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Voices From The Basement: Slammin' Sammy in KC

Kevin: Is it possible that this Sosa-to-Kansas City rumor could have some legs under it? I found mention of it in an mlb.com article, which read in part:

Hendry met with about 10 teams Saturday and would not confirm which teams asked about Sosa. They were believed to be in both leagues, and the Kansas City Royals were among the teams to ask about the availability of the 36-year-old outfielder.

These rumors have been going around for months, but I always dismissed them because they were being reported by Chicago-biased newspapers. You know, newspapers that might purposely take a quote out of context to make it sound like the Royals were actually interested.

But this seems real. Assuming Baird isn't trying to be the middle man in some three-team extravaganza, would bringing Sammy to KC make any sense at all, even if the Cubs picked up a significant portion of his contract? After all, the Royals want to put butts in the seats, and this might do just that.

Daniel: I hope the rumours aren't true, because I would rather not see Sammy play for the Royals. Why? Well, in a business sense it would be fine as long as the Cubs did indeed pick up a large portion of his salary, and as long as Baird had his finger on the trade-trigger after Sammy has had a couple of months to (hopefully) hit a mess of home runs.

It would be a large risk if, like I suspect, Sammy is starting to lose it. He really started to expand his strike zone after he came off the DL last year (not that he ever had Bonds-like discipline to begin with). Now, is this a sign of skills decline, or was it just because Sammy was just trying to hard? We all know what Sammy himself would say, of course, but Baird has to realize that if the former is true, he could end up stuck with another big contract on his hands he can't unload, and two contracts on the payroll the size of Sosa's and Sweeney's would simply kill the Royals in 2006 before it ever begins -- unless of course, Sosa and Sweeney perform pretty much to their abilities, and if the Royals assortment of younger players begin to click.

Those are hum-antic and gig-ongous ifs, if you follow me. If done (no more ifs, I promise), this move would indeed put butts in the seats, but I don't think the Royals really can afford to get saddled with Sosa's salary in subsequent seasons, to summarize my synopsis.

Kevin: Sosa's being linked with the Royals mostly because Jeff Pentland, the hitting coach, was a driving force behind Sammy's improved strike zone recognition from 1998 to 2002. But no matter which metric you want to use, there's no question he's regressed in the plate discipline department as you pointed out. But I question whether Sammy's started to lose it, or if his declining walk rates can be explained by another variable.

Remember April 20, 2003? You probably don't, but that was the day Salomon Torres beaned Sosa with a fastball, busting his batting helmet into tiny pieces. Sosa'd blasted his way through April, hitting .303/.446/.573 in 89 at-bats that month. He also drew 20 walks, which was on par with his new-found disciplined approach. Then Torres beaned him, and Sammy just wasn't himself the rest of the season. (Who would be after getting whacked in the noggin by a 95-mph fastball?) This is overly-simplified, but what I have available to me are his pre- and post-All Star break stats for 2003. I think the point can still be made:

Pre: .312/.408/.577
Post: .245/.305/.529

My colleague John Rayman, a devout Cubs follower, says he thinks Sosa's regression can be attributed to him not recognizing pitches anymore, i.e. picking up the rotation on a slider. The question is whether or not Pentland can work with Sammy to restore his mental confidence and fix whatever mechanical flaws he may have picked up after being hit by Torres' pitch. Pentland's a fine hitting coach in my opinion, but I don't know if anybody's good enough to fix a mentally-broken hitter. What do you think?

Daniel: You could be right about thae beaning -- Sosa's numbers do take a dive directly after, and he was having a hot month. However, I'm going to go with the simpler explanation. Slammin' Sammy is just plain getting old. Let's take a look at Sammy in 2001, unquestionably Sosa's best season as pro, and the subsequent seasons:

2001: .328/.437/.737, 1 walk every 6.1 plate appearances, 1 strikeout every 4.6 plate appearances.
2002: .288/.399/.594, 1 walk every 6.4 plate appearances, 1 strikeout every 4.6 plate appearances.
2003: .279/.358/.553, 1 walk every 9.5 plate appearances, 1 strikeout every 4.1 plate appearances.
2004: .253/.332/.517, 1 walk every 9.6 plate appearances, 1 strikeout every 4 plate appearances.

Of course, the rate of walks and the number of strikeouts are linked for many players -- Sammy is a prime example of this. When Sosa walks less, he's striking out more. While the beaning could easily have contributed to this trend, age could easily do the same (and we'll never really know which it is). However, we both can easily see the same thing: Sosa has lost command of the strike zone. The last time his walk and strikeout rate were at 2004 levels? Try 1997, where his walk rate was an atrocious 1 walk every 15.4 plate appearances, and his strikeout rate was 1 for every 4 plate appearances.

Between '97 and '98 is where Sosa "got it". His walks went from 45 in '97 to 73 in '98, and he started striking out a bit less in just about every year after that until 2002 saw Sammy start his current decline.

What does this mean? Well, it does mean Sammy's losing it, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Pentland can't do Sosa any good. However, Pentland cannot reverse the effects of age on Sosa (unless certain drugs are involved -- won't even go there), so the only way Pentland could make a significant difference is if your theory is correct, and that Sosa's decline has been due to something that can be traced to that beaning in early 2003.

However, if I was Allard Baird, I wouldn't bet on it. Sosa's decline, if one looks at the statistics, may well have started in 2002, before any beaning took place.
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