A Baseball Argument 13 Years in the Making

Because FanGraphs wasn’t around in 1998, a golden opportunity was missed. That year, Sammy Sosa launched 20 home runs in June, the most for any month in baseball history. However, he did not have the best offensive month of all time. He was not even the best hitter in June of 1998. Hop in the time machine and follow me back to the age of steroids, The Truman Show and Master P in order to re-examine the month Slammin’ Sammy rose to stardom.

This post began this morning when a friend asked me, “Who had the better month, Sosa in ’98 or Cliff Lee in ’11?”

My answer was, “Trick question. Rafael Palmeiro was better in ’98 and Justin Verlander was better in ’11.”

For proof, I gave links to leaderboards from June of 1998 and 2011. The Lee-Verlander argument is a good one — Lee had a slightly lower ERA, but Verlander struck out more and walked fewer — but Verlander still has one more June start, so this argument cannot really start until Friday.

When I looked back at June of 1998, what I found striking is that there were three players who had better offensive production than Sosa in a month where he hit the most home runs in history. Palmeiro (30.4), Jeff Bagwell (30.0) and Jim Thome (29.3) created more runs for their team (measured by wRC) than Sosa (28.8). Also, Mark McGwire (25.4) had a higher wRC+, but he only played in 24 games.

When confronted with this result, my friend gave his retort: “20 f*cking homers!!!”

While there is no good comeback for that, I’m hoping this graph can help explain my argument:

The pies are made up of the results of every plate appearance each player had in June of 1998. The red sections are outs and the green slices are positive offensive contributions. We’ll ignore defense and baserunning, which isn’t a problem because that’s not how these players butter their bread anyway.

It should be stated that all four of these players had fantastic offensive months. Arguing about 28 runs created compared to 30 over the sample of 120 plate appearances is admittedly petty. It should also be noted that 1998 was the heart of the steroid era, and it is highly likely that some of the included players were on PEDs at the time others were not, but for the sake of argument (literally), I’m assuming an even playing field.

During the month, Sosa hit home runs at the best rate in baseball, but that’s about all he did. In fact, that June Sosa’s .331 OBP ranked 119th in the majors, behind Neifi Perez, Brent Gates, and Royce Clayton. Meanwhile, Palmeiro, Thome and Bagwell were dramatically better in every other aspect. Given, walks, singles and doubles are not as good as home runs on their own, but they are a whole lot better than outs.

What Sosa accomplished in June of 1998 deserves to be praised, but had the internet been at full speed back then, stat nerds like myself would have crawled out of the woodwork to put his month in perspective and try to settle arguments about if Sosa’s June was better than Thome’s, Palmeiro’s or Bagwell’s. It’s 13 years later, I suppose it’s better late than never.

Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

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k, but it wasn’t really a trick question, you just changed the question around