Wherever Gary Sheffield went, he made noise, both with his bat and his voice. For the better part of two decades, he ranked among the game's most dangerous hitters, a slugger with a keen batting eye and a penchant for contact that belied his quick, violent swing. For even longer than that, he was one of the game's most outspoken players, unafraid to speak up when he felt he was being wronged and unwilling to endure a situation that wasn't to his liking. He was a polarizing player, and hardly one for the faint of heart.
At the plate, Sheffield was viscerally impressive like few others. With his bat twitching back and forth like the tail of a tiger waiting to pounce, he was pure menace in the batter's box. He won a batting title, launched over 500 home runs — 14 seasons with at least 20, eight with at least 30 — and put many a third base coach in peril with the most terrifying foul balls anyone has ever seen. For as violent as his swing may have been, it was hardly wild; not until his late thirties did he strike out more than 80 times in a season, and in his prime, he walked far more often than he struck out.
Off the field, Bill James once referred to him as "an urban legend in his own mind." Sheffield found controversy before he ever reached the majors via his connection to his uncle, Dwight Gooden. He was drafted and developed by the Brewers, who had no idea how to handle such a volatile player, and who wound up doing far more harm than good. Small wonder that from the time he was sent down in mid-rookie season, accused of faking an injury, he was mistrustful of team management and wanted out. And when he wanted out — of Milwaukee, Los Angeles or New York — he let you know it, and if a bridge had to burn, so be it; it was Festivus every day for Sheffield, who was always willing to air his grievances.
Later in his career, Sheffield became entangled in the BALCO performance enhancing drug scandal via his relationship with Barry Bonds, a relationship that by all accounts crumbled before he found himself in even deeper water. But for all of the drama that surrounded Sheffield, and for all of his rage and outrageousness, he never burned himself out the way his uncle did, nor did he have trouble finding work.
Even in the context of the high-scoring era in which he played, Sheffield's offensive numbers look to be Hall of Fame caliber, but between his weakness in the field, his gift for finding controversy, and the current crowd on the ballot, voters have no shortage of excuses not to vote for him. It would be a shame if he fell off the ballot quickly, for his case merits a much longer look.
Avg. HOF RF
Born in Tampa, Fla., Sheffield grew up in the Belmont Heights section of town, a baseball-rich area that over the course of the 1980s produced seven first- or second-round draft picks, including Sheffield, Derek Bell, Carl Everett, Floyd Youmans and, most notably, Gooden. Four years older than Sheffield, Gooden was more like a sibling than an uncle, regularly dragging his six-year-old nephew out of bed to face his already-searing fastball, either with bat or glove.
Playing for the Belmont Heights Little League All-Stars, Sheffield (along with Bell) was part of the 1980 team that advanced all the way to the finals of the Little League World Series before falling to Taiwan. He went on to star at Hillsborough High, where he pitched — some scouts preferred his 90 mph fastball to his bat — and played third base. In 1986, he was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year, one of many future major league stars to win the award. The Brewers chose him with the sixth pick of that year’s draft, behind Jeff King (Pirates), Greg Swindell (Indians), Matt Williams (Giants), Kevin Brown (Rangers) and Kent Mercker (Braves), signing him for a $152,000 bonus. In the pages of SportsIllustrated, Peter Gammons noted in a 1989 profile that Sheffield used some of the money to have his initials inlaid in gold on his front teeth and bought a gold Mercedes.
As a 17-year-old, Sheffield tore up the rookie Pioneer League in 1986 (.365/.413/.640 with 15 homers and 14 steals in 57 games), winning both the league's Player of the Year honors and Baseball America's Short-Season Player of the Year prize. Trouble found him that winter, however, as he was arrested along with Gooden and three others. Returning home from a University of South Florida basketball game, police officers stopped their cars for driving erratically; the confrontation soon turned physical, with Gooden — who by that point had completed his third major league season, collecting Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards as well as a World Series ring — "beaten to the ground with nightsticks and flashlights before being handcuffed and shackled," according to The New York Times. Sheffield was charged with a pair of third-degree felonies for battery on a police officer and violently resisting arrest; he pleaded no contest and was given two years probation.
The incident was the start of Gooden's legal troubles — he would test positive for cocaine in spring training just a few months later — and they spilled over to Sheffield, who was soon subjected to not-so-random drug testing. Beyond that, his baseball life returned to normal. At 18 in 1987, he hit .277/.388/.448 with 17 homers and 103 RBI, earning spots on both the California League and Baseball America All-Star teams. As a 19-year-old, he hit a combined .327/.395/.579 in hitter-friendly environments at Double A El Paso and Triple A Denver, earning a late-season call-up. He debuted on Sept. 3, 1988 against the Tigers, in a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, though he did not make an official plate appearance as a defensive replacement for Dale Sveum that day. He went 0-for-4 the next day and ran his hitless string to 0-for-11 before homering and collecting a single off Seattle's Mark Langston on Sept. 9.
While Sheffield earned the Opening Day nod as the Brewers' starting shortstop in 1989, he struggled both at the plate and in the field, where the team accused him of "indifferent fielding." He complained of a foot injury, but the Brewers' doctors found nothing, and the team demoted him to Triple A; after initially refusing to play, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his foot and filed a grievance with the players' union, saying he was unjustly demoted. His trust in the Brewers was shattered, and when he returned to the majors two months later, tensions were ratcheted even higher by a forced move to third base — one that he believed was racially motivated. He finished his tumultuous season hitting just .247/.303/.337 with five homers in 95 games and was 12 runs below average defensively according to Total Zone.
Though angry over what he later claimed was the revocation of a $7 million long-term contract offer from Brewers owner Bud Selig, Sheffield's bat perked up the following year (.294/.350/.421 with 10 homers) as did his glove (-3 runs via Total Zone) and he finished with 3.0 WAR, a strong showing for an age-21 season. Nonetheless, he was growing unhappier in Milwaukee. In the spring of 1991, he charged general manager Harry Dalton of "ruining this team" — a team that had slid from 91 wins and a third place finish in 1987 to seasons of 87, 81 and 74 wins in successive year; later, he would be accused of causing Dalton’s heart attack. Between his frustration and shoulder and wrist injuries, he hit just .194/.277/.320 in 50 games. Dalton, who had refused to trade Sheffield, was fired at season's end, so the job of sending him out of town was left to successor Sal Bando, who finally dealt him to the Padres in exchange for three players in late March.
Sheffield's Milwaukee headaches (and Milwaukee's Sheffield headaches) weren't quite over, however. In June, he told the Los Angeles Times' Bob Nightengale:
"The Brewers brought out the hate in me... I was a crazy man," Sheffield said. "I hated (Dalton) so much that I wanted to hurt the man. I hated everything about that place. I didn't even want to come to the ballpark. If I missed a ball or something, so what?
"If the official scorer gave me an error that I didn't think was an error, I'd say, 'OK, here's a real error,' and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose. I did it all.”
Sheffield recanted the statement in a follow-up with Nightengale: "What I said was out of frustration. They want to take something and run with it. Why would a player purposely make mistakes? I'd never do anything to hurt the team. You get paid to play." Nightengale did add, "Sheffield said the only time he may have made an error purposely out of anger was when he was in the Brewers' minor-league system."
Despite his inflammatory words, there's no evidence to suggest that Sheffield made intentional errors during his time with the Brewers; many (including myself and more recently Tom Verducci) have explored the matter and found nothing to support the idea that he may have done so. As to the possibility that he may have done so in the minors, in a 2012 Sports on Earth profile by Jack Dickey, Sheffield said that an incident happened in A-ball in 1987:
Future major-leaguer Darryl Hamilton threw a ball that short-hopped Sheffield, and Sheffield took the error. He was upset. He yelled at the scorer. This made his manager, Dave Machemer, mad. The next inning, Sheffield threw a ball from short to first as hard as he could, and it sailed into the stands. Machemer walked out onto the field and pulled Sheffield from the game, accusing him of sabotage.
Sheffield says his manager apologized to him in front of the whole team later that night, but the damage had been done.
Free of Milwaukee, Sheffield broke out with the Padres in 1992, hitting .330/.385/.580; he won the NL batting title, led the league in total bases (323) and ranked second in slugging percentage and OPS+ (168), third in homers (33), fourth in WAR (6.2) and sixth in on-base percentage. He earned All-Star honors for the first time, and placed third in the NL MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Terry Pendleton. But his stay in San Diego wasn't long; like ballot-mate Fred McGriff, he was part of owner Tom Werner's infamous salary purge, dealt to the expansion Florida Marlins in a five-player trade that brought back Trevor Hoffman.
With Florida, Sheffield's batting line slipped to .294/.361/.476, and his fielding percentage dropped to .899 (the only time it's acceptable to cite fielding percentage is when it reaches the Hobson Line). Nonetheless, the Marlins wanted to keep him around, signing the 24-year-old to a four-year, $22.45 million deal that made him the game's 10th highest-paid player overall, and its highest-paid third baseman. As a concession to keeping him at the hot corner, the team wrote a clause into his contract allowing him to play pickup basketball (obviously, Aaron Boone didn't take note).
Between the players' strike, a bruised left rotator cuff suffered while diving for a ball in 1994, and torn ligaments in his left thumb that required in-season surgery in 1995, Sheffield played in just 150 games over the next two seasons, and in October 1995, he sustained a minor gunshot wound (!) to his left shoulder in a failed carjacking while en route to pick up one of his children. Nonetheless, he was healthy in 1996, playing in 161 games, hitting .314/.465/.624 and leading the league in on-base percentage and OPS+ (189). He also ranked second in slugging percentage, homers (42) and walks (142, against just 66 strikeouts) and ninth in Wins Above Replacement (5.9), a total held down by terrible defense (-16 runs) in rightfield.
The following spring, the Marlins signed Sheffield to a six-year, $61 million contract, the largest in baseball history at the time. The move was of a piece with the team's two-year stockpiling of high-paid free agents, a list that included Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez and Devon White. Under manager Jim Leyland, the team earned the NL Wild Card berth and went on to upset the Indians in a thrilling seven-game World Series. Sheffield, dealing with further problems in his surgically-repaired thumb, collected more walks (121) than hits (110) that year en route to a .250/.424/.446 line with 21 homers, but he heated up late in the year, hitting .324/.430/.592 in September and .320/.521/.500 with 20 walks in the postseason.
The champagne had barely dried when owner Wayne Huizenga and general manager Dave Dombrowski began gutting the Fish, trading Alou, White, Jeff Conine and Robb Nen by Thanksgiving, Brown the next month, and Al Leiter in January. They saved their biggest blockbuster until six weeks into the 1998 season, when on May 14, they traded Sheffield, Bonilla, catcher Charles Johnson and two other players to the Dodgers for the face of the franchise, Mike Piazza, as well as Todd Zeile.
Sheffield scorched opponents in the notorious pitchers' park, batting .316/.444/.535 in 90 games as a Dodger before an ankle sprain shelved him. In each of the next three seasons, he averaged 38 homers per year and topped the .300/.400/.500 thresholds, something that only four other Dodgers had done before him since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. Alas, he grew disgruntled about money in light of the team signing Brown to a $105 million megadeal and spending freely on less established players such as Darren Dreifort, first agitating for an extension and then a trade (ironically, Brown dissuaded him).
Following the 2001 season, once the Dodgers attempted to trade him to the A's in a deal involving Jermaine Dye following the 2001 season, Sheffield finally got his wish, as the Dodgers shipped him to the Braves for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez and a prospect. Sheffield put up monster numbers in two seasons with the Braves, including a .330/.419/.604, 39-homer season in 2003; his 162 OPS+ and 6.8 WAR both ranked fourth in the league, and he finished third in the MVP voting. He helped the Braves continue their long-running streak of reaching the postseason, but went a combined 3-for-30 in two losing causes in the NLDS.
That winter, at age 35, Sheffield reached free agency for the first time in his career, and he signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Yankees. Despite an early-season thumb injury, a muscle tear in his left shoulder, and the backdrop of BALCO (more on which below), he turned in another MVP-caliber season, hitting .290/.393/.534 with 36 homers, 28 of them coming in the 77 games he played in June, July, and August. Ultimately, it took a torrid September from the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero — a free-agent alternative to Sheffield the previous winter — to keep Sheffield from winning the MVP award; he finished second in the voting, though to be fair, his 4.2 WAR was nowhere near the league's best. While he had another strong postseason overall (.292/.404/.500 with two homers), he slipped into a 1-for-17 funk while the Yankees made history by blowing their 3-0 advantage in the ALCS.
Sheffield put up similar numbers in 2005 (.291/.379/.512 with 34 homers), albeit with less fanfare, then missed most of 2006 due to torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist suffered in a collision at first base; he played in just 39 games. Again, he agitated for an extension, but having traded for Bobby Abreu during his absence, the Yankees simply exercised his $13 million option, then traded him to the Tigers, who obliged by tacking on a two-year, $28 million extension. He started slowly in Detroit, but a torrid three-month stretch lifted his final line to .265/.378/.462 with 25 homers. Stung by his exile from New York, he accused Yankees manager Joe Torre of treating African-American players harshly and inequitably during an HBO Real Sports segment, but stopped short of calling him racist.
Amid bilateral shoulder woes and an oblique strain, Sheffield slumped to .225/.326/.400 in 2008, his age-39 season. Had he not been under contact and one homer shy of 500, he might have retired, but after the Tigers released him in spring training, he caught on with the Mets, and amid back and hamstring problems hit a very respectable .276/.372/.451 with 10 homers in 100 games. He sat out 2010, and while he briefly entertained the thought of a comeback with the hometown Rays, he finally announced his retirement in February 2011. Later that year, he opened shop as an agent, with reliever Jason Grilli his first client.
On the surface, Sheffield appears to have the stats to merit a plaque in Cooperstown: a .292/.393/.514 line, 2,683 hits, 509 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three top-three finishes in the MVP voting, a World Series ring, a batting title, prominent all-time rankings in walks (21st with 1,475, against just 1,171 strikekouts), homers (25th), RBI (26th), OPS+ (tied for 34th among those with 8,000 PA) and strong showings on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and the Hall of Fame Standards metrics (158 and 61, respectively). His 561 batting runs above average, the offensive component of Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, adjusted for ballpark and era, ranks 22nd among hitters since 1901, higher than numerous no-doubt Hall of Famers such as Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski.
That's the good news. The bad news is that his defensive numbers — a mix between Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved — are all-time awful. His -195 fielding runs rank as the second-lowest total of all-time, ahead of only Derek Jeter (-246). That whopping total suppresses his career and peak WARs as well as his JAWS. His 60.2 career WAR ranks 18th all-time, 13 wins below the average Hall of Fame rightfielder and ahead of just 10 of the 24 who are enshrined. His 37.9 WAR ranks 23rd among all rightfielders, five wins below the standard and ahead of just nine of the 24 enshrined. Likewise, his 49.0 JAWS ranks 23rd, ahead of 11 of the 24 enshrined. The shape of his line strongly resembles that of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield (63.8//37.7/50.8), a 12-time All-Star who put up huge counting stats (3,110 hits, 465 homers), but with defense (-91 runs) that bumps him below the bar on all three fronts.
Is that a Hall of Famer? I'm troubled by the extent to which those outlying defensive stats — largely estimates from the pre-play-by-play era — nuke his value. That goes double when they're compared to his defensive numbers via alternative methodologies. Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average pegs him at -76 runs for his career, while Michael Humphreys' Defensive Regression Analysis, which has been incorporated into the sabermetric component of the past two years' Gold Glove voting, puts him around -109 runs. Both are bad, but neither is an outlier, and such figures push him much closer to the JAWS line for rightfielders; my back-of-the-envelope estimate using DRA’s defensive numbers lifts him to 69.7/40.5/55.1, three points below the JAWS standard.
Beyond that, of course, is the PED issue. Via Verducci, Sheffield told the grand jury that he was introduced to BALCO by Bonds, a casual friend who invited him to train with him in San Francisco before the 2002 season. Trainer Greg Anderson gave Sheffield what he believed to be a cortisone-type cream to rub on his surgical scars, but it was in fact the testosterone-based steroid known as "the cream." He was not told it was an illegal steroid:
"I put it on my legs and thought nothing of it. I kept it in my locker. The trainer saw my cream," he told the grand jury. Though he soon broke off ties with Bonds due to an unrelated matter, he used the cream during the season, a relatively down one in which he hit a representative .307/.404/.512 but with just 25 homers. He was shocked to find out it was a steroid.
Last week, Verducci — whose stance on PEDs with regards to Hall of Fame candidates is a much harder line than my own — revisited Sheffield's unique situation:
Sheffield is the only star I know who, as an active player, without provocation admitted to using steroids; he did so in a 2004 SI story I wrote. Why would he make an admission? Because, he told me, he had testified under oath that he had been duped into using them.
Sheffield said he told the BALCO grand jury the previous year that Bonds arranged for him to use "the cream," "the clear" and "red beans," which prosecutors identified as steroid pills from Mexico. Sheffield, however, said he was told the substances were legal arthritic balms or nutritional supplements… when he later learned that the BALCO products were steroids, he told me, "I was mad. I want everybody to be on an even playing field."
That's it; we have no evidence that ties Sheffield to steroids other than those several weeks before the 2002 season when Sheffield lived at Bonds' home. Even during that 2002 season, when players were resisting the idea of steroid testing, Sheffield spoke out in favor of it [see here], saying, "I would like to see testing. I mean you see how much guys are using it. Unless you've got something to hide, you won't mind testing, right?"
Given that, as well as my previously stated position with regards to distinguishing between PED use from the pre-testing era and that which has happened since, I don't see Sheffield's BALCO connection as a reason to withhold a vote. Having investigated his throwing error issue, I'm satisfied (as is Verducci) that it's no reason to strike him down either, though Brewers fans will never let the matter rest, and some voters haven’t done their homework. If I'm not ruling out voting for candidates such as Bonds, Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling on the grounds of their prickly natures, I'm in no position to hold Sheffield's penchant for being a pain in the ass against him — the man showed up to play, and played well enough to establish himself as one of the best hitters in the game's history.
That said, Sheffield's subpar JAWS score and the ballot's current crowd — with far more players worthy of a vote than there are spots on the ballot — leaves him short of must-vote status right now; if I had 15 slots, I’d strongly consider tabbing him on the basis of his offense, since it’s far easier to measure, though I’ll concede that he was also a personal favorite, as my voluminouswriting on the subject suggests. Even without recommending him for an immediate vote, I would hate to see him fall off the ballot before the traffic thins out somewhat. He deserves to be judged on his own merits instead of suffering by comparison to Randy Johnson or Piazza or another candidacy surrounded by a stronger consensus. After all, who wouldn’t want to see Sheffield take another swing?