Hall of Fame Case: Gary Sheffieldby Alex Kielar January 12, 2022 2 comments
Gary Sheffield was one of the most feared sluggers over his 22-year career with eight ball clubs. The right-handed hitter is now in his eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot after receiving a boost last year. Sheffield got just 13.2 percent of the vote on the 2019 ballot, before rising up to 32.6 percent in 2020 then 43.2 percent last year. Through 41.1 percent of ballots known on the Baseball Hall of Fame tracker, he sits at 47.2 percent. He will need to garner votes on 94.4 percent of the remaining ballots to get elected this year. Like a number of the candidates on this ballot, Sheffield doesn’t lack controversy. But will voters be able to look past that to vote him in?
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Gary Antonian Sheffield was drafted sixth overall by the Milwaukee Brewers out of Hillsborough High School in the 1986 draft. Sheffield was only 17 years old when he was drafted and moved very swiftly through the minor league system. He made his major league debut at age 19 in September 1988. After starting off his career going 0-for-10, the slugger whacked a solo homer for his first hit in the big leagues. Later that same game, in the 11th inning, Sheffield smacked a walk-off RBI single. Outside of that, though, the early part of his career was shaky.
1990 was his best year with the Brewers (.294 BA, 10 HR, 67 RBI, 25 SB), but other than that, the four years were forgetful. He suffered through injuries, was demoted, struggled at shortstop, and moved to third. His four partial seasons with the Brewers saw him post just a 95 OPS+ with very below-average defense. Sheffield hit below the Mendoza line his final year there in 1991.
Sheffield came into his own when he was traded to the San Diego Padres in March 1992. Call it his breakout year, as the slugger won the National League batting title with a .330 batting average. He also had 33 home runs, 100 RBI, a 168 OPS+, and a 6.2 WAR. With these numbers, he finished third in MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Terry Pendleton. To save payroll, the Padres traded Sheffield and reliever Rich Rodriguez to the Florida Marlins in a five-player deal in 1993. That deal saw them get some young prospect named Trevor Hoffman.
The infield defense for Sheffield didn’t improve, as he committed 34 errors at the hot corner in 1993. After signing him to a four-year, $22.45 million contract, the Marlins moved him to right field. He was limited in 1994 and 1995 but still performed when healthy. Then fully healthy in 1996, Sheffield played in 161 games and had a career-best season at the dish. He hit .314 with 42 bombs, 120 RBI, and 118 runs scored. He led the NL with a .465 on-base percentage, was second in slugging (.624), and first in OPS+ (189). Sheffield also drew 142 walks while striking out just 66 times. The Marlins rewarded that with a six-year, $61 million contract extension.
After having a down regular season in 1997, Sheffield caught fire at just the right time. With the Marlins clinching a Wild Card birth, he hit .350 with a 1.061 OPS in the 16 postseason games. In just their fifth year of existence, the Marlins won the World Series over the Cleveland Indians in seven games. Despite just winning the World Series, the Marlins underwent a firesale. It didn’t include Sheffield right away, but he wound up being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers the following spring.
With the Dodgers, Sheffield continued to mash but couldn’t finish the 1998 season without getting hurt. He moved to left field in 1999 and, from ’99 to 2001, he averaged 145 games played with the Dodgers. The slugger hit .312 with a .420 OBP, .581 SLG, and 159 OPS+ in those three seasons. He also averaged 38 HR, 103 RBI, and 102 runs. But Sheffield felt the team wasn’t going in the right direction and asked for a trade and was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
Putting on Pinstripes
Sheffield had two solid seasons with the Braves, with 2003 being a monster year. In that season, he smashed 39 homers with 132 RBI, 126 runs, and a slash line of .330/.419/.604. Those numbers earned him another third-place finish for the NL MVP, behind Bonds and Albert Pujols. At 34, he was just as much a feared slugger than he was at 23.
A free agent for the first time after the 2003 season, Sheffield signed with the New York Yankees for a three-year contract. He played 154 games in both 2004 and 2005 while averaging 35 homers and 122 RBI while posting a 139 OPS+. His 2004 season saw him finish runner-up to Vladimir Guerrero for the MVP, his career-best finish. Then in the postseason, he had been hitting .412 with a 1.242 OPS up until the Yankees had a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. But his bat went silent and the Yankees infamously blew the 3-0 lead. The injury bug returned in 2006, as Sheffield played just 39 games due to torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers after the Yankees lost to them in the 2006 ALDS.
At 38, he had a solid but not great season in 2007, before having a career-worst season in 2008. The Tigers released him six days before the 2009 season began, despite him sitting at 499 career homers. The New York Mets picked him up six days later, and he would hit his 500th home run there before retiring at the end of the season.
Sheffield had an outstanding 14-year peak, in which he posted a triple slash of .304/.411/.551 with a 153 OPS+ – the fourth-best mark from 1992-2005 behind Bonds, Frank Thomas, and Manny Ramirez. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger winner, and had a 60.5 career WAR (18th among right fielders all-time). At the time of his retirement, Sheffield’s 509 career homers ranked 24th in MLB history, while he also ranked 21st with 1,475 walks. Of the 87 players in history who have logged at least 10,000 career plate appearances, Sheffield ranks 23rd with a 140 career OPS+. Of the 22 ahead of him, 18 of them are Hall of Famers and four are Hall of Fame level players (Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, Pujols, David Ortiz).
Bonus pro: Sheffield has one of the most famous and imitated swings in the history of the game. We all know or are someone who imitated his swing in Little League and Wiffle Ball.
Sheffield was plagued with injuries throughout his 22-year career and had a number of controversies swirling him. Like Bonds and Roger Clemens, he is linked to steroids, as he was named on the Mitchell Report due to his links to BALCO. However, Sheffield claimed that he didn’t knowingly use steroids and it was reported that the only time he did was in the 2002 offseason. Besides that, his career was authentic outside of the scandals, similar to Bonds. The numbers he put up in 1992 in San Diego were him at his best and healthiest.
The other noise surrounding Sheffield was that he had some run-ins with management and complained to the media. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even when that caused him to be less respected at times and traded a number of times. The defense was also a factor that could hinder him, but not enough to take away from his offensive prowess. In fact, he is the second worst defender in MLB history behind Derek Jeter based on the defensive component of Baseball-Reference WAR. Jeter was one vote shy of being unanimous on the 2020 ballot and the argument could be made that Sheffield was a better hitter.
Sheffield should be a Hall of Famer, as his peak years were just so solid. The negatives are not nearly enough to take away from his case. What will likely hurt him in getting in on the 2022 ballot are the other guys who haven’t gotten in yet. But this time next year, there will be a number of players off the ballot. They will either get in or fall off, while there are no Hall of Fame capable players coming on the ballot next year.
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