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Hall of Fame Case: Gary Sheffield

Gary Sheffield is on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the 10th and final year. After receiving less than 15 percent of the vote in his first five years on the ballot, Sheffield rose to 30.5 percent in his sixth year, then 40.6 percent in his seventh and eighth years before 55 percent this past year. Along with sporting the most imitated batting stance in the game's history, Sheffield was one of the most feared sluggers during his tenure. Not without controversy, the 22-year major leaguer has an interesting case. Should Sheffield get in on his final year? Let’s get into the numbers and Sheff's career. 



Career Summary


Sheffield played for eight teams over his 22 years in the major leagues, most of which came with the Florida Marlins for six seasons. He also played with the Milwaukee Brewers, whom he was drafted by and started his career with, and the Los Angeles Dodgers for four seasons each, the New York Yankees for three seasons, and two seasons with each of the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, and Detroit Tigers before finishing his career with the New York Mets for one season in 2009. 

After a slow start to his career with the Brewers, Sheffield broke out with the Padres in 1992 after getting traded there in March. In that first season with San Diego, he won the National League batting title with a .330 batting average while slugging 33 home runs to go along with 100 RBI, 168 OPS+, and 6.5 fWAR. This would set him up for a third-place finish in the NL MVP race, behind Barry Bonds and Terry Pendleton. In a payroll-saving move, the Padres traded Sheffield to the Marlins in a five-player deal before the trade deadline in 1993. A young prospect named Trevor Hoffman was included in the return to the Padres. 



Sheffield had the longest tenure in his career with the Marlins, where he played from the second half of 1993 until 40 games into the 1998 season, when he was traded to the Dodgers. After back-to-back All-Star selections in 1992 and 1993, he would again get voted in during the 1996 season with the Marlins, in which he led the NL in on-base percentage (.465), OPS (1.095), and OPS+ (189). Sheffield also equaled his highest WAR to that point with a 6.5 fWAR. He also finished sixth in NL MVP voting and won his second of five silver sluggers. With the Marlins clinching a Wild Card birth in 1997, he hit .350 with a 1.061 OPS in 16 postseason games as the Marlins won their first World Series.



Two more All-Star selections came with the Dodgers, in 1999 and 2000, before he was traded to the Braves during the 2002 offseason. Sheffield was once again selected to the NL squad for the All-Star Game in 2003 with the Braves prior to hitting the free agent market for the first time in his career following the season. He earned a top-three finish in the race for the NL MVP that year as he had career-high marks in hits (190), RBI (132), runs scored (126) and doubles (37). In free agency, the Yankees signed the slugger for a three-year deal, and he was immediately a factor for the Bombers as he transitioned to the American League. In his first season in the Bronx, Sheffield had his best MVP finish as he was the runner-up behind Vladimir Guerrero. He was hitting .412 with a 1.242 OPS in the postseason up through the first three games of the ALCS as the Yankees took a 3-0 series lead before infamously blowing the lead against the Red Sox. 



After his final All-Star selection in 2005, Sheffield had four subpar seasons to end his career. He was hit with the injury bug in 2006, as he played in just 39 games due to torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist. He was traded to the Tigers after the Yankees lost to them in the 2006 ALDS. It was an okay season in 2007 for the aging slugger before he had a career-worst season in 2008. The Tigers released Sheffield six days before the 2009 season, as he sat at 499 career homers. The Mets picked him up six days later, and he would cross the 500-home run mark in Queens before retiring at the end of the season with 509 career bombs. 



The Case for Sheffield


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).


The Case Against Sheffield


Sheffield was plagued with injuries throughout his 22-year career and had several controversies swirling around 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, his career was authentic outside of the scandals, similar to Bonds (should be in the Hall). 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 and traded several 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 as well as Defensive Runs Saved. Jeter was one vote shy of being unanimous on the 2020 ballot, and the argument could be made that Sheffield was a better hitter.


Verdict 


Sheffield should be a Hall of Famer, as his peak years were, simply put, solid. The negatives are not nearly enough to take away from his case. I don’t see him getting in on the BBWAA ballot, as the writers are up on their high horse about anyone and everyone who has been linked to steroids. Should get in and won’t get in are two separate things. But there is certainly a strong chance he gets in via one of the Era Committees.


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