Sammy Sosa still denies using steroids, 22 years after the home run chase that solidified his place in baseball history. So, maybe his proclamations and the public's perception of his role in baseball's performance enhancing drug era will never align.
But Sosa's evaluation of his breakout 1998 season is still revealing. Sosa told David Kaplan this week on Sports Talk Live that he "became a great hitter" because of mechanical adjustments. It shouldn't be ignored that in 2009, the New York Times reported that Sosa was one of 104 players who tested positive for a PED in a 2003 baseball survey. An examination of old game film also makes it clear that Sosa's swing mechanics did indeed play a role.
"The thing that made me a much better hitter was that when I tried to hit, I'd go forward," Sosa told Kaplan. But when Sosa learned to keep his weight back, "all the breaking pitches that I used to be swinging out front, I had a chance to wait a little bit longer and then hit the ball to right field."
Sosa went from hitting 36 home runs in 1997 to 66 in 1998. He also improved his batting average from .251 to .308. Jeff Pentland joined the Cubs as the hitting coach during that transition.
"In Sammy's case, he was getting paid for hitting 30 to 40 homers," Pentland told Kaplan on ESPN 1000 last week, "but I thought his production levels were below what he was capable of doing, and I just projected him as an All-Star type player."
If we break Sosa's swing down into parts, the first two – the stance and load – reveal the most obvious changes from '97 to '98.
Let's start with the stance. In 1997, Sosa set up with his hands high and away from his body. The angle of his hips suggest that he kept the majority of his weight in his back foot.
The next year, Sosa's hands started much lower, around shoulder-level rather than head-height. His weight was more evenly balanced between his two feet.
Those changes in stance led to a smoother load, which helped Sosa sit back on breaking balls, as he mentioned. It also likely gave him a boost in power – I know what you're thinking, but we already covered the PED controversy at the top.
In '97, Sosa's hands started so high that he had to move them down and back as he loaded. His weight was already back, so he had little to no weight transfer on the load.
In '98, Sosa's load was more linear. His hands and weight shifted back at the same time, preparing to explode forward in a fluid motion.
"I started when I was 14 years old," Sosa said on Sports Talk Live. "I never played when I was a little boy. So, when I started to learn the strike zone, I started getting more comfortable. I used to hit the ball to left field only. When I changed it to hit to right field, I saw the whole field. So, there's a lot of different things that I didn't know, that I had to make an adjustment, and that's why I became a great hitter."
Say what you will about reasons behind Sosa's offensive jump from '97 to '98. The adjustments he made to his swing were among them.
Cubs film study: How Sammy Sosa changed his swing between 1997 and 1998 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago