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Starting Nine: Is this the year Gary Sheffield gets the HOF call?

Breaking down the outfielder’s chances in his ninth year on the ballot

Sheffield at bat
Gary Sheffield is just one of five players with at least 500 homers and 2,500 hits, 1,500 RBI and 200 steals across their careers.
Photo By Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Two weeks from now, we’ll know who — if anyone — will be joining Fred McGriff in this summer’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Will any other former Atlanta Braves be taking the state in Cooperstown for the first time?

Ahead of the Jan. 24 reveal of the results of the Baseball Writers Association of America votes, the Starting Nine is focusing on the cases of the ex-Braves who are back on the ballot. Last week we looked at Andruw Jones’ candidacy, and this week we ask the question: is this the year Gary Sheffield gets the call?

Let’s get into the case for and the case against one of his era’s most feared sluggers.

1. The voting figures

With 150 ballots calculated, @NotMrTibbs’ latest tracker information has Sheffield at 66 percent — below the 75 percent needed for induction — and he’s so far gained votes from 23 returning balloters.

Getting to that needed threshold seems unlikely, though, with Sheffield needing to get 198 additional votes on the estimated remaining 396 ballots. But should he stay in that 60-percent range, it would continue a sizable jump for a player that has seen his support grow over the last three voting cycles.

Sheffield debuted at 11.7 percent in 2015, moved ahead slightly (13.3) in 2017, then fell back to 11.7 in 2018. He saw an incremental increase in 2019 to 13.6 percent, then saw that more than double in 2020 to 30.5 percent. A year later, he’d reached 40.6 percent, where he also sat after the 2022 ballots were tabulated.

With just one more year remaining on the ballot before his chances fall to the Eras Committee, Sheffield seems a stretch to get in via the writers.

2. Home run milestone? Check

Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Ted Williams. Those are the only players who hit their 500th career home run at an older age than Sheffield, who blasted the milestone on April 17, 2009, at 40 years, 150 days.

Beyond the place it gave Sheffield in baseball history — he became the 25th player to hit No. 500 — the homer had additional layers.

First, he’d hit it in a New York Mets uniform, the same that his uncle Dwight Gooden once wore, and it came against the Milwaukee Brewers, the team he’d played for in smacking the first 21 homers of his career.

Sheffield had joined the Mets less than two weeks earlier following his unexpected release by the Detroit Tigers, and the blast off Mitch Stetter was his first with New York.

He’d hit nine more, the last coming — in continuing those full-circle moments for Sheffield — off the Brewers’ Carlos Villanueva. That gave Sheffield 509 homers across his 22-year career, now 26th all-time.

Being a member of the 500-home run club used to mean an automatic pass to the HOF. Obviously, the performance-enhancing drug connections of so many of the players to reach that milestone in the last generation of sluggers (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, and Sheffield) have changed that perception, but it still has him in some heady company. Speaking of which ...

3. The offensive company he keeps

By every measure, Sheffield’s offensive resume is among the best of his, or any, generation.

There are only five players with at least 500 homers and 2,500 hits, 1,500 RBI and 200 steals: Aaron, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Robinson, Alex Rodriguez and Sheffield. Stunningly, those figures came without Sheffield leading even his league in any of those categories across his two decades-plus in the big leagues.

He’s also one of 87 players who had at least 10,000 plate appearances in their careers and is tied for Rodriguez at 23rd in OPS+ (140), ranking ahead of the likes of a number of players already in Cooperstown like Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., George Brett, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Wade Boggs and Roberto Clemente. Sheffield is also 16th on that list with 1,475 walks and 18th with a .393 on-base percentage and 30th in total bases (4,737).

4. An fWAR that surpasses recent HOFers at his position

Of the 185 non-pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame, 130 of them have fWARs lower than Sheffield’s 62.1. That includes 37 fellow outfielders.

Narrow it down to right fielders — where the average fWAR is 71.1 but is warped by the likes of Babe Ruth (168.4), Hank Aaron (136.3), Stan Musial (126.8), Mel Ott (110.4) and Frank Robinson (104.0) — and three of them voted in during the last 22 years in Dave Winfield (59.9), Andre Dawson (59.5), and most recently, Vladimir Guerrero (54.5), have fWARs below Sheffield’s.

If he’d been just an average defender, with a minus-45.8 Ultimate Zone Rating — which factors into FanGraphs’ WAR calculations — Sheffield’s already impressive fWAR would be even higher. But as it stands, he’s not only above the 60-WAR threshold that most consider a HOFer, he’s beyond those at his position who have gained entry over the last two decades.

5. His peak was monstrous

During Sheffield’s peak of 1992-2005, he hit 428 homers (ninth), drove in 1,343 (sixth) and posted a 57.6 fWAR and 153 wRC+.

That fWAR ranked 12th among all players and was ahead of four HOFers in Chipper Jones (57.5), Craig Biggio (56.9), Jim Thome (54.3), Edgar Martinez (53.5), and another former Brave on this ballot, Andruw Jones (55.0). Sheffield’ wRC+ trailing only Bonds (192), Mark McGwire (174), Albert Pujols (166), Frank Thomas (157) and Manny Ramirez (154), and posted the second-best Win Probability Added (99.38) behind Bonds (99.38).

In terms of fWAR, Sheffield was at his best in 2003, his last of two seasons in Atlanta, when he posted a 7.3 in hitting .307/.404/.512 with 39 home runs and 132 RBI. He finished third in the MVP voting that year after Bonds and Pujols.

While that largely makes the case for Sheffield, the knocks against him are clear, beginning with ...

6. Durability cost him

From 1996-2004, Sheffield averaged 33 home runs, including 42 with the Marlins in 1996, one of his nine All-Star season. It’s easy to dream on how many home runs he could have ended up with if injuries hadn’t limited him to five out of 22 seasons in which he played more than 146 games.

During his peak years, when Sheffield played at least 152 games — which he did in 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2005 — he averaged 37 homers; when he played in 140 or less — like in 1997, 1998, 2002 — he hit 22 HRs a season. He was bothered by a thumb issue in 1997, ankle a year later and wrist in 2002, but had he stayed at his average pace, that could have meant another 45 career home runs.

Those additional HRs would have seen Sheffield retire in 2009 as 14th all-time, just behind Jackson and a spot ahead of Mike Schmidt.

Sheffield’s averages also say he lost out on 39 hits per season in 1997, 1998 and 2002, numbers that would have put him over 2,800 in his career and made him one of five players with 550 homers, 2,800 hits and 200 steals. The others: Aaron, Bonds, Mays and Robinson.

7. The persona

With one of the most imitated swings in history — you know you tried that unmistakeable bat-wagging that was his alone — Sheffield had an aura at the plate. He also had one off the field.

There was little that was warm and fuzzy about him. Sheffield spoke his mind, whether you liked it or not, making claims of racism against the Brewers, implied Joe Torre treated black players and white players differently and he told GQ that there were a high number of Latins players in MLB because “(It’s about) being able to tell (Latin players) what to do — being able to control them.”

Look, nobody’s saying the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame are all beacons of integrity and great guys to boot, but Curt Schilling didn’t help his case the past few years in voting by being outspoken.

While Sheffield has certainly helped soften his image with his television work for TBS, a reputation for being surly and controversial isn’t helping win his votes.

8. Defensive shortcomings

What Sheffield did or didn’t do with the glove probably shouldn’t outweigh what he did at the plate, but it doesn’t help that the defensive numbers are historically bad.

Sheffield’s minus-27.7 dWAR is the second worst in history among players with at least 2,000 games played, with only Adam Dunn’s minus-28.4 saving Sheffield from the bottom spot. Joining him in the minus-20s in career bWAR are Dave Winfield, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera, four players already enshrined, and another in Cabrera, who should be a first-ballot inductee.

We already mentioned the abysmal UZR, and FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average has Sheffield as the worst qualified player ever at -300.9, with a sizable — that’s 24.3 to be exact — gap between him and the next closest player, Ramirez at -276.6.

9. PED connection

This is the big red flag. Being named in the Mitchell Report for his links to BALCO has all but cemented things for Sheffield. The counting numbers are there, but like Bonds and Roger Clemens — who didn’t make it in via the writers’ ballots and were just rebuked by the Eras Committee in December — overcoming the connection to performance-enhancing drugs seems unlikely any time soon.

Now, Sheffield did testify under oath that he had been duped into using PEDs, and claims that he took them unknowingly beginning while living with Bonds and working out with him ahead of the 2002 season. As he told Sports Illustrated in 2004, Sheffield said BALCO gave him vitamins and “the cream” which he thought was cortisone for surgical scars and used it that upcoming season, when he was playing for the Braves.

He was the first player to admit using steroids, but whether Sheffield took them on purpose or not is a distinction that doesn’t seem likely to get him 75 percent via the BBWAA, and unless something changes with Bonds and Clemens via the Eras Committee, he may never get in.

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