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Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered — Part III

(Continued from Part I and Part II)…

Like the silencing of a car alarm, the Dodgers’ trade of Gary Sheffield to the Atlanta Braves on January 15, 2002 came as a relief to all parties involved. Sheffield’s final year in LA had been a noisy and turbulent one, his outstanding numbers (.311/.417/.583 with 36 homers and 100 RBI) notwithstanding. Despite his three years achieving historical levels of productivity, with him on board, the Dodgers had missed the playoffs every time.

From a team scrapping in vain for the postseason, Sheffield was shipped to one which had winning the division down cold. The Braves had won seven consecutive NL East titles and, excluding the ‘94 strike, had topped their division ten straight times under manager Bobby Cox. But by the end of 2001, the team was showing some cracks. They had won the East with a relatively unimpressive 88-74 record, seven fewer wins than the year before and 15 fewer than in 1999. Their vaunted pitching staff, led by the duo of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (with a rehabilitating John Smoltz shifting to the closer role), was still strong enough to allow the fewest runs in the NL for the tenth consecutive year. But the Braves offense had sunk to 13th out of 16 in runs scored.

Chipper Jones (.330/.427/.605 with 38 homers and 102 RBI) was the monster at the center of the lineup, but the dropoff from him to the next-best hitters, Andruw Jones (.251/.312/.461), Javy Lopez (.267/.322/.425) and the departed Brian Jordan (.295/.334/.496), was considerable. The Braves needed Sheffield’s big bat in their lineup. Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliot hailed the deal as the team’s “boldest trade for a bat since the franchise moved from Milwaukee 36 years ago,” a list that included the likes of Orlando Cepeda, Davey Johnson, Dick Allen, and Fred McGriff.

Sheffield, of course, welcomed the deal with open arms, saying he had “left the negative stuff behind.” He waived his right to demand a trade after one season — a right available to every player traded during a multi-year contract — and the Braves agreed not to pick up his $11 million option for 2004. He began training with Barry Bonds, who “introduce[d] him to the training and diet regimens that have altered Bonds’ career,” according to a Baseball Digest article (more on that topic soon enough). His contact with Bonds motivated him towards a new sense of professionalism and made him more philosophical:

“I just played this game because I played it,” Sheffield said. “It wasn’t something that really motivated me to say, ‘I really want to be a baseball player.’ I understand that now.”

Gary Sheffield was ready to shut up and play ball.

Sheffield got off to a roaring start in 2002, homering in his first three games as a Brave and driving in seven runs. But he was hit on the wrist during the season’s second week and soon after, his production plummeted. Playing only two games in a two-week span, he endured an 0-for-29 slump that brought his batting average down to the Mendoza Line. After a month of hitting in the cleanup spot behind Chipper Jones, Cox flip-flopped the two sluggers, but through the end of May, his production still lagged; he was hitting only .250/.337/.395 with six homers. But a two-homer, five-RBI performance on June 1 heralded the return of his whooping stick, and over the next three months, he put up numbers that were straight from the Gary Sheffield Catalog of Pitcher Punishment: .330/.431/.591 with 18 homers and 58 RBI.

Sheffield was rolling along until late in August, he sprained his left thumb during batting practice and missed nine games, returning the night after his son, Jaden Amir, was born. He hit only one homer during the season’s final three weeks, but finished with a solid .307/.404/.512, though his 25 homers and 84 RBI were the numbers of a man who played in only 135 games, his lowest since 1998. Still, his bat was a big boost to the Braves, who won 101 games. Their offense, while still a few hairs below league-average, was eighth in the NL, improving by 0.15 runs relative to the league.

But his 2002 postseason was a frustrating one, and his most memorable moments were dubious ones. He homered in the first game of the Divisional Series against the Giants, but he also grounded into a double-play to end the ballgame while representing the tying run. In the bottom of the ninth in the fifth and deciding game, with the tying run on first base and nobody out, he struck out again, just before Chipper grounded into a series-ending DP. The homer represented his only hit of the series, though he walked seven times. The Braves actually outscored the Giants, 26-24, but they lost the series in part because Dusty Baker wouldn’t let Gary Sheffield beat them.

If the 2002 season had frustrated him, then apparently Sheffield decided to take it out on the pitchers he faced in 2003. In his long-awaited walk year, at the age of 34, he put up a vintage campaign: .330/.419/.604 with 39 homers and career-highs in runs (126) and RBI (132). He stayed healthy, playing in 155 games, and consistent, his OPS hovering between .956 and 1.100 in every month. Again the Braves rolled to 101 wins, this time with the NL’s most potent offense. The Braves scored 5.6 runs per game, 0.99 runs above the league average. Sheffield finished third in the MVP voting, his best showing for the award since 1992.

But again, his postseason, and that of the Braves, was a disappointment, as they failed to make it out of the first round. The Chicago Cubs held Sheffield to two paltry singles and one RBI in 14 at-bats. Worse, Mark Prior hit Sheffield on the left hand in Game Three of the series. He stayed in the ballgame, but the hand was so swollen he missed Game Four. With Darren Bragg going 0-for-5 in his place, the Braves forced a fifth game and Sheffield returned, but his RBI single was the only run they managed off of Kerry Wood. The series was fairly close — the first four games decided by two runs each — and practically any swing of Sheffield’s potent bat could have made a difference. But he was 1-for-7 with men on base, 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position, and injury or no, his lack of production was a major factor in the Braves’ loss.

At the close of the season, Sheffield finally had his long-awaited free-agency. At one point he had held the game’s largest contract, but his 6-year, $61 million deal (signed in April ‘97) had been surpassed by more than two dozen larger ones during its lifespan (this list may be incomplete):

           Date  Yrs  $mil.   AAV
ARodriguez 12/00  10   252   25.2
MRamirez   12/00   8   160   20.0
Jeter       2/01  10   189   18.9
Bonds       1/02   5    90   18.0
Sosa        3/01   4    72   18.0
Giambi     12/01   7   120   17.1
Bagwell    12/00   5    85   17.0
Delgado    10/00   4    68   17.0
Helton      3/01   9   141.5 15.7
Hampton    12/00   8   121   15.1
CJones      8/00   6    90   15.0
Brown      12/98   7   105   15.0
Mussina    11/00   6    88.5 14.8
Thome      12/02   6    85   14.2
Green      11/99   6    84   14.0
MVaughn    11/98   6    80   13.3
Park       12/01   5    65   13.0
Belle      12/98   5    65   13.0
Griffey     2/00   9   116.5 12.9
PMartinez  12/97   7    90   12.9
BWilliams  11/98   7    87.5 12.5
AJones     11/01   6    75   12.5
Walker      3/99   6    75   12.5
Piazza     11/98   7    81   11.6
Rolen       9/02   8    90   11.3

While the 35-year-old slugger could not have been expected to sign a five-year-deal, under normal market conditions, he could rightfully have expected a contract whose average annual value (AAV) placed him in the upper half of those above. But the market over which he had salivated for so long had dried up considerably, and those high-dollar contracts were no longer available. Whether due to a sluggish economy, Moneyball-type rationalism, the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement, collusion, or uncharacteristic discipline on the part of the owners, the winter of 2003-2004, like the one before it, contained little of the feeding frenzy of years past.

It didn’t help Sheffield that the winter’s marquee free agent played the same position as he did: right field. Vladimir Guerrero had been the most hotly anticipated free agent since Alex Rodriguez. At seven years younger than Sheffield, he combined similar production with the possibility that, at age 28, he still had some prime years left. But he also had durability questions, namely a bad back which cost him 50 games in 2003. A comparison between the two hitters’ average performances over the last three years shows alarming similarity (guess which is which):

     G   PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  HR  RBI
A  144  616  .324 .408 .581  33  99
B  144  625  .316 .418 .569  33 105

Player A is Guerrero, Player B is Sheffield, and the only surefire way you could have told the two players’ lines apart would have been if I’d included stolen bases; over the three-year-span Vlad averaged 29 with 14 caught stealing while Sheffield averaged 13 with 3 CS. Sheffield’s performance might have been a hair more valuable, not only because the OBP is more valuable than the SLG, but also because one year of Dodger Stadium production is included in there, while Guerrero’s line includes some games in the Hiram Bithorn bandbox in Puerto Rico as well as Olympic Stadium, both of which favor hitters considerably. But rarely do two free agents with such similar stats hit the market at the same time.

Predictably, Guerrero was the one who drew more interest. To varying degrees the Marlins, Dodgers, Mets, and Orioles chased him, but it was the Angels who came away with the prize, signing Guerrero for five years and $70 million, an average of $14 mil per year. But by that time, Gary Sheffield had already gotten himself a deal that was nearly as good.

In mid-November, with his team still smarting from its World Series loss, Yankee GM Brian Cashman contacted Sheffield. The Man from Tampa, George Steinbrenner, knew what he wanted, and after a season watching and then banishing the petulant Raul Mondesi and replacing him with the likes of Karim Garcia, David Dellucci, and Juan Rivera (all of whom hit a combined .256/.317/.465 with 28 HR and 84 RBI), what he wanted was Tampa native Sheffield. The Dwight Gooden connection — he’s Sheffield’s uncle and currently on the Yankee payroll as an advisor — was said to be a factor. The only other team even rumored to want Sheffield was the Braves, but in the end, they hardly put up a fight to keep him.

Perhaps the Boss’ interest scared other suitors away, or the chase for Guerrero distracted other teams, or GMs held long memories of the noise level of Sheffield’s tenure in L.A., or an alleged blackball attempt by the Prince of Darkness, Scott Boras, had an impact. Sheffield had fired Boras, who never even got to negotiate a contract for him, in May 2003, and decided to represent himself, sparing himself Boras’ five percent agent fee and abrasive, antagonistic negotiation style. Boras, predictably, was not amused, and filed suit this summer, alleging that Sheffield owed him the fee on his Yankee contract.

Even without an agent and without competition from other teams, the negotiations didn’t go quite as smoothly as one would have expected. Initial reports had Sheffield agreeing to a three-year, $39 million handshake deal, but Sheffield was later rumored to have reneged by asking for $42 million, a higher interest rate on deferred payments, and a larger buyout in his option year of 2007. Briefly, it was speculated that this snag would cause the Yanks to drop their pursuit of Sheffield in favor of Guerrero, but Sheffield backed down on his demands. He signed a deal which nets him $12 million per year for 2004-2006 plus a club option for 2007 which would pay him either $12 million or a $3 million buyout. At long last Gary Sheffield would be in pinstripes.

Sheffield first made waves as a Yankee in late January, when in the wake of Aaron Boone’s injury, he volunteered to return to third base, a position he hadn’t played since fielding .899 there in 1993. The Yankees said “no, thanks,” and instead traded for Alex Rodriguez, but GM Brian Cashman was impressed with the gesture: “It’s awesome that he stepped up, but it’s not being considered at this time… He sees the team has a need and he volunteers to plug it. A terrific message.”

Less flattering was Sheffield’s name surfacing in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation. In December, Sheffield was among the ballplayers who testified before a federal grand jury that indicted BALCO owner Victor Conte and three other men, including Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds’ personal weight trainer, on charges of distributing illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Conte is said to have supplied the names of more than 30 athletes to whom he had allegedly given steroids, including a previously undetectable substance called THG (“the clear”) as well as testosterone gel (“the cream”), human growth hormone, and other substances. Conte has denied furnishing names or admitting to any illegal activity.

Bonds, Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Benito Santiago, Marvin Benard, and Randy Velarde were the major-league ballplayers named as allegedly receiving the drugs. Like Bonds and the others named, Sheffield has publicly denied taking steroids. In a statement, his attorney said, “Gary Sheffield has never knowingly ingested a steroid… and Gary Sheffield has never knowingly applied an anabolic steroid cream to his body.” According to various New York Times reports, Sheffield has acknowledged ordering vitamins from BALCO and sending them mail.

The BALCO case is still pending, and while its repercussions have led to baseball attempting to revamp its drug policy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle article which broke the story of Conte’s alleged naming of names, the athletes are not its target:

But even as it promised to get tough on steroids, the government took unusual steps to turn the focus away from the elite athletes suspected of using the illegal substances that BALCO allegedly supplied. Early on, the government said it was not interested in prosecuting athletes for using steroids, instead granting them immunity when they were called to testify before the grand jury.

The government also has deleted from public court files the names of every athlete who allegedly obtained illegal performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO.

BALCO aside, Sheffield continued to impress the Yankee brass before the season opened. In the first week of exhibition games, he injured his right thumb, in which he’d torn a ligament last summer to no huge detriment (he hit .327/17/62 according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Initial reports had him slated for surgery and missing up to three months, but doctors eventually cleared him to play. George Steinbrenner called him “one tough cookie” and publicly applauded his courage.

Sheffield got off to a relatively lukewarm start in pinstripes, hitting just one home run in the month of April and standing at .286/.406/.400 as the month closed. But he continued to battle, and at 1:23 AM on May 12 he got his first big hit as a Yankee, a two-out tenth-inning double which sent the Anaheim Angels to defeat in a rain-soaked game, snapping the Angels’ nine-game winning streak in the process.

He was still sputtering late in May, hitting only .265/.380/.383 for the season. But some Baltimore Oriole pitching cured his ailments, as he enjoyed a 4-for-5 day with a homer and 6 RBI on May 26. He reeled off an 11-game hitting streak which raised his OPS 125 points, driving in 16 runs in the process, and since then he’s been the one in the catalog. From June through August — half a season — he smacked 28 homers and drove in 70 runs while hitting .307/.428/.625, helping the Yankees offset the flagging production and eventual absence of the ailing Jason Giambi and the curious lack of production from Alex Rodriguez in RBI situations. Though those two players have drawn more attention and coverage, it’s Sheffield who has been carrying the Yankees on his back, his violent swing putting The Fear into opponents as he rips one timely hit after another. As ESPN’s Bill Simmons, a die-hard Red Sox fan (as if there were any other kind), put it a couple of weeks ago:

Sheffield’s stats (.297, 33 HRs, 98 RBI, .969 OPS) don’t capture the 28 homers he has belted since June 1 — most of them enormous — or the incalculable number of clutch hits, or the feeling of dread watching your team pitch to him in late innings. I’m not kidding about this — in my lifetime, the Yankees have NEVER had a more terrifying hitter, even with that wispy mustache that makes him look like a sax player from the 1940s. Gary Sheffield puts the fear of God into me.

All the while, Sheffield has been playing through both bursitis and a muscle tear in his left shoulder. “The trapezius muscle in Gary Sheffield’s left shoulder sometimes separates from the bone,” reported the New York Daily News via renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe in mid-August. Still, he refuses to sit or to take refuge in the DH role for very long. His shoulder woes have limited him to catching the ball just above waist level when he plays right field, and he’s foregone scheduled cortisone shots simply because he doesn’t want to miss any key games (including this weekend’s series against the Red Sox). Gary Sheffield is as tough as they come.

That combination of toughness and productivity has won him fans in the Bronx and beyond, with Yankee fans chanting “M-V-P!” as they’ve cheered him. Is he the Yankees’ MVP this year? It’s a fairly open-and-shut case. He leads the Yankees in homers (34), RBI (113), Slugging Percentage (.548), and OPS (.950) and is one point behind Jorge Posada for the team lead in OBP (.402). Turning to the advanced metrics, he leads the team in Win Shares (30) and Win Shares Above Average (14) (through September 16), Value Over Replacement Player (64.2 runs) and its per-game equivalent, Marginal Lineup Value (.305), Equivalent Runs and Equivalent Average.

Related to that last pair of metrics, defense puts Alex Rodriguez ahead of him in Wins Above Replacement Level (WARP3, 8.8 for Sheffield, 10.4 for A-Rod), but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s followed the team this year who would actually place A-Rod above Sheffield on their ballot. The difference is timing; Sheffield has been much better in clutch situations:

               RISP      SP2-out     C & L
            OBP   SLG   OBP   SLG   OBP  SLG
Sheffield  .447  .562  .450  .587  .460  .676
Rodriguez  .337  .413  .297  .431  .354  .423

Respectively, those groupings are Runners In Scoring Position, Runners In Scoring Position with 2 Outs, and Close and Late (7th inning or later with the team ahead by one, tied or with the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck). It’s all Sheffield in these categories, and among AL players with over 50 at-bats (an admittedly arbitrary cutoff), he’s the tops in the latter, OPS-wise.

Does Sheffield have a case for AL MVP? Yes, but not an overwhelming one from a quantitative standpoint. His Win Share total leads the AL, followed by teammates A-Rod (27) and Hideki Matsui (26), then Johan Santana, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Guillen with 25, and Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ichiro Suzuki with 24. Taking that field as the nominees and picking up a few others who rank high in other advanced metrics, here they are:

            WS   VORP  MLVR   WARP  EQA
Sheffield   30   64.2  .305   8.8  .326
ARodriguez  27   58.7  .218  10.4  .316
Matsui      26   49.4  .233   7.5  .316
Santana     25   78.0   ---  10.2   ---
Ramirez     25   67.0  .390   8.3  .333
Guillen     25   70.3  .283  11.4  .320
Tejada      24   62.4  .190  10.5  .300
Guerrero    24   70.6  .319    *   .323  * report out of date
Ichiro      24   70.7  .270    *   .316  * report out of date
Mora        21   72.2  .424   8.2  .338
Hafner      21   71.7  .402   7.7  .339
Ortiz       20   64.1  .297   7.0  .319
IRodriguez  20   63.1  .300   9.1  .321
Schilling   19   64.8   ---   9.7   ---

There’s no clear-cut winner here, especially if you’re of the prejudices, as I am, that the MVP should come from a contender, and that you should have all the data in front of you when making a decision. Defense takes a bite out of some candidacies, not only those who play less demanding positions (such as Sheffield and Manny Ramirez) but also the ones who don’t play the more demanding ones well (such as Melvin Mora). And even the most minor injuries cut into the counting stats a bit.

Sheffield’s lead in Win Shares is attributable at least in part to his clutch performance; the Runs Created formula within has adjustments for hitting with runners in scoring position and home runs with runners on base. In the other metrics, he’s excellent but not the leader or even in the top three. From a gut standpoint, I’d like to call him the MVP, but quantitatively he’s got plenty of competition, and in any event, with six games against the Red Sox on tap and the AL East hanging in the balance — even if a playoff spot doesn’t appear to be — I think it’s still too early to call the race. But from the conventional-wisdom standpoint applied by the mainstream press, he has a very clear shot at winning the award for the first time.

Is Sheffield a Hall of Famer? With 413 homers and counting, eight All-Star appearances, a batting title, and a World Series ring, with perhaps more to come, he’s got a nice collection of hardware, one that would be especially enhanced by an MVP trophy but is pretty solid without it. The Bill James Hall of Fame Standards Test which rewards points for career accomplishments (one point for each 150 hits above 1500, one point for each .025 of slugging percentage above .300, etc.), puts him at 48.9 coming into the season, where the average Hall of Famer (circa 1995, in his book The Politics of Glory) is at 50. Another Bill James metric, the Hall of Fame Monitor, which rewards seasonal and career accomplishments (3 points for each season of 100 RBI’s or 100 runs, 8 points for each MVP award and 3 for each AllStar Game, etc.) puts him at 103.0 where a likely Hall of Famer is above 100.

More interestingly, his case looks very strong from a sabermetric standpoint. Back in January, I evaluated the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot for Baseball Prospectus using a new standards perspective based on Wins Above Replacement. I calculated the WARP3 career and peak (five consecutive year) averages for each position, creating a score which weighted those two numbers equally (it’s a simple average of the two) and then comparing those on the ballot to the standards. Here are the relevant numbers for Sheffield as well as those of the Hall of Famers at each outfield position and the three positions combined.

POS   #   BRAR  FRAA  WARP3   PEAK   WPW   PKPCT
7     18   766  -30   108.2   44.4   76.3   41.0
8     17   730  -18   112.7   47.9   80.3   42.5
9     22   787   -3   114.7   44.3   79.5   38.6
789   57   763  -16   112.1   45.4   78.7   40.5
Shef       857  -63   110.0   45.0   77.5   40.9

POS is the scorecard notation of a player’s primary position (7 = leftfield, 789 = outfield; # is the number of players in each group; BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average (a bit less unwieldy for this purpose), PEAK is the five-consecutive-season WARP3 peak. PKPCT is the percentage of a player’s career value resulting from his peak. WPW the weighted metric, which essentially double-credits a player’s best five-year run in considering his career.

As of this moment, Sheffield is merely a few whiskers below the positional averages for rightfielders and for all outfielders. His hitting is well above average, his fielding a bit below — those days in the infield do take a bite, but they do so for plenty of other Hall of Famers as well. The ten Hall of Fame outfielders with scores in his vicinity are Dave Winfield (84.9), Paul Waner (84.1), Reggie Jackson (82.8), Billy Williams (82.8) Richie Ashburn (78.1), Sam Crawford (76.5), Duke Snider (76.4), Jesse Burkett (74.3), Billy Hamilton (73.3), Willie Stargell (72.7) — not top-shelf Hall of Famers, but no slouches either. Another season of even 5.0 WARP would put him above 80.0 and in the upper half of that group.

What’s most interesting about this is that his five year peak is 2000-2004, his Age 31-35 seasons. The main reason for that is simply health; he’d never enjoyed anything remotely close to five healthy seasons in a row before. His best season, 1992 (11.4), and third-best season, 1996 (9.9), aren’t included in his peak, but that’s the case for many of the Hall of Famers.

In any event, one more solid season will enhance his candidacy. It will also most likely vault him past the Dave Kingman Line (442 homers), which until Fred McGriff (493) or Jose Canseco (462) become eligible for the Hall of Fame will stand as the highest total of homers anybody has hit without being enshrined. The BALCO case may have an impact on his Hall chances, but voters, fans, and officials will likely have to reckon with placing Bonds’ high-profile achievements in context before Sheffield becomes eligible.

All in due time. Right now, Sheffield’s got his work cut out helping the Yankees stave off the Red Sox for the AL East title and erasing the bitter taste of his last two Octobers. As the end of the season approaches, he’s in a bit of a slump, with only one homer through the first half of September and a .305/.353/.441 line. He’s still getting big hits; that homer, on September 12, put the Yanks ahead of the Orioles to stay in a wild-and-wooly, come-from-behind win. But the shoulder, not to mention a late-August ankle sprain, is taking its toll on his hitting. Earlier this week he waved off cortisone shots until after this weekend’s series, choosing to play in “constant pain” (his words) over watching his teammates from the bench when they need him the most.

Gary Sheffield has come a long way since those hot-headed days in Milwaukee. Though he’s continued to generate controversy at nearly every stage of his career, his outbursts have rarely been without provocation. As he’s aged, his temper has cooled, his level of maturity has visibly increased, he’s stayed healthier, and his bat has remained lethal. Rather quietly for such a controversial player, he’s made his mark as one of the game’s best hitters, destroying the ball in even the most inhospitable environments. He’s won honors and he continues to contend for them. He’s helped a team win a World Championship, he’s fighting to do so again, and he’ll have at least a couple more opportunities beyond this year.

Sheffield’s coming to the Yankees fits in with a certain definable career arc. In recent years, talented but star-crossed players, from Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden to David Cone, Roger Clemens and Ruben Sierra, have found their way to the Yankees seeking redemption for transgressions both real and perceived. With the benefit of years of often harsh lessons, they subsume their egos in the name of playing for a winner. That the winner is the winningest team in the history of baseball, playing in a stadium steeped in tradition, in the glare of the country?s top media market, is part of the point. Older and wiser, they strive to show the world that they can stand up to life in the pinstriped crucible. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere: words to a song, and the key to the Yankees? seductive myth, one that Gary Sheffield has bought, lock, stock, and bat barrel. Thus far, he’s done everything in his power to hold up his end of the bargain.

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