At plate, Sheffield struck fear in foes

Slugger compiled great career numbers with offensive prowess

January 16th, 2018

The other day, we talked about how, by some defensive metrics, Andruw Jones was the greatest defensive center fielder in history, ahead of Willie Mays and Paul Blair and the rest. This is an extraordinary claim. The legend of Mays, Blair, Garry Maddox, Curt Flood and so many others is such that more people are likely to say that those defensive metrics are nonsensical than agree with the conclusion.
Well, by defensive wins above replacement (WAR), Gary Sheffield is the worst defensive outfielder in history.
Are people more or less likely to believe that one?
Sheffield was a crazy good hitter. You can talk about his connection to steroids -- he admitted using "the cream" in 2002 to help his right leg recover from injury -- but beyond that, there hasn't ever been a hitter quite like Sheff. Before the pitch, he waved the bat like he was an out-of-control madman about to go on a rampage. And then the pitch would come, and he was surgical in the way that he smashed the ball in whatever direction seemed appropriate.
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It was ridiculous how precise a hitter Sheffield was. The only members of the 500-homer club with fewer strikeouts than Sheff are Ted Williams, Mel Ott and, for the time being, (Pujols will likely pass Sheffield in strikeouts early in the 2018 season). Sheffield only struck out 80 times in a season once, and he played in a time of many strikeouts. He walked 300 more times than he struck out for his career. Sheffield might be the last player to finish a career that much in the black.

Yes, Sheffield's career hitting numbers are extraordinary, legendary. He's 23rd all time in Rbat (the hitting component for Baseball Reference WAR), ahead even of surefire first-ballot choice Chipper Jones (not to mention Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.).
Lists like these are always a bit deceptive, but they're fun anyway -- here's a list of the eight players in baseball history with 500 homers and 200 stolen bases:

  1. Barry Bonds
  2. Hank Aaron
  3. Alex Rodriguez
  4. Mays
  5. Griffey Jr.
  6. Frank Robinson
  7. Jackson
  8. Sheffield
    Of these, Sheffield has the second-highest on-base percentage behind Bonds, and he struck out by far the least. Sheffield, Bonds and Aaron are the only ones to walk more than they struck out.
    Sheffield's hitting is legendary, but if you buy into defensive stats at all, his defense is just about as legendary the other way. By Baseball Reference's figuring, Sheffield was 195 runs below average, an astonishing number that roughly means he cost his teams 20 or so games just with his defense.

To dig into those numbers even more: Sheffield's 60.3 career WAR puts him a full 13 wins below the average Hall of Fame right fielder, which seems to suggest he has no Hall of Fame case. But his ERA is that low because of how much his defense drags him down. His 79.9 offensive WAR ranks him fifth among right fielders only behind four of the greatest players in baseball history, Babe Ruth, Aaron, Robinson and Ott. This guy was an all-time hitter.
Can someone be such a poor defensive player that it all but cancels out such legendary hitting?
In Sheffield's case, there's a more pertinent question: Why did he put up such poor defensive statistics? Sheffield was a fantastic athlete. It isn't hard to understand why, say, Adam Dunn or Frank Howard struggled in the outfield -- they were big men, not fast, not especially agile. But Sheffield came up to the big leagues as a shortstop. He was fast, nimble, had remarkable hand-eye coordination. He had a pretty good arm. In other words, Sheffield had everything necessary to at least be an average outfielder; he seemed to have everything necessary to be an outstanding one. Bill James, for one, believes he was a better outfielder than these numbers suggest.

But these rough defensive numbers are very real. Take something as simple as putouts. As a right fielder, Sheffield made 1.9 putouts per nine innings -- .2 less than the league average. The stats work out the same in left. That means 32 more baseballs a year dropped when hit in Sheffield's range than the average outfielder. That's a lot of singles and doubles where outs should be.
As for why, it's hard to say. Sheffield was an emotional player. He played for eight teams in his career -- never more than six seasons for any one team -- and no other player of his caliber had that disorienting of a career (with the possible exception of Rickey Henderson, who played for nine teams, but five of them in the last few years of his career when he was trying to hang on).
Sheffield, like Luke Skywalker, always looked away, to the future, to the horizon, never his mind on where he was. Hmm. He was a disappointment with Milwaukee, and he was traded to San Diego. He won a batting title with San Diego, and he was traded to Florida. He was probably the best hitter in the league in 1996, and the next year he won a World Series with Florida. And he was traded to Los Angeles. He averaged .312 with 38 homers and 103 RBIs for the Dodgers, and he was traded to Atlanta. He hit .330 with 39 homers and 132 RBIs with Atlanta, and he left for the Yankees.

Some of these moves were his doing, some of them weren't, but it leaves behind an impression of instability. Sheffield made nine All-Star teams and he finished top five in the MVP Award voting three times, but he never seemed to be viewed as one of the greatest players in the game. Since appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2015, Sheffield has not yet drawn 15 percent of the vote. Part of it, maybe even most of it, is the steroid connection. But the poor defensive numbers and the career of many teams have left their marks, too.
I have said before that if I was a pitcher, the two scariest hitters of my lifetime would have been Jeff Bagwell and Sheffield. Bagwell's intimidation came from the still way he would stand at the plate, that big wide stance, that bat just fluttering ever so slightly. This was a guy who meant to turn on a pitch and pull it all the way to Shaker Heights.
And Sheffield was the opposite, all that nervous energy, that bat waving wildly behind him, that glare he would give pitchers that showed this was all very personal. Sheff is almost certainly not going to get elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But if there was a scary pitcher and hitter Hall of Fame, he'd be a first-ballot selection. I'd love to watch him face Bob Gibson, day after day after day.