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Career Profile: Gary Sheffield

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Career Profile: Gary Sheffield

Gary Sheffield announced his retirement today, so this is a good time for a Career Profile. Here is what I wrote for his Prospect Retro back in 2006. Obviously the prospect background is still valid. Let's look at that and then how he stands now historically.

Younger fans perceive Gary Sheffield as an old dude, a guy in his mid-30s who has been around forever. But older fans like me remember him as a precocious prospect back in the mid-1980s, a potentially tremendous hitter, but a guy with a volatile personality and erratic behavior on and off the field.

Gary Sheffield grew up in one of the rougher neighborhoods in Tampa, Florida. His mother is the sister of Dwight Gooden, making Sheffield Gooden's nephew despite their relative closeness in age. Sheffield got in trouble frequently as a child, but his parents were strict and tried hard to keep him in line. He showed enough discipline to succeed academically, and he was a star on the baseball diamond, dominating for Tampa's Hillsboro High. He was named High School Player of the Year by Gatorade in 1986, and earned a spot in the first round, sixth overall, selected by the Milwaukee Brewers. Some teams liked him as a pitcher due to his arm strength, but his bat was special and the Brewers kept him at shortstop.

Sheffield destroyed the Pioneer League in his first look at pro pitching, hitting .365 with a .640 SLG in 57 games for Helena. He drew 20 walks against only 14 strikeouts in 222 at-bats. He also stole 14 bases to go with his 15 homers. His defense was erratic, but otherwise he performed exceptionally well. At this point he'd rate as a Grade A- at a minimum and perhaps a straight Grade A.

Sheffield got a lot of attention in 1987, but for the wrong reasons. He spent much of his bonus money on strange things like a solid gold car, and on gold inlays for his front teeth. He also hit .277 with 17 homers, 103 RBI, 25 steals, 81 walks, and only 49 strikeouts in 469 at-bats for Stockton in the California League. At age 18. Those are remarkable numbers, particularly the BB/K/AB ratio. Sheffield's combination of explosive bat speed and superb strike zone judgment augured well for his future, provided that other issues didn't get in the way. He was developing a reputation as a malcontent in the clubhouse. On pure numbers alone he'd be a certain Grade A prospect; you might want to cut that a tad to Grade A- depending on how much weight to give the personality issues.

1988 began at Double-A El Paso, where Sheffield hit .314 with 19 homers in just 77 games. Promoted to Triple-A, he hit .344 with nine homers in 57 games for Denver, with a 21/22/212 BB/K/AB mark. Sure, it was El Paso and Denver. . .the air was thin. . .but to perform like that at that level at age 19 was remarkable. Sheffield received a major league trial that year, playing in 24 games and hitting .238 but with 4 homers. Stardom seemed assured if he kept his head attached. Once again, Grade A or A- if you were really worried about the personality..

Sheffield hit just .247 for the Brewers in 1989, struggling with injuries. But he took a big step forward in 1990, hitting .294 with 10 homers, 44 walks, and only 41 strikeouts in 487 at-bats. He was moved to third base to replace the injured Paul Molitor, a move which annoyed Sheffield. He perceived a racial component to the move, and his attitude continued to sour. Despite a vigorous workout schedule (testament to his work ethic), Sheffield continued to have injury problems in 1991 and hit only .194. He was also vocal about his dislike of the Milwaukee front office. At that point the Brewers gave up on him and traded him to the Padres.

Healthy in San Diego, Sheffield hit .330/.385/.580 with 33 homers and 100 RBI in 1992. The next few seasons saw a salary-motivated trade to Florida, continued problems with injuries, but excellent offensive production. Sheffield seems to have mellowed a bit from his early days, though controversy still seems to follow him around.

As a prospect, Sheffield showed exceptional offensive skills, particularly in the BB/K/AB department. What he has done in the majors is no surprise at all from a sabermetric perspective. His injury seasons may keep him from racking up 3,000 hits and other impressive counting stats, but at his peak he was one of the best hitters baseball has seen in the last 50 years.

Hall of Famer?

Comparable Players to Gary Sheffield (through 2005); Jeff Bagwell, Reggie Jackson, Billy Williams, Duke Snyder,
Willie Stargell, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Johnny Mize.

Looks like a Hall of Famer to me. Should the personality issues override the performance?


Ok, here is how things look now. First, the comparable list through the end of his career: Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr, Fred McGriff, Mickey Mantle, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Frank Thomas from the 90s, Al Kaline, and Chipper Jones.  Some names stay the same. Of these ten guys, six are in the Hall of Fame and at least two more will be. The only one who likely won't is McGriff.

Sheffield's numbers: career line of .292/.393/.514, OPS+ 140, with amazing strike zone judgment: 1475 walks against 1171 strikeouts in 9217 at-bats. Nine-time All Star. Black Ink test is just 4 (average HoFer is 27), Gray Ink is 123 (144), Hall of Fame Monitor 156 (100), Hall of Fame Standards 61 (50), WAR 65.8.  I know he played in a high-offense era, but still, the guy posted a 140+ OPS over a 22 year career.  Defense was never a great asset for him, but the bat was good enough to get in, in my opinion. For an alternative take, see Dave Cameron's post at Fangraphs.

Now, "good enough" to get in isn't the same thing as "will he" get in. I think he has a good-enough statistical case, but other things play into it. As Dave points out, Sheffield was a jerk. However, there are plenty of jerks in the Hall of Fame, so while pissing off the writers is never a good idea, I doubt that would be the thing that keeps him out. PED use is another matter, and that will weigh against him certainly. Sheffield has a decent statistical case, but it isn't so spectacular that the PEDs can be overlooked, at least in the minds of voters. Ultimately, I doubt he will be voted in, but if the Veteran's Committee is still around in 20 or 30 years, he might get in that way.

I'm so sick of the PED issue.