The Three Declines of Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa posted a 96 wRC+ with the Texas Rangers in his final season in the majors. (via U.S. Navy)

Sammy Sosa posted a 96 wRC+ with the Texas Rangers in his final season in the majors. (via U.S. Navy)

What follows is the sole, definitive explanation of a great player’s rapid decline. The explanation happens three times. It’s also not definitive.

The Concussion That Broke Sammy Sosa

It’s April 20, 2003, a Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. Warm weather pushed the 40-degree chills away on Friday, and now it’s a brisk 65 degrees. It’s windy, and a little rainy. A big thunderstorm is cooking just beyond the horizon. But for now, it’s good enough for baseball.

Veteran Shawn Estes and 26-year-old Josh Fogg are the starting pitchers, but both leave the game early. Estes goes three innings; Fogg is gone after the first, victim of a sore abdomen and a two-run homer by the great Sammy Sosa. Salomon Torres, a journeyman long reliever, enters for the Pirates and starts cutting through the Cubs lineup.

Then, in the top of the fifth inning, with the Cubs losing 7-2, Sosa grinds into the batter’s box and raises his bat. He wants to start a big inning — the Cubs are in first place and riding a five-game winning streak. They were a 67-win team just a year ago, but this season is already feeling like a playoff run. Sosa readies against Torres.

Torres, who hails from Sosa’s home town in the Dominican Republic, was once a rising star in the San Francisco Giants system. He has a history of wildness. But since his return to the majors after a stint as a pitching coach for the Expos and a season in Korea, he has shown greater control. Enough control, in fact, to ensure his unusual career will stretch another 400 innings after this season. He’ll be a pretty good long reliever through 2008.

But here, for a moment, he is again the young, wild starting pitcher prospect for the Giants. His second pitch, a fastball, sails on him. It connects with Sammy Sosa’s head. The helmet bursts apart in a spray of blue plastic.

Sosa doesn’t fall to the ground. He doesn’t even kneel. The trainers run out to him and manager Dusty Baker removes his star right fielder from the game, but Sosa seems okay. After the game, he says his helmet saved him, adding: “I’ve never gotten hit like that before.”

Sosa had been on fire, but over the next eight games, he’ll hit .258/.324/.355 with no homers. In the subsequent 98 plate appearances after the April 20 game, Sosa will undergo his coldest stretch since midway through the 1997 season — over five years — mustering only one home run. He catches fire in late June through July, blasting 22 homers in just 47 games. But from Aug. 11 through the end of the regular season, he slumps, once again losing his place discipline and hitting .231/.293/.474.

Despite five years of 165 wRC+ hitting, Sosa abruptly hits a cold spot in 2003.

Despite five years of 165 wRC+ hitting, Sosa abruptly hits a cold spot in 2003.

He entered the April 20 game with a 1.201 OPS, but mustered only an .868 OPS through the rest of the season.

Sammy Sosa, 2003 Stats Before and After HBP
Period PA K% BB% HR% wRC+
Before 83 17.2% 24.1% 6.0% 198
After 506 25.3% 8.1% 6.9% 123

Following a spectacular five-year peak, Sosa went through one of the coldest stretches of recent history, and then fell apart in the following season.

Sammy Sosa, Career Stats Before and After HBP
Period PA K% BB% HR% wRC+
Before 7,973 23.2% 9.5% 6.3% 133
After 1,923 23.8% 8.8% 1.3% 108

He went from the seventh-best hitter in baseball in 2002 (by wRC+) to 35th best in 2003, to 64th best in 2004. From then on, he was never above average again.

Did Sammy Sosa sustain a concussion on April 20, 2003? Did that pitch irrevocably change his hitting ability? The idea has floated around Cubs fans for a decade now, flamed more recently by the growing appreciation of head injuries. In an era where concussions were treated with little more than aspirin, it is almost certain Sosa and a number of his teammates played with concussions at various times in their careers.

According to Jeff Zimmerman’s 2011 research into concussions, only five players went onto the disabled list because of concussions from 2002 through 2004. During those three seasons, 5,445 errant pitches pegged hitters. If just one in every 100 of those hit a player in the head, that would be about 55 possible concussions. Add to that the collisions on bases and into outfield walls — including brick walls lightly dusted with a layer of vines — and we can conclude that there were probably many players who sustained undiagnosed or under-treated concussions.

Zimmerman also found that players with reported concussions lost an average of 36 points of OBP and 47 to 49 points on their slugging average over the next 15 and 60 days. Adam Greenberg lost everything. In 2005 — the year after Sosa’s Cubs career ended — Greenberg took a 92 mph fastball off the occipital lobe. He took only three weeks to recover, but suddenly found himself unable to focus on ground balls or stand in the batter’s box without nausea.

Slugger Justin Morneau has missed 120 regular season games with concussion issues. Only one of his three concussions occurred in the batter’s box. After his first major concussion in 2010, it took him three full seasons to fully recover his form at the plate, to say nothing of his quality of life.

News recently surfaced that embattled second baseman Dan Uggla may have been playing with undiagnosed concussions — which could partly explain his sudden collapse from a three- or four-win player to a replacement-level infielder. Most intriguing about Uggla’s condition is that it may have led to an increase in strikeouts and a decrease in fielding and OBP, but not necessarily a decrease in power.

Revisiting the details of his injury presents the subtlety of concussion-related issues:

Uggla was hit twice in the head by pitches, in June 2012 and in spring training 2013…Dejected about how fast his career declined, Uggla had no answers. That’s when old friend Marquis Grissom called him last September and told him he knew the problem.

Grissom was hit in the head during his career and suffered a similar decline. He hooked up Uggla with Las Vegas orthopedist Robert Donatelli.

Donatelli and his staff put Uggla through a series of tests and determined he had suffered oculomotor dysfunction. Uggla, who had gone so far as to get Lasik treatment because he wasn’t seeing the rotation of the ball, had 20/15 vision. But the testing found that when Uggla moved his head or body, his vision was 20/100. This explained being unable to see the rotation of the ball. It also affected him in the field, Uggla saying it got to the point where he didn’t want the ball hit to him at second base.

This is to say concussions happen; they happen in baseball, and the can dramatically affect baseball players. And on April 20, 2003, Sammy Sosa likely suffered a concussion. His plate discipline immediately declined, and then age did the rest — sapping first his health and then his power.

One has to wonder how long Sosa might have been able to play with modern concussion detection equipment and protocol. The day he was beaned he was 34. Could he have chased Barry Bonds into his early 40s? Could the two have dueled it out for home run supremacy the way Sosa and Mark McGwire had only a few years earlier? We will never know.

The Corked Bat That Broke Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa was not concussed on April 20, 2003. The pitch that shattered his helmet delivered its payload to a rounded piece of blue plastic, not the star Dominican outfielder. According to The Associated Press, Sosa was reviewed on the field and off the field, both times showing no signs of a concussion:

Sosa walked off the field unaided, then was examined by doctors in the ballpark and later at Allegheny General Hospital, where neurological tests were negative.

Sosa was back in the clubhouse a few minutes after the game ended, relieved he had only a couple of small cuts caused when the helmet cracked.

In Zimmerman’s article, he found no long term effects from concussions. So what did happen in 2003?

On June 3, in the midst of one of his cold slumps — typical of his early career, but not so recently — Sosa slashed a ground ball to the second baseman, shattering his bat. The barrel bounced passed a fleeing Geremi Gonzalez and did no harm. The handle, however, wound up in home plate umpire Tim McClelland’s right hand. He sauntered to the middle of the infield as the umpires convened.

Following the infamous corked bat game, through the rest of the season, Sosa lost 78 points from his OBP. Under an increased level of scrutiny, Sosa finished his season with his lowest homer total since 1996. His did even worse the following year and yet worse in the 2005 and 2007 seasons, his final two in the majors.

But why was Sosa using cork in the first place? The answer did not appear until 2009, when The New York Times revealed Sosa had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. Perhaps it is only coincidence that the coldest stretch in Sosa’s most recent five seasons came after he presumably stopped using PEDs. Perhaps it is also just a coincidence that his last volatile season was 1997, the year that known PED-user Glenallen Hill joined the team.

From 1998 through 2002, Sosa was an unimpeachable hitter. In 2003, he was good. From then on, he was broken.

If we look at his career, again in 20-game chunks, we see his ability to stay consistently above average neatly fits in the period of time between his meeting Hill and his getting caught for PED use.

Sosa Ascent and DescentWhen studying it visually (see table at left), we can see Sosa had a distinct period of unusual success, followed by a return to his usual volatility. He began his career as a wild swinger and he finished it like that. The seasons between 1997 and 2003 are the only ones that buck that trend.

In 2001, Sosa began to work out with Angel Presinal — the trainer who allegedly supplied PEDs to Alex Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon, Juan Gonzalez and many others. In 2001, Sosa had the best year of his career. He hit 64 homers and amassed 10 WAR. In 2003, Presinal got banned from major league clubhouses.

The rise and fall of Sosa fits too neatly into the PED narrative to ignore:

His best years -- the 1998 home run chase, the 2001 season MVP-runner-up season, leading the league in homers in 2000 and 2002 -- all fit into the time frame between playing with a known PED user and his failed PED test.

His best years — the 1998 home run chase, the 2001 season MVP-runner-up season, leading the league in homers in 2000 and 2002 — all fit into the time frame between playing with a known PED user and his failed PED test.

What we do with this knowledge — the knowledge that Sosa’s greatness may well have been felled by a drug test — is up to us. Does Sammy Sosa deserve blame for hampering the careers of clean players? Sure. He also deserves co-credit with Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds for reviving interest in baseball.

And, more importantly, are we in the perfect position to criticize Sosa? For every player who pressed a needle into his buttocks there were two journalists who lied about a source or didn’t attribute a quote. For every player sneaking pills in the shadow of his locker, there were 10 baseball writers recycling tired work and bending ethical boundaries with their expense account.

Cheating and corner trimming in the workplace makes us all unlikely stone throwers. That competitiveness, not laziness, drove so many players to cheat should maybe inspire us.

The Aging That Broke Sammy Sosa

For all we make about Sammy Sosa cheating or hiding injuries, there is little reason to think he had anything but a normal career — a normal career for an outstanding athlete. If anything, the 2004 season — his first truly bad season — was a long time coming.

In fact, looking at his whole career, we see the slow movements we’d expect from the average athlete — good through youthful years, then descending more quickly as injuries and age take a compounding toll:

Sosa's Development and Decline

The rise and fall of Sammy Sosa would have been a non-issue in any other era. Because he looked muscle-y during the 1990s, though, he’s a cheater.

If Sammy Sosa were truly the victim of a cataclysmic injury or a career-defining failed drug test, then we would expect him to follow something other than a typical aging path. If anything, the fact his career peaked in his early 30s rather than his late 20s shows he was both exceptionally fit and talented.

Some might look at his waning performance in 2003 as a sign he was hiding an injury or no longer cheating, but he had cold spates all through his career. If we break down his seasons by standard deviations — which you can see in the table below — we actually see that his most turbulent, most unpredictable seasons were also some of his best.

Sosa StDev

A 20-game average is an already-smoothed metric. It does it’s best to weed out the 0-for-4 games and consider the three-week output. In 2002 — a year in which Sosa hit 49 home runs and amassed five WAR — his output was unpredictable from one month to the next. He was up and down and just so happened to end up. If anything, that tumultuous season might have suggested Sosa was losing the bare consistency or the adjustment techniques necessary to stay hot for 162 games.

No pill on earth can make a man smarter or better at adjusting to a pitcher. And as for Sosa’s nefarious connections: Angel Presinal also trained with Robinson Cano, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre and Pedro Martinez. Do any of these players deserve extra scrutiny for their performance?

And Glenallen Hill also played with Ken Griffey Jr. during the peak of Griff’s career. Is Griffey guilty by association? What about Derek Jeter and Randy Johnson and the multitude of other players who shared a locker room with Hill during his late-career PED use?

Hill is a well-respected player and mentor. He enters 2015 as the manager for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes — not because the Colorado Rockies felt he would make a great steroids evangelist, but for every reason except that.

Sosa reportedly tested positive for PEDs in 2003. He tested positive in an anonymized survey. The drug was never identified. The source was never identified. MLB never corroborated (and had no means to corroborate) the results. Sosa vehemently denied he ever used PEDs.

For all we know, the informant lied or misspoke. Or perhaps it’s true that Sosa failed the test. It’s also equally possible Sosa was taking a supplement that had a bad word in the ingredients, but for whatever reason, he or his trainer missed it. This sort of failed drug test happens frequently. Consider the recent case of infield prospect Ryan Brett, who tested positive for amphetamines in 2012:

According to his agent, Nik Lubisich, of Northwest Sports Management Group, Brett has asserted these test results could only be the result of a single incident in which the evening before this random drug test he took an energy pill that was described to him as caffeine-like, but which apparently turned out to be a common form of Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) medication, Adderall.

Ryan Brett is probably not on meth. Meth does this. Ryan Brett looks like this.

The accident possibility jibes with my own experience in locker rooms. An absence of full information is no stranger to conversations about supplements. Players lean heavily on the recommendations of trainers and teammates. And as has happened in my own past, players — focused on their own performance goals while attempting to possess the shadow of a personal life — implicitly trust their trainers and coaches and teammates. (Until one of those individuals is caught in the nightclub with a razor blade laced with cocaine.)

The fact Sosa never missed a game for a drug violation, the fact that no teammate ever suggested he used PEDs or named him as an accomplice, the fact it is logically impossible to prove he never deliberately used PEDs all goes silent because his career arc happened to take place during the wrong decade.

We can foist steroid theories on players like Sammy Sosa or Jeff Bagwell all we want, but they’re little more than libel. Until MLB confirms a failed test, until a player admits to PED use or an injury, why not default to the oldest career-killer of all, the same malady that broke Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron: Age.

Four years ago, Jeff Zimmerman wrote that piece on concussions for FanGraphs. In the Book Blog post about that article, I put forth the notion that Sammy Sosa had had a concussion in 2003. The result was a 50-comment string that to this day makes for insightful reading.

What really happened to Sammy Sosa? I don’t know. I imagine, to a large degree, Sammy Sosa doesn’t know either. Even if he had all three realities simultaneously — a concussion, a sudden absence of steroid use, and an aging skillset — he would have been hard pressed to suss out the weights of each tug.

The purpose of this article is less about finding the true cause of Sammy Sosa’s decline than it is about making three, mutually-exclusive and data-backed arguments about a ballplayer. Each of the three arguments have both solid cases and flawed components. All three are possibly true and false, and in varying degrees. You may have noticed that I used almost the exact same sources for all three perspectives above. You will find a certain article linked and quoted multiple times, serving different purposes each time. The data are all the same, but the conclusions are all different.

The message is less about the fate or what-ifs of Sosa’s career or even steroids, but more about the dangers of bias. It is attractive to agree with what we already believe, but it is right to test everything against reason, logic, and sounds statistics. We saw an example of this just this week in the hullabaloo that has become DeflateGate. If we believe in platoon outfielders, we better have strong evidence for it. If we like defensive shifts, hopefully it’s because we can confirm it saves runs. And pitch-framing data is only useful if it is tested and analyzed with critical eyes.

In short: Research is only as good as the criticism we levy on it.

References & Resources

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Hank G.
7 years ago

I think you’ve just written the Rashomon of baseball articles.

Keith Michel
7 years ago
Reply to  Hank G.

Hank–that is too good! Samurai swinging sticks–players swinging bats. . . . What’s the difference?

7 years ago

1. Glenallen Hill played for the Cubs in 1993 and 1994.

2. Glenallen Hill didn’t re-join the Cubs until July 6, 1998.

3. Sosa’s numbers got worse once they acquired Hill in ’98 (From 1.051 to .994)

4. Sosa’s numbers got better once they traded Hill away (’00 from 1.013 to 1.082, and obviously ’01 was his best season as a pro)

Calvin Liu
7 years ago

You missed another possible explanation: Sosa was a notorious plate crowder.
After that beanball, it is more than possible that his normal style was affected by fear or some other psychological reaction – as opposed to concussion, aging, or other physical reaction.
Certainly his HBP numbers were low in the years after 2003, though there were similar low years scattered in Sosa’s career prior to 2003.
Just out of curiosity – I put Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa’s Fangraphs data into Excel and pulled out the following ratio: HR/HBP
What is interesting is that Sosa had a notable spike in HR/HBP from 1997 to 2000 – those 4 years were the highest in his entire career.
For Bonds, 1999 and 2000 were the 6th and 4th highest in his career. Of the 14 years Bonds was with the Giants, only 4 of those years (plus his injury year of 2005) saw him accumulate less than 5 HBPs. The average over his Giants career was 6.61 (again excluding 2005). The other 2 years were the 2 highest HR/HBP in Bonds’ career.
For McGwire, 1998 and 1999 were the 2 highest HR/HBP in his entire career.
What this says to me is for whatever reason, HBPs were unusually low for all 3 of these HR hitters in 1998 and 1999. Perhaps the umpires were instructed some year before 1997 to crack down on brushback pitches. Perhaps the extra scrutiny due to the Home Run record runs caused pitchers to be more careful. Whatever, the HR/HBP for Sosa was extremely high in his prime years of 1997 to 2000, spiked again in 2002 and again in 2004, but was much, much lower almost every other year of his career. We’re talking half or less of his lowest rate in the 6 years noted above. Also interesting is that – although Sosa had high HR/HBP ratio in 2004, his absolute number of home runs was really low compared to his other low HBP years.
Anyway, no idea if this is statistically significant or not, but it is interesting.

7 years ago

The article should be rewritten, The three peaks of Sammy Sosa. The problem is it would be a short write up. The causes to the three peaks?
PEDs. Steroids. Corked bat, PEDs, and steroids.

7 years ago

I don’t know if Calvin liu’s comment was based on actually seeing Sosa play, but as a cub fan I think Calvin nailed it. After that plunking Sosa seemed to set up so far to the outside edge of the batters box that his behind was in the third base dugout. His normally hunched stance looked like a painful reach for the plate, and if was easy to wonder how he expected to hit anything over the plate that way.

7 years ago
Reply to  Shel

And when he started taping that enormous donut on the handle of his bat, was it in an attempt to help him hold on while reaching at the outside pitch?

Paul G.
7 years ago

Very good article. However, I must come to the defense, or at least a partial defense, of the fuzzy conclusion.

If you are, say, a Hall of Fame voter who wants to keep Generation Roid out of Cooperstown, you need to come to a conclusion on Sosa, assuming you think his performance merited induction otherwise. “I don’t know,” while perhaps the best available conclusion, does not really work for this task. In this situation you have to perform fuzzy logic with what is known and go from there. Did Sosa cheat? Yes. This is undeniable. Has his name been linked to PED use? Yes, though the facts are hazy. Does he deny PED use? Yes, but once he established himself as a cheater his word is of dubious value. In that situation I would go on the assumption that he took PEDs until further evidence shows otherwise. (Related to the topic, I would also assign a good portion of the decline to him coming “clean.”) Note that this conclusion may be completely wrong – incomplete data necessarily results in murky conclusions – but I need to come up with some conclusion and this seems the most likely given what I know. Not that a murky conclusion is especially satisfying but then again neither is “I don’t know.”

As human beings we do this fuzzy logic all the time because most of the time we have no other options. There are too many unknowns ranging from Sosa’s medical history to big overarching fundamental questions of existence for which there are no clear answers. Most of the time it works well enough for our needs but often goes wrong, occasionally very, very wrong. In general, there is nothing wrong with that because, frankly, what else can be done? The key is to remember the limitations: biases need to be muted as much as possible, fuzzy conclusions should not be relied upon more than is necessary, and said conclusions should always be reconsidered when new information is presented.

7 years ago

“If anything, the fact his career peaked in his early 30s rather than his late 20s shows he was both exceptionally fit and talented.”

or it shows that’s when he discovered pharmaceutical help.

7 years ago
Reply to  Joe

Bingo. Time of peak has nothing to do with talent or fitness. Talent determines how high the peak might be, and fitness might make the decline gentler, but neither is going to affect timing. Of course there are individual differences in when the peak occurs, but they are probably mostly attributable to genetics.

“We can foist steroid theories on players like Sammy Sosa or Jeff Bagwell all we want, but they’re little more than libel. Until MLB confirms a failed test…”

Which MLB did. They didn’t provide details, but it was reported he failed a test.

Having said this, I like the article, and agree with the premise that a concussion could have affected Sosa’s performance after 2003. Just because he juiced, and apparently very successfully, doesn’t mean that when his performance declined it was because he stopped juicing, or only because of that. In fact, even a player who continues to juice is going to decline eventually, and sometimes not that late in his career–see ARod.

7 years ago

My theory re: the corked bat is that he started using it after and because of the May 30-June 1 series vs the Astros ( I remember that series as an Astros fan- it was Sosa’s first time back in the lineup after being out for ~3 weeks, and in 3 three games, Sosa looked like he just wasn’t the same player he had been. In the first two games, he went 1-11 with 8 K’s (although he did manage to hit the game-winnng hit in the 16th of the May 30 game). The Astros pitchers in the first two games (Wade Miller on May 30, Roy Oswalt/Octavio Dotel/Brad Lidge/Billy Wagner on the 31st) threw him nothing but 95-mph heaters and he simply couldn’t hit them. “Slump” doesn’t do justice to how bad he looked. He was able to avoid embarrassment in the June 1 game because the Astros had soft-tossers out on the mound, but I recall being shocked and seriously thinking that Sosa might have been “done”

The reason I theorize that series as the impetus for the corked bat is because the advantage a corked bat gives is by lightening the bat (cork being far less dense than the wood it is replacing in the barrel). While this is something useful in general, it’s especially useful it you are having extreme difficulty catching up to heat. This hypothesis would have Sosa using a corked bat only briefly, since he was caught with it shortly after the Astros series. What got him busted was that his bat broke in a way that revealed the cork. Bats break all the time, so it was probably just the first bat he broke after corking it.

7 years ago

After Sammy was hit in the head he looked like he was just afraid of the ball. I have no idea if he had a concussion or not but I do know if you cringe at a 95 MPH fast ball you are not going to hit it.