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Revisiting Gary Sheffield’s Case for Cooperstown

2022 will be the right fielder’s eighth year on the ballot.

Ahead of the announcement of the 2021 Hall of Fame class, we here at Fish Stripes posed the idea of how a weak first-year class could prove a net positive for the likes of Scott Rolen and former Marlin Gary Sheffield in their pursuit of plaques in Cooperstown. The result: while no new names were elected to the Hall, Rolen and Sheffield did make good headway. Rolen received a 17.6-percent boost (from 35.3% in 2020 to 52.9% in 2021), and Sheffield jumped 10.1 percentage points (30.5% to 40.6%), respectively.

Now, entering his eighth year of eligibility, we find ourselves here again, digging through the numbers, making a case for Sheffield’s place in the Hall.

Surface-Level Stats

Gary Sheffield’s standard batting stats
Gary Sheffield’s standard batting stats

Sheffield’s 509 home runs rank 26th all-time. At the time of his final game following the end of the 2009 season, Sheffield sat just inside the top 25, at number 24. The longtime right fielder’s 1,676 RBI place him 30th all-time, despite never leading the league in any individual season over the course of his 22-year career.

Drawing 1,475 free passes over the course of his career—21st all-time through the 2021 season—the nine-time All-Star retired with a career .393 on-base percentage. Sheffield strung together 8 full seasons—a mark I’ll define as 130-plus games—of an OBP exceeding .400, topping out at his NL-leading .465 mark in 1996. Overall, his 4,299 times on base is the 29th-highest total in MLB history.

Beyond the Baseball Card

Sheffield’s approach in the batter’s box made him unique. For his career, he struck out in just 10.7 percent of plate appearances, while walking in 13.5 percent of them. In 2021, of the 188 hitters who amassed 400 or more plate appearances, the closest one came to matching Sheffield’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was Houston’s Yuli Gurriel, striking out 68 times, while walking 59 times in 605 plate appearances (11.2%-9.7%).

Similarity Scores, a metric used by Baseball-Reference and designed by the universally-heralded godfather of sabermetrics, Bill James, takes every aspect of a player’s performance and compares them to their respective peers. It works on a 0-1,000 scale. Sheffield’s closest comp is former teammate and current Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (892.4). By adjusted OPS+, a metric where 100 represents the league average, Jones and Sheffield retired at 141 and 140, respectively.

The top 10 names on Sheffield’s similarity score list include seven Hall of Famers. Two others, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Beltrán, will have strong cases for induction once they become eligible for BBWAA consideration.

One aspect often ignored when assessing Sheffield’s career was his speed. Stealing 253 bases over the course of his career, Sheffield’s power-speed, a metric that accounts for a player’s ability to produce extra-base hits in conjunction with their intangibles as a base runner, ranks 13th all-time at 338. While analytics have, for the most part, done away with the stolen base, still impressive is the fact that Sheffield posted 14 seasons of 10 or more steals.

Where He Falls Short

While 500 home runs were once seen as a sealing of the deal for a player’s Hall of Fame case, perspective through analytics can sometimes tell a different story.

Let’s delve into WAR. Using Wins Above Replacement helps us discern “how much better a player is than a player that would typically be available to replace that player,” as Baseball-Reference defines it. Sheffield accrued 60.5 rWAR over the course of his career in the eyes of their model. That ranks 181st all-time. Combining this career total with his longevity and peak value relative to right fielders already in the Hall of Fame, we see that the bat-wiggling Sheffield has a cloudier case than most may think.

Gary Sheffield’s Hall of Fame statistics
Gary Sheffield’s Hall of Fame statistics

The average career WAR amongst Hall of Fame right fielders, 71.1, is 10.6 more than Sheffield. Even derivative metrics such as his 7-year peak WAR, JAWS, and WAR/162, all have him well below his positional peers already in the Hall.

Isolating Sheffield’s offensive contributions—his bat, his plate discipline and his baserunning—he produced more than 80 wins of value (80.7 oWAR). However, his defense partially negated that.

Even before “defensive runs saved” entered the baseball vernacular, Sheffield was consistently seen as a poor defender. He had limitations as a right fielder, and to a more extreme extent, he struggled early in his career as a middling infielder. Debuting as a shortstop with Milwaukee in 1988, Sheffield would appear in 94 games at the position before moving to third base, a position he’d play on a regular basis through the 1993 season.

After retiring following the 2009 season, Sheffield had amassed -27.7 dWAR and -180 total zone fielding runs above average. In every season of his career, Sheffield was a liability by dWAR, costing his team multiple wins with the glove in four individual seasons.

No Gary Sheffield HOF piece is complete without at least acknowledging his ties to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

While his ties to the BALCO scandal are well-documented, we’ll simply note the final year of eligibility for the likes of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Like Clemens and Bonds—who received 61.6 and 61.8 in 2021, respectively—Sheffield never failed any tests for PEDs. The voter trepidation towards checking his name on the ballot is rooted in suspicion (or contempt for his character in general).

What do you think though? Did Sheffield do enough over the course of his career to merit a place in Cooperstown? Would his selection cause for a re-evaluation of what to do with the likes of Bonds and Clemens? Would it give the Hall a big black eye and stain baseball’s moral compass?

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