is somehow getting screwed. This “out maker” stuff has the slightly negative connotation that a player has been fairly useless with the bat in his hands. This same school of thought has labeled Pete Rose as one of the most over-rated players in history—a mighty hard sell for many fans who watched Rose pull his teams to championships while collecting 4,256 hits along the way.

In theory, maybe J-Roll does belong in the sixth spot of the batting order, where it’s not as important to get on base, and his extra-base tendencies are better utilized behind the stronger middle portion of the Phillies lineup. Then again, maybe in a lineup as potent as the Phillies—they led the National League in runs, HRs, and SLG in ’09—which position Rollins bats in isn’t all that important.

But something appears to be working with J-Roll at the top. Many Phillie players are quick to admit that “as Jimmy goes, so do we.” There are numbers that seem to back up this claim. In 2009, the Phillies scored 36% more runs per inning when Rollins led off an inning—regardless of whether he reached base—than if any other Phillie led off. The number jumps to 180% if Rollins got on base in that scenario. No other primary leadoff hitter in the National League matched this type of influence on his team’s run-scoring success in ’09. So apparently, even in a “down” year for him, as Jimmy goes, so do the Phils.

But as with matches, we have to be careful with statistics or else we can get burned. Thinking this through a little more, I realized that when Rollins leads off an inning, Victorino, Utley, and Howard are sure to follow, whether Jimmy gets on or not. Any statistic that gauges a team’s success based on when Rollins leads off is as much a reflection of the Phillies’ heart of their order as it is of Rollins. It might seem that Rollins makes the Phillies go, but there are mutual forces involved here. How his teammates perform behind him significantly impacts his apparent effectiveness as a leadoff hitter.

For now, let’s just say Rollins and his teammates need each other. We’re not quite sure who needs whom more, but the combination has been dynamite. Ever since the Phillies started building the team around Rollins starting back in his All-star rookie season in 2001, the team has climbed the mountain of success, culminating with their title in 2008. The Phillies are not only looking strong in defending their title this fall, they are young enough to compete for the championship with the same nucleus for the next few years. It’s hard to argue against the perception that through it all Rollins has been the straw that stirs the drink, the glue that holds the pieces together—whatever irreplaceable agent you can think of—in this entire Philly operation.

When you consider his sterling defense at a demanding position in the field, Rollins is the total package. With that gun on his shoulder, his quickness, and consistency with the glove, J-Roll could be the best fielding shortstop the Phillies ever had. Having seen Larry Bowa play during the 1970s, I thought I’d never say that. Before you start thinking that a third consecutive Gold Glove is in the bag for Rollins this year, keep in mind that he batted just .250 with a .296 OBP. Yeah, yeah, the Gold Glove is supposed to be just for defense, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how they vote. Watch for Troy Tulowitzki to give Rollins a battle for the award after coming back strong with the bat this year.

Sabermetrics helps us see things in baseball we normally can’t see. It tells us that Jimmy Rollins is a bad choice for a leadoff man. But that shouldn’t distract us from appreciating J-Roll’s overall game as an exciting conglomerate of laser line-drives, lightning on the basepaths, and a shut-down defense that is very valuable to the Philadelphia Phillies. He and the Phillies have already picked up ample hardware for their trophy cases—and they just might be heading toward even bigger and more rewarding days.

- JDC

*Offensive Outs Made = (AB–H)+GIDP+SF+SH+CS  (baseball-reference.com)

THE SOURCES

  • Fagan, Ryan. “Strong arms…and bats and gloves,” The Sporting News, October 12, 2009
  • Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, W.W. Norton and Company, 2004
  • Sheehan, Joe. “Prospectus Today: NL MVP,” www.BaseballProspectus.com, November 20, 2007
  • Tango, Tom M., Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Potomac Books, 2007
  • www.baseball-reference.com
  • www.billjamesonline.com

Sammy's Choice: Positive steroid test not only clue to Sosa's 60+ homer power

If Sammy Sosa were a NASA rocket ship, the launch date for his journey into the stratosphere of legendary power hitting would have been on May 25, 1998.

At the time, the Mark McGwire Missile was already soaring up ahead, with the St. Louis Cardinal having just hit his 25th home run in the 49th Cardinal game. McGwire’s 433-foot projectile put him on a senseless pace of 83 homers and 202 RBIs for the year, as the entire baseball world braced itself for the anointment of a new single season home run king.

Going into his game in Atlanta that evening, Sosa’s nine homers were light-years behind Big Mac’s 25. But after a solo shot in the top of the fourth followed by a three-run bomb in the eighth, Rocket Sosa left planet Earth. That night marked the beginning of the most explosive month-long home run binge in baseball history. Out of the 26 games Sosa played between May 25th and June 25th, he smashed a ridiculous 23 home runs in just 109 at-bats, a clip of one homer every 4.7 at-bats. Projected to 600 at-bats, his numbers read like the stats of a twelve-year-old boy playing Nerf down in his basement: 127 home runs, 248 RBIs, and a .972 slugging percentage.

Sosa’s twenty homers for the month of June gave him the major league record for most in any month. By the time the June 25th games hit the books, Sosa’s 32 home runs were just three behind McGwire’s 35. Away the two went, on a journey where no pair of sluggers had ever gone before. By mid-summer, the undisciplined, underachieving, and often criticized version of Sammy Sosa had been replaced by a hugely popular, muscle-laden superman who could hit a baseball over a tall building with a single swing of his mighty bat. By the year’s end, Sosa and McGwire became the dynamic duo who saved baseball, soaring past Roger Maris’ 37-year-old single-season home run record like it was some Dead Ball Era statistic. For Sammy Sosa, his 66-homer 1998 season was the year his career transformed.

Eleven years later, when his positive steroid test of 2003 was disclosed by the New York Times, Rocket Sosa splashed down into the acrimonious Sea of Disgrace. All efforts to recover his integrity were immediately aborted—his reputation was no longer salvageable. The news flash that steroids were found in Sammy Sosa’s system was as anticlimactic as the second pitch of a major league All-Star game. And not because of the big guns who had fallen to similar depths months earlier, namely Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. With Sammy, his reported drug test seemed to tie everything together—like locating the final clue to a long-unsolved mystery.

The skinny days

 

Putting a historical perspective on what Sammy Sosa has meant to major league baseball is a stickler, which is only fitting, because he’s been an enigma since the day Texas Ranger scout Omar Minaya scooped him out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old. Sammy was as raw as they came, having played organized baseball for only a couple of years before being signed by the Rangers. He was so skinny, scouts thought he looked malnourished – hard to believe Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated would one day label him a “bulky, 230-pound Mr. Olympus.”

Young Sosa’s game overflowed with talent and aggressiveness but was void of fundamentals or discipline. From a scouting viewpoint, the Sosa glass was seen as “half full,” despite the crudeness in his skills. With a strong and accurate throwing arm, a fast bat, and an energetic style of play, Sosa had a promising five-tool future. But Sammy’s ‘110%’ often ran too hot, like the pinned RPMs of a smoking, overheated engine. He had a habit of repeating the same mistakes in the outfield, on the base paths, and at the plate. He was stubborn and considered uncoachable by those who tried to tame his wild approach.

After nurturing Sosa in their farm system for four years, Texas gave up on him after only 25 major league games and shipped him to the Chicago White Sox. Sosa may have had enough talent for two ballplayers, but that promise was effectively negated because of his inability to either get on base or put the ball in play. Sammy continued to be an ongoing project with the White Sox. His lack of maturity in his skills and mindset at the big league level frequently came at a severe cost to his team. Over his first three big league seasons, he was caught stealing in 34% of his attempts. His strike out rate was that of an elite power hitter, yet his home run rate didn’t even come close. His awful on-base percentage (OBP) of .273 was proof of his unwillingness to work a count, wait for a good pitch, or draw a walk. As one coach put it, Sosa “never saw a pitch he didn’t like.”

Less than three years after getting Sosa from the Rangers, the White Sox grew frustrated by his refusal to lend an ear to hitting coach legend Walt Hriniak. A poor .227 batting average in 947 at-bats with the Sox sent Sosa packing again, this time just ten miles north to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for outfielder George Bell. Ironically, Sosa wasn’t even thought of as adding any power value to the Cubs lineup at the time. The Sporting News bashed the trade because they believed that letting Bell go “robbed the Cubs of needed thump in the middle of the order”—without an inkling that the Cubs were getting a man who years later would become arguably the most popular power slugger in the game.

But who could blame them? Sosa was still a good 30 to 40 pounds under the muscular frame he eventually carried during his Herculean record-breaking years later on, and at the time had just 29 career home runs in two seasons’ worth of at-bats.

The first bump to stardom

Sosa stuttered in ’92 with injuries. But the next year he started firing on all cylinders for the first time in his career. He finally approached the potential so many had waited patiently—and some not so patiently—for since the ’80s. Sosa put himself on the map as one of the best all-around talents in the game, becoming baseball’s newest 30/30 club member with career highs in home runs (33) and stolen bases (36). Although it seemed like it had been a long time since he was first signed, he was still only 24 years old.

Over the next four seasons, Sosa continued to combine power and speed like few others, averaging 34 homers and 26 stolen bases from ’93 to ’97. But there were those critics who still believed Sosa was an underachiever, which was as much a nod to his huge talent as it was a knock to his game. He struck out way too much, and his low IQ on the base paths continued to pile up the missed scoring opportunities. He was still an out maker, with much of his speed wasted chasing pitchers’ pitches. His selfishness in his own statistics, specifically the home runs and stolen bases, alienated teammates. Many of those same players grew weary of his “act” around the clubhouse, which had to do with Sammy Sosa’s wants and needs being stuck in the center of the Chicago Cub universe.

When the Cubs rewarded Sosa with a $42.5 million contract extension midway through the 1997 season, the team was heavily criticized for investing so much in a product that was still flawed in the eyes of many experts. Cubs general manager Ed Lynch explained, “We were banking that he would continue to improve.” From a production standpoint, Lynch’s return on investment from Sosa was like winning the lottery. Sosa’s blossoming into a star in ’93 was just a whisper of what was to come.

A career transformed

What Sosa did in 1998 took his game to a completely different level. In one season, he became a home-run-hitting powerhouse no longer of mortal resemblance, at least by historical baseball standards. There was no frame of reference…except for what Mark McGwire was doing 300 miles away in St. Louis. Fueled by his record-breaking month of June, Sosa joined McGwire in smashing the Maris record. Sosa led the Cubs to the playoffs with 66 home runs, 158 RBIs, 134 runs, and a .308 batting average, earning him the league MVP.

Over the five-year span following his grand transformation, Slammin’ Sammy averaged 58 home runs a season, a 71% increase from his previous five years. Only two times had anyone ever hit 60 or more home runs in a season prior to 1998 – once by Ruth and once by Maris. Sammy did it three times in four years. His new home run rate allowed him to leap-frog home run milestones with the ease of his two-finger salute. After hitting his 300th home run on June 26, 1999, it took Sosa just 23 months to hit his 400th, and another 23 months to hit his 500th. That’s 200 home runs in just under four years, a feat that may have triggered Reggie Jackson, owner of 563 career home runs, to voice his skepticism. “Somebody definitely is guilty of taking steroids,” Jackson complained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004. “You can’t be breaking records hitting 200 home runs in three or four seasons. The greatest hitters in the history of the game didn’t do that.”

To say that Sammy finally reached his potential in 1998 is grossly inappropriate. No one had him tagged for hitting that many home runs. Sosa’s potential was always about becoming a five-tool star. But that’s not what happened. As Sosa’s muscular build grew and his tape-measure home runs started landing more frequently in the 450- to 500-foot range, his speed gradually faded away. His five tools eventually dwindled down to two: hit, and hit with a ton of power.

But how?

As Sosa was putting up those frightening numbers throughout the ’98 season, many tried to rationalize why he started doing this type of damage at 29 years old. There was a common thread to the explanations from those who had witnessed Sosa try desperately over the years to overcome a slew of self-defeating habits at the plate.

“He doesn’t chase pitches the way he used to,” said Phillies manager Terry Francona. “The key has been his patience,” explained Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. “There was no need to ever throw Sammy Sosa a strike. Now he’s making pitchers throw him strikes, and when he gets pitches he’s not missing them.” Even Sammy agreed. “The [bad] pitches that they throw me now that I used to swing at last year, I’m now taking them.”

Makes sense, right? With a better sense of the strike zone, most of those back-straining whiffs he took at breaking balls halfway up the first-base line vanished, giving Sammy more opportunities to swing at balls friendlier to his power stroke.

Except Sosa’s numbers show there was much, much more.

Sosa’s ’98 season was obviously a drastic improvement from the previous year. His home runs went from 36 to 66, his hits from 161 to 198, and his batting average from .251 to .308. However, though his walks did increase from 45 to 73, supporting the notion that he had become more patient at the plate, his contact rate both years was practically identical. Sammy was still the free-swinger.

Let’s suppose Sosa was being more patient in ’98 and leaving those tempting pitches off the plate. One might have expected him to make better contact because, on the whole, he would be swinging at a much better selection of pitches.

But this wasn’t the case. Check out Sosa’s pitch-by-pitch breakdown differences between the ’97 and ’98 seasons:

SOSA_PBP_1997_19981

Not only was his frequency of striking out nearly identical in both years (1997: 174 Ks in 642 ABs, 1998: 171 Ks in 643 ABs), the percentage of balls he missed every time he swung was nearly identical (30.8% to 30.4%).

But the most compelling statistic for Sosa in 1998 – aside from the 66 home runs – was his improvement in the percentage of home runs he hit out of the number of balls he put in play. This number rose from 8.1% in ’97 to 14.6% in ’98, an 80% rise that stands tall as Sammy’s smoking gun. From his pitch-by-pitch breakdown stats, the cause behind Sosa’s home run rate almost doubling from ’97 to ‘98 was most likely due to an increase in strength that caused his fly balls to carry greater distances. Perhaps Sammy laid off more pitches than usual; but it was his ‘new’ strength that made him a more dangerous hitter. Even his large jump in hits shows evidence that his ground balls ripped through the infield much harder.

Let’s give the pitchers some credit. With the ’98 Sammy capable of hitting the outside pitch out of most ballparks (whereas in previous years he didn’t have that kind of power and would futilely try to pull that pitch), he became a new kind of danger for pitchers – and they reacted accordingly. The increase in walks was as much a result of a pitchers’ fear as it was Sosa’s improved pitch selection, if not more so. Perhaps those pitches away from the plate that were too enticing for free-swinging Sammy in previous seasons were going even farther away from the plate because of the intimidation factor, making Sammy’s decision process easier.

The transformed Sosa reached first base much more frequently. His OBP of .372 from 1998 through the rest of his career was 64 points higher than from his younger years. But remember, hits matter as much as walks when calculating OBP. Sosa’s average for the five years following his transformation was .306, a giant leap from the five years before, when it was just .268. In fact, while he was hitting 66, 63, 50, 64, and 49 home runs over five consecutive seasons, Sosa struck out more often (161 Ks per 600 ABs) compared to the five years before his transformation (147 Ks per 600 ABs).

Mr. Sammy Sosa, a disciplined hitter? Wrong answer. It was a freakish change in strength that powered Sosa starting in 1998.

SOSA_career_stats1

The fall

Seven years after the Great Maris Home Run Chase of 1998, Sosa and McGwire embarrassed their sport, cowering in front of Congress at a time when the world was begging for someone—anyone—to own up to the disgrace of steroids. Sosa delivered an official denial in a prepared statement through his lawyers, but mysteriously suffered a memory lapse of the English language when it came to responding with his own voice. To many, his biz-suit performance that day was a dead give-away of how he did what he did.

The report of Sosa’s positive test result four years later was the clincher. The integrity of his career now hangs from the gallows of drug testing. Suddenly it’s really easy to forget the positive vibes that Sammy Sosa gave to the game of baseball. If you were a baseball fan in the late ‘90s, chances are you loved Sammy Sosa. His “let’s get this inning started” sprint to right field, his effervescent “I love baseball” smile, and the victory hop out of the box when he knew he just went yard—those were just a few of the reasons fans across the nation embraced Sosa. From spirit alone, he was good for the game. He showed Mark McGwire how to enjoy their dueling conquest of the Maris record, which made the entire chase in ‘98 an intimate affair between Sosa, McGwire, the Maris family, and all the fans watching at home. Sosa and McGwire transcended their sport that year, sharing “Sportsmen of the Year” awards from both Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.

Before getting too far in the verbal and literary stoning of Sammy Sosa for his sins of steroid use, consider these quotes*:

Clemente_quotes2

These words sound like a perfect summary of Sammy Sosa’s career. But they were spoken about another slugging right-fielder with a great arm who, like Sosa, had a prideful hunger to be the best: Roberto Clemente.

Clemente was the idol of countless Latin American prospects who had a dream of leaving their country to play in the major leagues. Sammy Sosa took his worship of Clemente to the extreme, and not just by sharing the number 21 on the back of his Cub uniform. Sosa chased pitches to a fault, almost in honor of Clemente’s bad-ball-hitting reputation, which won Roberto four batting titles and a career batting average of .317. Sosa’s overzealous efforts are right in line with Clemente’s electric style of hustle that every dad would want his son to copy, on defense and on the base paths.

But it’s the pride aspect most of all that ties Sosa to Clemente. “Sammy probably had more pride than anybody I’ve ever been around,” said former Cub hitting coach Jeff Pentland. “Bonds is close, but Sammy was something else.”

Bonds. Sosa. Intense pride. Steroids. There just might be a connection.

Both Clemente and Sosa exhibited so much passion for their native country that they burned with the desire to represent their people and become the best they could be, any way they could. But how far would they go? Well, we’ve seen how far Sammy would go.

Shortly after Alex Rodriguez admitted that he injected himself with steroids, Mike Schmidt admitted that he “most likely” would have used steroids during his playing days if they had been available. He recognized how steroids became such an ingrained part of the game’s “culture” that he would have been tempted just like any of these other ballplayers. Several other retired players have similarly hinted that if steroids had been available and what they needed to get an edge, so be it.

What would Clemente, Sosa’s hero, have done? Vastly underrated for practically his entire career, Clemente spent years vainly trying to drum up the recognition he deserved. It took an all-around spectacular World Series in 1971 at age 37 for the national scene to finally awake to his extraordinary career accomplishments.

If steroids had been around and readily available in 1965 like they were in 1995, no one can say for sure that players like Clemente wouldn’t have indulged. They had the same desire to be the best, as did players from any other generation.

These are not bad people we’re talking about, just bad choices. Fortunately for Clemente, he didn’t have to make that choice. Sammy Sosa did.

- JDC

THE SOURCES

*All Roberto Clemente quotes were referenced from author and SABR member Stew Thornley’s biography of Clemente at SABR’s Baseball Biography Project (bioproj.sabr.org). In order, the quotes were spoken by: 1–Thornley; 2–Minor league manager Max Macon; 3–Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey; 4–Thornley; 5–Reporter Phil Musick; 6– Pulitzer Price-winning journalist and author David Maraniss, author of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Additional sources:

  • www.baseball-reference.com
  • www.retrosheet.org
  • www.baseball-almanac.com
  • Adamek, Steve. Cubs’ Sosa emerging into genuine star, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 8, 1996
  • Associated Press. Slugger doesn’t believe today’s athletes, ESPN.com, March 10, 2004
  • Cubs’ Sosa on verge of stardom, Post-Tribune (IN), May 21, 1993
  • Ginnetti, Toni. From star to superstar – Cubs slugger Sosa taking his game to the next level, Chicago Sun-Times, June 21, 1998
  • Goddard, Joe. ‘Mr. White Sox’ Goes to Texas, The Sporting News, August 7, 1989
  • Holtzman, Jerome. Sosa’s No. 1 Need: Discipline at Plate, Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1998
  • Kiley, Mike. Sosa: Cut me some slack – Says people expect too much from him, Chicago Sun-Times, August 13, 1997
  • Mariotti, Jay. Our sluggin’ Sammy, Chicago Sun-Times, June 28, 1998
  • Mariotti, Jay. The Cubs are on their way, Chicago Sun-Times, January 18, 1998
  • McGwire hits 25th, breaks another record, Associated Press, May 26, 1998
  • Mitchell, Fred. At the plate, Sosa’s been a man with a plan: Patience, Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1998
  • Pascarelli, Peter. Replacing Mitchell is no Giant problem, The Sporting News, May 25, 1992
  • Reilly, Rick. Excuse Me for Asking, SI.com, July 2, 2002
  • Schmidt ‘Most Likely’ Would Have Used Steroids, youtube – MyFoxPhilly, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enGnm9NsxD0, February 2, 2009
  • Schmidt, Michael S. Sosa is Said to Have Tested Positive in 2003, The New York Times, June 16, 2009
  • Schulman, Henry. San Francisco Giants – Bonds is a team player when it comes to taking walks, The Sporting News, September 10, 2001
  • Slammin’ Sammy: An Inside Look, Sports Illustrated (an interview between CNN/SI and Tom Verducci), June 23, 1998
  • Sosa ejected after cork is found in shattered bat, ESPN.com, June 3, 2003
  • Sosa is out 4-6 weeks – X-rays reveal hand fracture, Chicago Sun-Times, August 21, 1996
  • Sullivan, Paul. New Attitude, Old Power From Sosa, Chicago Tribune, March 11, 1997
  • Sullivan, Paul. Sosa has a record already 21 homers in 30 days tops Kiner, Maris, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1998
  • Van Dyck, Dave. Chicago Cubs – Fly on the wall, The Sporting News, April 13, 1992
  • Van Schouwen, Daryl. 40-40 Not in Sosa’s Vision – Outfielder Keeps Mum on Goals, Chicago Sun-Times, April 1, 1996
  • Verducci, Tom. Adios, Amigo – With his power gone and his dignity under assault, Sammy Sosa calls it quits, Sports Illustrated, February 27, 2006
  • Verducci, Tom. The Education Of Sammy Sosa – Having learned that his personal goals and those of the team can be reached with a single stroke, the Cubs slugger produced the greatest home run streak the game has ever seen, Sports Illustrated, June 29, 1998