Why Sammy Sosa was second to Mark McGwire AND Albert Belle in 1998

Chris Kamka
NBC Sports Chicago

When you think about Chicago baseball in 1998, the first thing you think of is likely to be Sammy Sosa and the great home run chase with Mark McGwire. Sosa ended up four home runs behind Big Mac's 70, but he took home the NL MVP award and exploded into the national spotlight. Sosa crushed the single-season Cubs home run record by 10, and baseball fans across the country were imitating his trademark home run hop and kiss salute.


And Sosa wasn't even the best Chicago outfielder in 1998.


On November 20, 1996, the White Sox stunned the baseball world by signing Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract. After becoming the first player in MLB history to hit 50 doubles and 50 home runs in a season with the Indians in 1995, Belle followed it up with another monster campaign with 48 home runs and 148 RBI in 1996. When he dipped to .274 with "only" 30 home runs and 116 RBI in his first season with the White Sox in 1997, he was seen as a bit of a disappointment. So in the backdrop of the Sosa and McGwire (and Ken Griffey Jr.) home run extravaganza of 1998, Albert Belle flew under the radar. And he quietly had a historic season.
Better than Sosa, even, despite Sammy's considerable fanfare.


Through May, Sosa was red hot; Belle was on pace to duplicate his 1997 season.


                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    54          .264       .348       .508       10          40
Sosa                    52          .343       .415       .583       13          39
 
In June, Sosa had a month for the ages – at least as home runs are concerned. His batting average and on-base percentage are probably less than you might remember.





                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    28          .295       .360       .518       7            23
Sosa                    27          .298       .331       .842       20          40
 
But make no mistake about it, that was an amazing June for Sammy. At the All-Star break, this is where they stood:





                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    87          .278       .354       .517       18          66
Sosa                    83          .324       .384       .667       33          81
 
Belle didn't even make the All-Star team! But then he went on a second half tear unlike anything we've seen since.





                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    76          .387       .451       .816       31          86
Sosa                    76          .290       .369       .626       33          77
 
After the 1998 All-Star break, only Belle (31), Sosa (33) and McGwire (33) hit at least 30 home runs. Belle's 86 RBI were seven more than anyone else (Jeff Kent was next with 79). Belle was tied with Derek Jeter for the major league lead with 109 hits. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Belle's .387 batting average was second only to Larry Walker (.402). His .451 on-base percentage was fifth in the Majors. His .816 slugging percentage was by far the best; Mark McGwire was the only other player over .700 (.734).
And with that white hot finish to 1998, here's how Belle stacked up with Sosa at season's end:






              Games   BA         OBP       SLG        OPS       Runs     Hits       2B   HR    RBI    BB    K
Belle     163        .328       .399       .655       1.055    113        200        48    49    152    81    84
Sosa     159        .308       .377       .647       1.024    134        198        20    66    158    73    171       



Belle took the edge in all three slashline percentages. He reached 200 hits – he's the only White Sox player with 200 hits in a season since Nellie Fox in 1954. He set White Sox single season records in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases and extra-base hits. All five records still stand. He trails Sosa in runs and RBI, as well as home runs. In fact, it was Belle's second season with 48+ doubles and 48+ home runs. At the time Belle had the only two such seasons in MLB history. Since then, only Todd Helton (2001) has done it. Belle walked eight more times, and struck out EIGHTY SEVEN fewer times.
Belle also has an edge in advanced metrics


                             OPS+     wRC+    wOBA   WAR (baseball-reference)           WAR (fangraphs)
Belle                    172        165        .437       7.1                                                    7.1
Sosa                    160        159        .425       6.5                                                    7.1
 
Both OPS+ and wRC+ are metrics which measure total offensive value, with 100 being league average and any point over or below 100 representing one percent over or below league average. So according to OPS+, Belle was 72% above league average and Sosa was 60% above league average. These measures also take into effect the ballparks in which they played, so if you wanted to argue that New Comiskey Park was a better hitter park, and thus Belle had an advantage, OPS+ and wRC+ both account for that. As far as wins above replacement is concerned, Belle has a slight edge in the baseball-reference version and they're even according to fangraphs.





Better batting average. Better on-base percentage. Better slugging percentage. More walks. Half the strikeouts. While Albert Belle may not have hit as many home runs as Sammy Sosa in 1998, he was a better hitter. And the numbers back it up.

RELATED: Albert Belle: 'I had a better year' than Sammy Sosa during 1998 season

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.

Why Sammy Sosa was second to Mark McGwire AND Albert Belle in 1998 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

What to Read Next