Gary Sheffield was a feared hitter over his 22-year career with eight teams. When you think of Sheffield, you always think of his iconic batting stance/twitch and swing that has gone on to be imitated by baseball players of all ages. Coming into his ninth year on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, it will take a big boost for him to get in. Last year, when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens fell off the ballot, Sheffield received just 40.6 percent of the vote for the second straight year. Should Sheffield get more love? Let's get into it.
Sheffield was drafted sixth overall by the Milwaukee Brewers out of Hillsborough High School (Tampa, FL) in the 1986 MLB Draft. He was still only 17 years old on draft day and didn't turn 18 until November 18, 1986. It was a very quick rise up the minor league system for "Shef" as he made his major league debut on September 3, 1986 at just 19 years old. It was a slow start to his career, as he started 0-for-10 before recording his first hit on September 9, a home run against the Seattle Mariners.
After just 24 games that first year, his rookie status was still intact for 1989, but his four years in Milwaukee were mostly forgettable. He suffered injuries and was demoted due to Milwaukee believing him to be faking, but it wound up being a broken foot. He also struggled at shortstop which led to him moving to third, actually his natural position. Sheffield posted just a 95 OPS+ and a 90.5 wRC+ over that time and had a negative fWAR in both 1989 and 1991. After playing just 50 games in 1991 due to various injuries, he was traded to the San Diego Padres just before the 1992 season. The deal was he and minor leaguer Geoff Kellogg to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Matt Mieske and Jose Valentin.
The then-third baseman had a big breakout with his new team, as he made his first All-Star team and was third place for the National League MVP. Sheffield won the NL batting title by batting .330 and also led the majors with 323 total bases along with recording a 172 wRC+, 6.5 fWAR, 33 homers, and 34 doubles. The Padres traded Sheffield in June 1993 along with reliever Rich Rodriguez to his home state Florida Marlins in a five player deal that sent 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Trevor Hoffman to San Diego. 1993 was his second All-Star season and he recorded a 120 OPS+, 123 wRC+, and 20 bombs between the two clubs, although had just a 0.6 fWAR. After committing 34 errors and an abysmal -30.8 dWAR in 1993, the Marlins moved Sheffield to right field in 1994.
Before that season, Florida signed him to a four-year, $22.45 million contract. Unfortunately, he only played in 160 games combined the next two seasons until breaking out once again in 1996 and missing just one game. It was a career season for the Florida native as he slashed .314/.465/.624 with his on-base percentage, 1.090 OPS, and 189 OPS+ leading the NL. He also added 33 doubles, 42 homers, 185 wRC+, and 21 percent walk rate to just 9.7 percent strikeout rate.
The Marlins rewarded him, signing him to a six-year, $61 million contract extension. It was more of a down, but still okay, regular season in 1997 until he caught fire at just the right time. In the Marlins' fifth year of existence, they made the postseason for the first time as a Wild Card. Sheffield hit .350 with a 1.061 OPS in the 16 postseason games to help Florida to their first World Series win over the then-Cleveland Indians in seven games. After the season, the Marlins underwent a fire sale despite just winning it all, which included trading Sheffield to the Los Angeles Dodgers the following spring.
Sheffield had a solid three and a half seasons with the Dodgers, which included three more All-Star Games in 1998, 1999, and 2000. He posted a 162 OPS+ in 90 games with the Dodgers but couldn't finish the season due to another injury. The Dodgers moved him to left field in 1999 and he was able to play over 140 games the next three years. The slugger averaged a .312/.420/.581 slashline, 159 OPS+, 38 homers, 103 RBI, and 102 runs over those three seasons.
But after the 2001 season, Sheffield requested a trade and was sent to the Atlanta Braves for Andrew Brown, Brian Jordan and Odalis Perez. He had a couple strong seasons in Atlanta, including a monster season in 2003 in which he posted a 7.3 fWAR and once against placed third in the MVP voting.
Entering free agency again following that season, Sheffield signed with the New York Yankees for a three year deal. The outfielder played 154 games in both 2004 and 2005 and made the All-Star Game both years. He mashed 35 homers and recorded 122 RBI while posting a 139 OPS+, finishing as the runner-up MVP behind Vladimir Guerrero. In the postseason, he helped the Yankees get up to a 3-0 lead in the ALCS as he was hitting .412 with a 1.242 OPS in the postseason before the club's infamous blown lead against the Boston Red Sox. 2006 was another injury-riddled season for Sheffield as he played just 39 games due to torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist.
After the season, the Yankees traded him to the Detroit Tigers where he had a so-so season in 2007 and career-worst season in 2008. Detroit released just before the 2009 season began and the New York Mets picked up the then-40-year old. He would hit his 500th career homer with the Mets before retiring at the end of the season.
What Helps His Case
From an offensive standpoint, Sheffield is definitely Hall of Fame worthy. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger, three-time top-three MVP finisher, batting title champion, and ranks 21st all-time with 1,475 walks to just 1,171 strikeouts. Of the 87 players in history who have logged at least 10,000 career plate appearances, Sheffield ranks 23rd with a 140 career OPS+, with 18 Hall of Famers ahead of him. His 561 batting runs above average — the offensive component of Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, adjusted for ballpark and era — ranks 29th all-time. Sheffield's career offensive numbers are very similar to those Hall of Famer Guerrero.
What Hurts His Case
Even with all the outstanding offensive production, injuries and defensive metrics massively bring him down. Not to mention the fact that he was linked to steroids with the likes of Bonds and Clemens. He was listed in 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 with San Diego were him at his best. Other than that, though, his -195 fielding runs rank second-worst all-time, only better than Derek Jeter's -243. His defensive fallout seriously tanks his overall value, and his 60.5 career bWAR ranks 18th among right fielders, 10.6 wins below the average Hall of Famer. His 38.0 peak WAR ranks 26th and his 49.3 JAWS 24th among right fielders. Jeter was a first ballot Hall of Famer despite his defensive struggles, and Sheffield was a greater offensive player. It's tough to hold Sheffield's defensive stats against him when he was such a feared hitter.
Now in his eighth year on the ballot and since the rest of the ballot is a lot more cleaned up, Sheffield has a better shot of getting some love. He has a similar offensive profile to other Hall of Famers and fringe Hall of Famers like Bobby Abreu and Manny Ramirez. His numbers are not to far behind Edgar Martinez, who waited all 10 years on the ballot to get in - Martinez has a career 147 OPS+ in comparison to Sheffield's 140 OPS+. Sheffield saw a jump in votes from 2019 (13.6%) to 2020 (30.5%) to 2021 (40.6%).
With the ballot even more cleaned up this year, he has a chance to see even more of a jump. If he doesn't get in before his 10 years are up, there is a good chance he gets in on an era committee ballot. His minor link to PEDs shouldn't affect the statistics that were 99.9 percent genuine. It shouldn't have for Bonds and Clemens, either, but you know the rest. Insert knock on the BBWAA here. What should be considered are his shaky defensive stats, but that should be only thing that could leave him out of the Hall of Fame. Take your "integrity" clause and shove it where the sun don't shine. Kielar out.