It is easy to look at Gary Sheffield as a polarizing player, but given the rest of this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, even that statement is muted by comparison. I’m not sure there is a more competitive and underappreciated player on this ballot than Sheffield. He was never afraid to say what was on his mind and he didn’t hesitate to inform everyone if he found himself in what he thought was a less-than-desirable situation. Still, the man was a pure hitter with one of the hardest and memorable swings in the game. He has Hall of Fame numbers across the board offensively, but that outspokenness and a connection to BALCO has slowed his Hall of Fame push.
Sheffield was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 1986 as a senior in high school, which led to him being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers with the sixth overall selection. To say his time in Milwaukee was volatile would be an understatement. He tore through Milwaukee’s minor league system and made his Major League debut as a 19-year-old in 1988. Sheffield began the 1989 season as the team’s shortstop but controversy followed. He complained of a foot injury, but the Brewers thought he was faking it and demoted him to Triple-A. There, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his right foot. He filed a grievance through the union and the seeds of mistrust were sown deep. He eventually returned to the majors, but was shifted to third base in what Sheffield claimed was a racially-charged decision. He had an ongoing feud with Brewers General Manager Harry Dalton, who was fired at the end of the 1991 season. New GM Sal Bando traded Sheffield to the San Diego Padres. Sheffield spent part of four seasons with Milwaukee hitting .259/.319/.376 with 21 home runs in over 1,200 plate appearances.
After joining the Padres, Sheffield put much of the negativity from Milwaukee behind him and broke out at the plate in 1992, hitting .330/.385/.580 with 33 home runs and a 172 wRC+. His stay in San Diego wouldn’t last long, however, as the Padres stripped down their roster in 1993 and traded Sheffield to the Miami Marlins in a deal that brought closer Trevor Hoffman to San Diego. The Padres also traded first baseman Fred McGriff to Atlanta that season in a move that sparked a Braves run to another division title.
Injuries and the players’ strike in 1994 limited Sheffield in both 1994 and 1995. He was healthy again in 1996 and put together another monster season where he hit .314/.465/.624 to go with 42 home runs and a career-best 185 wRC+. Sheffield signed a six-year, $61 million extension with the Marlins during the spring of 1997. Continued issues with his thumb hampered his production that season, but the Marlins went on to win the Wild Card and later defeated the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Sheffield’s season was interesting in that he hit just .250 but had a .424 OBP. He finished the regular season with 111 hits and 121 walks.
Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga then famously tore down the roster and Sheffield was traded to the Dodgers in the Mike Piazza deal.
Sheffield kept right on hitting after joining the Dodgers, putting up a combined .312/.424/.573 line with 129 home runs over the next four seasons. He, however, became dissatisfied with his situation in Los Angeles as he felt that he was now underpaid. Los Angeles traded him to the Braves in December of 2001 in exchange for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez and minor league pitcher Andrew Brown.
Sheffield was entering his age-33 season in 2002 and made a quick impact, hitting .307/.404/.512 with a 144 wRC+ in just 135 games. He put together the best season of his career by fWAR in 2003 hitting .330/.419/.604 with 39 home runs, 126 RBI, a 163 wRC+, and 7.3 fWAR.
Sheffield continued to be one of the best hitters in the majors during his two-year stay in Atlanta. Those two seasons also came and went with no controversy, as Sheffield enjoyed playing for Bobby Cox. Sheffield agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Yankees that offseason and Cox wished him well on his way out the door.
“Gary, for two years, was pleasant,” Cox said. “He’s a manager’s player. He was terrific. He came to play. Joe Torre will like him a lot.”
Sheffield put up MVP-type numbers in his first two seasons in the Bronx. A wrist injury suffered in a collision at first base limited him to just 39 games in 2007. New York picked up the $13 million option on his contract, but then traded him to Detroit. At 38-years old, Sheffield hit 25 home runs and stole 22 bases in his first season in Detroit. He dealt with multiple injuries in 2008 and hit just .225/.326/.400 in 114 games. Detroit released him in the spring and he latched on with the Mets, where he reached the 500 home run club while hitting .276/.372/.451 in his farewell season.
Sheffield’s offensive contributions were dragged down by subpar defense throughout his career. While most of his playing time came before defense started being tallied by metrics such as DRS and UZR, Sheffield is currently literally dead last in career defensive value when you combine UZR with a positional adjustment. While this was likely never on the table in reality, Sheffield lost about 30 wins of career value due to negative defense; even halving this amount would take him from his career 62.1 fWAR to over 77, which would move him from 108th to 44th all-time among position players. Estimations of his defense remained horrible irrespective of where he played, as his abhorrent marks at third base were later mirrored by the same level of badness in right field and then left field. His Atlanta tenure coincided with the start of the advanced defensive metrics era, and amusingly, those two seasons in right field are some of his least-negative defensive totals, hence the career-high in fWAR in 2003.
Sheffield was also unfortunately linked to the BALCO in 2004 along with Barry Bonds. Sheffield testified to a grand jury that Bonds introduced him to BALCO in 2002 and that he had unknowingly used some of the lab’s steroid products. Sheffield distanced himself from Bonds and later was a proponent of increased steroid testing. Still, that stain has no doubt hurt him among some Hall of Fame voters.
Currently, Sheffield is in his eighth year on the ballot and is polling at 46.6 percent of the vote in Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker. He has seen increased support in recent years but is still a lengthy distance from the 75 percent threshold needed for induction. If he isn’t elected by the writers, then he is in decent position to be elected by the era committees.