Besides the Obvious, McGwire and Sosa Were Nothing Alike

Disclaimer: This article is not timely. It is apropos of nothing. There is no logical reason for me to write it right now, except that I happened recently to listen to an old episode of a podcast where the hosts were talking about the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot and something got my proverbial goat.

I won’t name the podcast, because I think it was mostly an off-the-cuff comment and I think the two hosts are both extremely smart baseball fans. I’ll just use their offhand comments as a jumping-off point for this discussion.

In discussing Sammy Sosa‘s Hall of Fame case, they said this:

Host 1: “The only thing you could say he brought to the table besides home runs was, like …”

Host 2: “Joy.”

H1: “…joy, and he, like, reinvigorated the game with Mark McGwire. And I totally would buy that argument. If you want to say that, I don’t care about steroids, but he just straight up didn’t do enough different things that were good or Hall of Fame caliber, I’d buy that. That’s a good argument.”

H2: “That’s kind of the argument for McGwire, too. Same thing.”

H1: “Right. To me, it’s exactly the same argument for those two guys, yeah.”

McGwire and Sosa spent four years on the Hall of Fame ballot together, and the average distance between their annual votes was just 4.2 percentage points. Because of their joint magical performance in the summer of 1998, they are inextricably lumped together in history, in the minds of the fans, and apparently in the minds of Hall of Fame voters. But this link ignores one simple fact: other than PEDs and the fact that they both hit a ton of homers, they have almost nothing in common.

I will keep the rehashing of their entire careers to one paragraph: Sosa came up as a speedy, defense-first outfielder with a cannon for an arm. Then he started taking steroids (allegedly!) and became a historic home run hitter who was a liability in the outfield and on the bases. McGwire came up as a slugging third baseman who moved to first base and mostly kind of held his own there. He set the record for home runs by a rookie and had 220 home runs by the end of his sixth full season. Then he got hurt and missed most of two seasons. Then he started taking steroids (admittedly, although his word is all we have for the timing) and became an even more historic home run hitter. Both McGwire and Sosa had relatively early ends to their careers — each played his last full season at age 35, and each was 38 the day he played his last game. Overall, Sosa had 9,896 plate appearances over 18 seasons, and McGwire had 7,660 plate appearances over 16 seasons.

Now let’s look at some stats:

[table “” not found /]

Look how similar they are! No wonder they are inextricably linked in our minds!

[table “” not found /]

Sosa has the edge in two areas. First, he stayed healthy better than McGwire. He played in two more seasons, but he has 2,236 more plate appearances, which is well over three seasons’ worth.

Sosa’s second edge is speed — he had two 30/30 seasons and 234 career stolen bases, although his 68.6-percent success rate indicates that he might have done more harm than good a lot of the time. And his speed essentially disappeared as his body transformed from wiry to cartoonish — he stole just 17 bases (and was caught 16 times) in his final eight seasons. In fact, interestingly enough, even though Sosa had 222 more career stolen bases that McGwire, according to FanGraphs McGwire has a slightly higher career baserunning value (or perhaps we should say less low — 2.5 runs below average for McGwire’s career, and 7.9 runs below average for Sosa).

McGwire has the edge everywhere else. He produced more overall value despite playing the equivalent of three-and-a-half fewer seasons. His OPS+ is tied for 11th in history, tied with Jimmie Foxx and ahead of Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and almost everyone else who has ever played. Sosa’s OPS+ is tied for 192nd, tied with Kent Hrbek and Ryan Klesko and behind David Justice and Rico Carty and Danny Tartabull and a ton of other people. Sosa had only one season with a higher OPS+ than McGwire’s career mark, and Sosa’s second-best mark would have barely cracked McGwire’s top ten.

I actually clipped one line from the end of the podcast discussion above. At the very end, Host 2 said, “McGwire did walk. That was the one thing McGwire did. Sosa didn’t really walk.”

That’s like comparing the Grand Canyon to a hole in your backyard and ending by casually mentioning, “The Grand Canyon is super big, though. This hole in my backyard isn’t really very big, so I guess that’s one difference.”

In 2001, when Sosa led the majors in intentional walks, his overall walk rate was 16.3 percent, his career high. McGwire’s career walk rate was 17.2 percent, with a peak of 23.8 percent in 1998. Other than McGwire’s 18-game cup of coffee in 1986, he never had a single season walk rate as low as Sosa’s career mark, and McGwire’s lowest mark (11.1 in 1987) would have been Sosa’s fourth-highest.

There is a tendency to think, “Oh, this guy’s a power hitter, so pitchers are pitching around him, so he probably doesn’t deserve full credit for his walks.” This article isn’t about Barry Bonds, but he’s a good illustration of an important point. When people think of Bonds’s 2001-04 seasons, they often think of the 284 intentional walks he received in that four-year span. (Seriously — Bonds would be third all time in intentional walks if his career was just 2001-04.) But it’s easy to forget that he also averaged 118 unintentional walks per year during that time. There is serious value in getting on base, and no matter how good a power hitter you are, you will always be a better player if, when a pitcher throws a tough pitch just outside the strike zone, you take a walk instead of striking out or hitting a grounder to second base.

One more table of stats, but it’s a short one:

[table “” not found /]

Let’s use another hitter who this article is not about to illustrate another point. Joey Votto often draws the ire of Cincinnati Reds fans (and announcers) for taking too many walks. Ted Williams received the same criticism 70 years ago. The line of thinking goes, “We would rather have Votto drive in runs with his bat than take a walk.” Unfortunately, that’s a false dichotomy. Walks happen, by definition, when a pitcher throws too many pitches outside the strike zone. So the way to avoid walking is often swinging at pitches outside the zone. What happens when you swing at pitches outside the zone? Well, let’s take a look at a random hitter and find out. Wow, my random player picker happened to pick Mike Trout, the best hitter in the world! When he swings at pitches in the zone, he makes contact 86.7 percent of the time; when he swings at pitches outside the zone, he makes contact 68.7 percent of the time.

Just in case you have a different idea of who the best hitter in the world is, the general principle is the same no matter what. Miguel Cabrera‘s percentages are 87.6 and 66.7. Mookie Betts‘s are 94.4 and 70.2. Every hitter in the world is better at hitting strikes than hitting balls. Even notorious bad-ball hitter Pablo Sandoval is generally about five percentage points better at hitting good pitches than bad ones. (For the record, Votto’s numbers are 84.5 and 68.1.)

So when someone sets up a false choice — either get hits like a Real American Hero or take walks like a Cowardly Coward — he is forgetting the third option (strike out on a bad pitch) and the fourth option (hit a weak grounder on a bad pitch).

We don’t have actual plate discipline numbers for McGwire, and we only have the numbers for the last five seasons of Sosa’s career. But Sosa’s walk rates and strikeout rates those last five seasons tracked pretty well with his career numbers, so they are probably instructive anyway. When Sosa swung at a strike, he made contact 76.2 percent of the time. Already, that number is worse than those good hitters we mentioned earlier. But when he swings at bad pitches, you don’t get the 20-ish-percent drop you see in guys like Votto, Trout, Betts, and Cabrera. Sosa’s outside-the-zone contact rate was 44.5 percent — a 32.7-percent drop! How much better would Sosa have been if he had ever learned to lay off bad pitches? We’ll never know exactly, but a good approximation is “a lot.”

One final table, on a per-162 basis and for their careers:

[table “” not found /]

Sosa got out — headed back to the dugout instead of the base paths — 46 more times per season than McGwire, with 21 of those coming via strikeout. For their careers, Sosa got on base 378 more times than McGwire but got out 1,858 more times overall. To put it more simply, if McGwire had played three-plus more seasons to get 2,236 plate appearances to match Sosa’s playing time, he would have had to put up a .169 on-base percentage to drop down to Sosa’s level. (For reference, that is the career OBP of pitcher Lucas Harrell.)

In the end, this isn’t really a Hall of Fame discussion. McGwire did his ten years on the ballot and never came close, and Sosa nearly fell off the ballot due to lack of support this year. Neither will be elected by the writers, and it’s questionable whether either will ever be inducted by any means. But when you get past the superficial similarities — steroid users (allegedly!) who hit a ton of home runs in 1998 and the surrounding years — their cases are entirely different. Sosa was a poor hitter who dragged himself up to Ryan Klesko’s level with a late-career power surge. McGwire led the majors in home runs as a 23-year-old rookie, led the majors in walks three years later, and was already building a Hall of Fame case as a hitter before the injuries that supposedly led him to use PEDs.

You can draw a hard line in the sand for anyone who used PEDs. You can question the timing of McGwire’s PED use. But when you look at the actual numbers put up by McGwire and Sosa, there’s just no reasonable way to conclude that their statistical cases are even remotely similar.

One Response

  1. Karen

    And when you watched McGwire, he exuded joy. He seemed to enjoy the game so much. He smiled and talked and joked with the guys who made it to first. He brought fun back to baseball.


Leave a Reply