It is sad that Statcast was not around when former Atlanta Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield was in the prime of his career. He undoubtedly would have been on the leaderboard quite often, especially with exit velocity. It seemed that Sheffield did not hit fly ball home runs, he hit line drive lasers. Not to mention, the most swagger in history with his signature bat wobble.
For a period of time, it was assumed that 500 HRs was a lock to be a HOFer. For Sheffield, there are some circumstances that have possibly hindered him thus far on the ballot. He has not been afraid to speak his mind, which many fans adore about players, but some voters may not (we will truly never know).
Sheffield made his debut for the Brewers as a 19-year-old in 1988 after winning Gatorade National Player of the Year in 1986 as a senior in high school. Shortly after that in following season, he had a foot injury that the Brewers thought he was faking and sent him back to the minors. It turned out that he actually was injured. When he was brought back up to MLB they shifted him from SS to 3B. Sheffield was outspoken about his frustration (who can blame him?), and the relationship between him and the Brewers seemed to diminish from there.
He was then traded to the Padres and would eventually play for eight different teams in his career. Sheffield also is tied to the BALCO scandal. In 2004 he testified that Barry Bonds introduced him. Sheffield never tested positive but did admit he unknowingly used some of BALCO’s steroid products. To his credit, he became an advocate to stricter testing and distanced himself from Barry Bonds in the process.
These controversies have seemingly slowed his chances at being enshrined into the Hall. He is entering his final year on the ballot and his results have been as follows (in percentage of ballots): 11.7, 11.6, 13.3, 11.1, 13.6, 30.5, 40.6, 40.6, 55.0. Voters seem to be coming around to the idea that he deserves to be in, despite the controversies tied to him. But is it too little too late?
Let’s look at his numbers and awards.
First, let’s look back upon his time with the Atlanta Braves. During his time in Atlanta, he played in two-hundred-ninety games in which he hit .319/.412/.562 with sixty-four HRs. The only team in which he had a higher slugging percentage was during his four years with the Dodgers. During his 2003 season with the Braves, he was an All-Star and came in third place in MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. He ended that season with a .330/.419/.604 slash line with thirty-nine HRs.
If we look at just pure offensive numbers and nothing else, it is a no brainer that he would be a lock to be in the HOF. The nine-time all-star won five silver slugger awards, with four being while he played OF. Only ten outfielders in history have won more silver sluggers than Gary Sheffield, and only twenty-two players have won more silver sluggers if we include all positions.
The 1997 World Series Champion also had MVP votes in seven different seasons, although he never won. His closest came in 2004 when he came in second place to Vladimir Guerrero. Somehow in 1996 he led the NL in OBP, and slugging, yet came in sixth in the voting. To be fair, he was atrocious on defense that season with his worst single season dWAR of his career, but it is still shocking to see a sixth-place finish.
Sheffield ended his career with a slash line of .292/.393/.514 which equates to a wRC+ of 141. That means his average output was 41.0 percent better than league average for his entire twenty-two-year career.
In terms of accumulating numbers, he is one of the best. His 2576 games played is forty-eighth all-time among all position players, his 1636 runs scored is thirty-ninth, 2689 hits are seventieth, 4737 total bases are thirty-fifth, 509 HRs are twenty-seventh, 1676 RBI are thirtieth, 1475 walks are twenty-first, and in career OPS+ he is eighty-sixth.
The one stat that really sticks out in terms of accumulated stats is his offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR). Only thirty-six players in history have more career oWAR than him (80.7). His defense really hurt his overall WAR though with his 60.5 overall Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR) being much lower on the career list at one-hundred-twentieth all-time among position players. Of course, typically Fangraphs and Statcast does a better job measuring defense, but Sheffield played his career before the Statcast era, and most of his career before Fangraphs tracked more advanced metrics like DRS and UZR.
Comparing Sheffield to his peers can be difficult. There are fun measurements out there like the Hall of Fame Monitor, the Hall of Fame Standards test, and JAWS.
The Hall of Fame Monitor attempts to assess how likely (not how deserving) an active player is to make the Hall of Fame based on a scoring system based on career accomplishments. In this rendition, Sheffield’s batting score is a one-hundred-fifty-eight when the average HOFer is approximately one hundred.
Hall of Fame Career Standards Test is a little different with the average HOFer scoring a fifty, but the idea is the same as it is a scoring system based on career accomplishments. Sheffield scores a sixty-one when the average HOFer scores around a fifty.
The largest flaw with these tests is that the way they measure defense is based purely on what position the player played, not how well they played those positions. For example, in Hall of Fame Monitor test a player gets an additional 15 points if the player has more than 2,500 games played at 2B, SS, or 3B. Granted, a player would most likely be decent at their position if they stick around that long, but it is a stretch to say it is a good measurement to compare against your peers.
As we already know, Sheffield was not good at defense, so he was never going to score well on these anyway.
JAWS focuses more on WAR, which does a better job factoring in defense and baserunning than the other two tests. It is not perfect, but it does give a good high-level view of how players compare. It also has its own scoring system which is a player’s career WAR averaged with his 7-year peak WAR. According to JAWS, there are twenty-eight primary RFers in the HOF. Their average WAR is 71.1, 7yr-peak WAR is 42.4 and a 56.7 JAWS score. Sheffield ranks twenty-fourth all time among RFers with a 60.5 WAR, 38.0 7-year peak, and 49.3 JAWS score.
As can be seen, if we look at just offense alone, Sheffield is right in the mix with the all-time greats, but if we factor in his defense then he is more of a fringe candidate if voters decide to factor in defense. Factoring in his BALCO connection and it being his last year on the ballot when players typically get a nice jump in ballot percentages, and we have a very interesting case indeed on if Sheffield will finally surpass the 75.0 percent threshold to be enshrined into the HOF.