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February 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Never a Dull Moment with Gary Sheffield

by Jay Jaffe

Gary Sheffield officially announced his retirement on Thursday, not that it was a huge surprise. The 42-year-old slugger did not play in 2010, though he probably still had something to offer, coming off a .276/.372/.451 season in a part-time role with the Mets in 2009. In the same breath with which he made the announcement, Sheffield made his case for Cooperstown. "I am sure it will be mentioned and debated, but from my standpoint I know who is in the Hall of Fame," he said. "A lot of them don't belong in the Hall of Fame. If someone wants to debate me, check the stats."

As I noted just over a month ago, Sheffield has the stats to merit a plaque: a .292/.393/.514 line, 2,683 hits, 509 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three top-five finishes in MVP voting, a World Series ring, a batting title, all-time top-25 rankings in homers, RBI, and walks, and strong showings on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and the Hall of Fame Standards metric (156 and 61, respectively). Our old Fielding Runs Above Average metric doesn't love his defense (-122 career), but even so, he's above the JAWS standard in right field, compiling 79.7 career WARP, 48.3 peak WARP, and a 64.0 JAWS, compared to marks of 75.7, 46.6, and 61.2 for the average Hall-bound right fielder.

Beyond the numbers, however, is a candidate who spent nearly his entire career embroiled in one controversy or another, and the question is whether those controversies will have an impact upon his candidacy. Most dauntingly from the standpoint of Hall of Fame precedents, Sheffield was connected to the BALCO scandal via workout buddy Barry Bonds, and he admitted to using the undetectable "cream" to heal his stitches without knowing that it contained steroids; he wound up in the Mitchell Report because of that connection. Thus far, Hall voters have overwhelmingly rejected players with PED connections, from Mark McGwire to Rafael Palmeiro to Kevin Brown, the last of whom dropped off the ballot with less than five percent of the vote after debuting this year.

But unlike McGwire's admission or Palmeiro's vehement assertion that his positive test owed to a tainted vitamin supplement, nobody has come forward to challenge Sheffield’s story, or even held his feet to the fire. Bonds is being prosecuted for perjury in proceedings that look increasingly ridiculous with every passing news cycle. Sheffield? Not so much. Despite his PED connection, he has never been the focus of public outrage the way that Bonds or McGwire or Sammy Sosa have. Or even Andy Pettitte, who received much more negative publicity for his own admission of using human growth hormone to heal from injury.

With Bonds, Sosa, and Roger Clemens all arriving on the 2013 ballot, we'll have a larger sample of PED-connected players bearing Hall-worthy numbers. Sosa in particular will be a great test case in the homer department, if not JAWS (61.0/43.8/52.4). This advance wave should provide further cues as to Sheffield's fate, but even then Sheffield has other issues which may make voters squeamish, starting with one which dates all the way back to the beginning of his major-league career.

Sheffield was drafted as the sixth overall pick in the first round of 1986 by the Brewers, preceded by Jeff King (Pirates), Greg Swindell (Indians), Matt Williams (Giants), the aforementioned Brown (Rangers), and Kent Mercker (Braves). He'd been touted as the nephew of Dwight Gooden, and was just 19 years old when he made his major-league debut in September 1988. By then he'd already torn up the minors; in his first taste of pro ball at Helena in 1986, when he was just 17, he hit .365/.413/.640 and clubbed 15 homers in 57 games, winning both the Pioneer League's Player of the Year award and Baseball America's Short-Season Player of the Year prize. At Stockton in 1987, he hit .277/.388/.448 with 17 homers and 103 RBI, making both the California League and Baseball America All-Star teams. The following year, he hit a combined .327/.395/.579 in hitter-friendly environments at Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Denver and earned his late-season callup.

Sheffield didn't hit much in his cup of coffee or his rookie season (.247/.303/.337) and he struggled at shortstop as well (83 Rate2); the Brewers even farmed him out in mid-July due to "indifferent fielding" while insisting that his foot was hurt. It was not until he got to Denver was he diagnosed with a broken foot. When he returned to the majors two months later, it was to play third base, a move he wasn't exactly thrilled with—but then what young player would be given the way he'd been handled to that point? Sheffield hit .294/.350/.421 the following year, and he did show improvement at third base (91 Rate2), but he wasn't a happy camper, and he carried that frustration with him to the plate in 1991, hitting a ghastly .194/.277/.320 in 50 games before shoulder and wrist injuries ended his season. Somewhere in that cheerful chapter, the Brewers further antagonized Sheffield by subjecting him to not-so-random drug tests as a byproduct of his relationship to and with Gooden, who had already been to rehab for cocaine problems.

By the beginning of next season, after alleging that Brewers owner Bud Selig had gone back on offering him a long-term deal, Sheffield's Milwaukee headaches (and Milwaukee's Sheffield headaches) ended with his being traded to the Padres. It was during this acrimony that Sheffield told Bob Nightengale of the Los Angeles Times

The Brewers brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man... I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn't think was an error, I’d say, 'OK, here’s a real error,' and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.

Sheffield recanted that statement in a follow-up with Nightengale: "What I said was out of frustration. They want to take something and run with it. Why would a player purposely make mistakes? I'd never do anything to hurt the team. You get paid to play." There's no further evidence to suggest that Sheffield made intentional errors during his time with the Brewers, with nothing particularly damning in play-by-play accounts, and certainly nothing that was reported by observers as obvious errors. Of the four times Sheffield made two errors in a single game as a Brewer, none seem to fit his description:

  • April 23rd, 1989: Playing shortstop, Sheffield made a throwing error in the second inning, then another one in the fifth, although the batter reached only first base in both cases, which would indicate the ball wasn't thrown into the stands.
  • June 20th, 1989: Again at shortstop, Sheffield made an error in the seventh, apparently on a relay throw. In the 10th, he made an unspecified error on a ground ball, although the ball did not go into the stands, as the batter only reached first.
  • May 15th, 1990: Playing third base, Sheffield made a throwing error in the second inning, allowing a batter to reach first, then made another in the eighth on a ground ball, not a throw.
  • April 8, 1991: (Opening Day in Texas; the others were all at County Stadium): Playing third base, Sheffield made a throwing error in the third—on his first chance of the season—with the batter reaching first. He handled his next ground-ball chance cleanly, but made another throwing error in the ninth while fielding a weak grounder; again, the batter only reached first.

Nightengale's follow-up does include the following note: "Sheffield said the only time he may have made an error purposely out of anger was when he was in the Brewers' minor-league system." Which, if you look at the context of the way he was mistreated by the organization during his late teens and early twenties, makes a bit more sense. While that wouldn't excuse such an action, in the absence of actual evidence that this was anything more than an isolated temper tantrum, how much of a grudge should anyone carry? Sheffield was in a situation where he was young and foolish, and was the object of high expectations, but with little support from his employer to ensure that those expectations were met. Whatever happened, he wasn't investigated or disciplined by the team or the league, so it's not as though there was a suspicion of wrongdoing. Plus, it's not like he tossed his bat at an umpire and earned a 50-game suspension, à la Delmon Young in Triple-A circa 2006.

Traded from Milwaukee, Sheffield broke out in 1992, hitting .330/.385/.580 with 33 homers and 9.3 WARP for the Padres, winning a batting title and ranking second in slugging percentage, third in homers and extra-base hits, and sixth in OBP. By the middle of the next year he was on the move again, traded to Florida as part of San Diego's infamous salary purge in a deal that nonetheless brought them Trevor Hoffman. Sheffield's numbers were down that first year, .294/.361/.476 with 20 homers, and a Hobsonian .899 fielding percentage at third base. He re-signed with Florida after the 1993 season to a four-year, $22.45 million deal, which made him the game's highest-paid third baseman and 10th-highest paid player overall. As a concession to keeping him at third, the Marlins even included a clause in his contract allowing Sheffield to play basketball. He battled injuries over the next two years, bruising a rotator cuff while diving for a ball in 1994, and tearing thumb ligaments in 1995, and playing in just 150 games, though the strike played a part as well.

Sheffield also suffered a minor gunshot wound in his non-throwing shoulder as the result of a failed carjacking in late October 1995, but that didn't affect him the following year, when he led the league in OBP and ranked second in slugging percentage and homers (42) while hitting .314/.465/.624 with 7.5 WARP. A thumb sprain prevented him from coming close to those numbers in 1997, but he did post a .424 OBP thanks to more walks (121) than hits (110). He hit .324/.430/.592 in September, and .320/.521/.500 with 20 walks in the postseason as he helped the Marlins to their first world championship.

Then Sheff found himself on the move the following year, in yet another salary purge. Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga had built his championship team on expensive contracts for free agents Kevin Brown, Devon White, Alex Fernandez, Moises Alou, while re-signing Sheffield to a six-year, $61 million extension, the largest contract in baseball history at the time. Immediately after winning the Series, Huizenga began gutting the Fish, trading Alou, White, Jeff Conine, and Robb Nen by Thanksgiving, Brown the next month, and Al Leiter in January. Huizenga saved his biggest blockbuster until six weeks into the 1998 season, when on May 14 he traded Sheffield, Bonilla, catcher Charles Johnson, and two other players to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.

Despite the shocking midseason move—moreso because the Dodgers had traded their face of the franchise in Piazza—Sheffield scorched opponents in the notorious pitchers' park, batting .316/.444/.535 in 90 games as a Dodger before an ankle sprain shelved him. In each of the next three seasons he topped the .300/.400/.500 thresholds—something that only four other Dodgers had done before him since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962—while averaging 38 homers per year. Alas, he grew disgruntled about money in light of Brown's $105 million megadeal. When he learned of the Dodgers' attempt to trade him to Oakland following the 2001 season, he wanted out, and the Dodgers obliged, sending him to Atlanta in a deal for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez, and a prospect. Sheffield put up monster numbers for the Braves, including a .330/.419/.604, 39-homer, 8.4-WARP campaign in 2003 (good enough for third place in the MVP voting), and helped them continue their run of reaching the postseason, but he struggled in Octobers, and the Braves couldn't get back to the World Series.

That winter, the 35-year-old slugger reached free agency for the first time in his career, and signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Yankees. In his first year in pinstripes, despite an early-season thumb injury, a muscle tear in his left shoulder, and a backdrop which included the BALCO case coming to light, he put up another MVP-caliber season, hitting .290/.393/.534 with 36 homers, 28 of them coming in the 77 games he played in June, July, and August. Only a torrid September from the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero kept him winning the MVP; he had to settle for finishing second in the voting. (Vladi had come to Anaheim as a free agent at the same time that Sheffield was hitting the Bronx.) Alas, the Yankees, who had reached the World Series the year before, came up short in the postseason by blowing a 3-0 lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS.

Sheffield put up similar numbers with less fanfare the following season. Then he missed most of 2006 due to torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist suffered in a collision at first base; he played in just 39 games. He agitated for an extension, but with Bobby Abreu having been added to the fold in Sheffield's absence, the Yankees merely exercised his $13 million option following the season, and then traded him to Detroit. After signing a two-year, $28 million extension, he started slowly ,and only after a torrid three-month stretch wound up hitting .265/.378/.462 with 25 homers. Still seething from his New York exit, he accused Yankees manager Joe Torre of treating him differently because he was African American, but stopped short of calling his former skipper a racist. Following a down 2008 in which he was hampered by shoulder and oblique woes, the Tigers released him in spring training. Eager to surpass the 500-homer mark (he was at 499), he caught on with the Mets, and amid their tumultuous season, wound up putting together a solid campaign for a 40-year-old. After sitting out last year, he briefly entertained the thought of a comeback with the hometown Rays, but finding no offers, he's now chosen to hang up his spikes.

Over the course of his 22-year career, Sheffield certainly had his ups and downs. Forced to grow up in public, he generally gave off the impression of a man carrying a chip on his shoulder over slights, real and perceived. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James referred to him as, "an urban legend in his own mind," but for all of his rage and his outrageousness, it's worth noting he never found trouble with the law the way, say, Milton Bradley has. He could be a bona fide pain in the ass for his employers and the fans of the teams for which he played; I rode the rollercoaster myself as both a Dodger and a Yankee fan during his days with those two teams. Still, he was one hell of a hitter, viscerally impressive like few others. In the batter's box, with his bat twitching back and forth, he was pure menace, a tiger waiting to pounce, with a violent swing that threatened to shred hurlers in a single stroke. Watching his stint in the Bronx on a daily basis caused me to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about the player, and to pen a three-part series which unearthed some of the information I've shared here.

At this point, no consensus exists as to how the voters will receive him. Two years ago, when Sheffield was released by the Tigers, the New York Times' Jack Curry reported, "I've interviewed numerous writers who have told me they will not vote for any players who were connected to steroids, regardless of the explanation.” Jon Heyman of SI.com has not ruled out voting for Pettitte, but is numbered among those who won't vote for Sheffield. I put the question to Newsday's Ken Davidoff, who pointed me towards a fresh blog entry affirming that he would vote for him based upon "a sufficient mix of longevity and dominance," and relatively little concern about "an era that one man once accurately described as 'loosey-goosey.'" I also asked our own John Perrotto, who said he'd vote for Sheffield as well: "I'm not part of the steroids or morality police. When I look at Sheffield, I see a player who hit 500 homers, was one of the most feared hitters of his generation, and had bat speed that was second to none at the peak of his career."

Amen to that.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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