Monday, August 13, 2007

I Had No Idea ... The Hitters

One of the really fun things about looking back through baseball history is finding the great stars that you'd never really heard of. I've always been a fan of the underdog, and so it's always fun for me to find an excellent ballplayer I'd never heard of. Either that, or someone I'd heard of but didn't know how good they were.
I decided to dedicate some blog time to these players but wasn't sure how to frame it. I could call them "underrated," but the truth is that many of these guys aren't underrated among knowledgeable fans, they were just underrated by me. Which just goes to show how relative the terms "underrated/overrated" are. So instead, since this is my blog, I'll talk about the players who were a surprise to me.
Starting with modern players and moving backward, here are the guys who surprise me . . .

Gary Sheffield (1988 - )
(297/398/525; 2,504 H; 479 HR; 9 All-Star Games)
I guess I always knew that Gary was great. But it's only in recent years that I've been able to look past his prickly persona and see a true Hall-of-Famer.

Gary's been around for a while. He's played for a number of teams, and that's not an accident. He's with his 7th team right now (Detroit), and while that's not a lot in this day and age, it's a sign that Gary tends to get disgruntled if he stays in one place for a while. And the people he works for tend to get even more disgruntled.
Sheffield grew up in Tampa, Florida and was drafted in the 1st round (6th overall pick) of the 1986 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Sheffield was already a fantastic hitter, and while he hadn't yet found his true position (he came up as a shortstop, but that didn't last long), everyone knew that his real position was as an all-around hitter. And when he made the majors at age 19, he seemed destined for stardom.
The trouble is that Sheffield's transition from prospect to star was rough, even rougher than usual. This was partly due to being shifted around the infield (he would end up at third base for the moment), but mainly due to his own attitude. Even Sheffield himself has admitted that he wasn't the ideal rookie when he was with Milwaukee, and management soon grew tired of the outspoken youngster who wasn't always giving 100%.
Sheffield's hitting finally showed up in 1990, as he batted 294/350/421 as the team's de facto third baseman. But his 10 HR weren't what the Brewers were hoping for.
Sheffield suffered an injury in 1991 that limited him to 50 games and a 194/277/320 batting line. Even though he was just 22, the team now had the excuse to get rid of their headache. They traded him to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Jose Valentin, and Matt Mieske. My guess is that, attitude or not, the Brewers regretted that one. It may have been the change of scenery, but Sheffield blossomed in San Diego, hitting 330/385/580 with 33 HR and finished 3rd in the NL MVP voting. The Brewers, on the other hand, finished just 4 games out of first place in 1992, with Kevin Seitzer (270/337/367) as their everyday third baseman. Ricky Bones made 28 forgettable starts (4.57 ERA), and the only good to come out of the trade would be some decent seasons from Valentin in the future.
Sheffield got off to something of a slow start in 1993 (295/344/473) and wasn't exactly helping with his defense at third. Padres ownership was looking to shed salary, so they dumped Sheffield's contract on the new Florida Marlins for three prospects. (Luckily for San Diego, one of those prospects, a fellow named Trevor Hoffman, would indeed pan out).
Sheffield hit very well in Florida, providing a superstar hitter to build the franchise around. And Florida management did indeed start building, paying out money to sign free agents to surround Sheffield in the order. It didn't look like Sheffield himself was going to be the team's MVP; he was hitting well, but was still injury-prone, a charge that had been leveled on him since his Milwaukee days. In 1995, for instance, Sheffield hit an MVP-worthy 324/467/587, but only in 63 games (out of 143 played by Florida in the strike-shortened season.
But Sheffield had his best season to date in 1996. He again hit like an MVP (314/465/624 with 42 HR and 120 RBI), and finished 6th in the MVP voting. His defense wasn't as much of a problem, as he'd been playing reguarly in right field since '94. Sheffield probably deserved better in the MVP voting, but Ken Caminiti hit nearly as well (326/408/621) and played fine defense for San Diego, who made the postseason (the Marlins finished 3rd). My guess is that Sheffield's reputation still wore heavily on the voters' minds. Caminiti won the MVP, even though I would have voted for Jeff Bagwell (315/451/570 in the AstroDome).
It all came together for the Marlins in 1997, when they became the youngest franchise ever to win the World Series, upsetting the favored Cleveland Indians in seven games. Sheffield experienced an odd dip in his hitting (250/424/446) and wasn't at 100% health, but he hit 292/485/458 in the World Series and took home a World Series ring.
Right after the Series, of course, Florida ownership started selling off their expensive assets. Sheffield survived through 40 games of the 1998 season (his near-$15 million salary was the highest in baseball, which likely made him more difficult to deal), but he was eventually traded to the Dodgers along with Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Manuel Barrios in exchange for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile (Florida would send off Piazza after just 5 games and Zeile at the end of the season).
Sheffield's three full seasons in Los Angeles were actually three of the most healthy and productive of his career. Viz:

1999: 152 G, 301/407/523, 34 HR, 101 RBI, All-Star
2000: 141 G, 325/438/643, 43 HR, 109 RBI, All-Star, 9th in NL MVP voting
2001: 143 G, 311/417/583, 36 HR, 100 RBI

But things weren't entirely pleasant. The first problem was that the Dodgers, who had made the postseason in 1995 and 1996, were degenerating into also-rans in the NL West. They became dissatisfied with Sheffield's contract (and, presumably, his attitude), and Sheffield became increasingly dissatisfied with a number of things in L.A. With Sheffield issuing demands to be traded, the Dodgers finally worked out a mutual salary dump with the Atlanta Braves; the Braves got Sheffield, and the Dodgers got Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez, and some guy named Andrew Brown.
The trade was a winner for Atlanta. Jordan was clearly done and, despite being nearly as expensive as Sheffield, wasn't nearly as productive (he hit 285/338/469 in his first full season with L.A.). Jordan's ineffectiveness was somewhat countered by Odalis Perez, who gave L.A. some good, cheap pitching, but Sheffield finished out his contract in Atlanta by hitting like crazy.
Sheffield suffered from some nagging hand injuries in 2002, and "only" hit 307/404/512 in 135 games. He broke through in 2003 with another MVP-caliber year, hitting 330/419/604 in 155 games. He finished 3rd in the NL MVP voting, behind only Bonds and Pujols. It should also be said that Sheffield seemed to be relatively happy in Atlanta, and his attitude was almost never an issue in his two fine seasons there. Sheffield has since spoken very highly of Bobby Cox, more evidence that the Atlanta skipper must be working some kind of magic.
Sheffield entered the 2003-2004 free agent market with an MVP-caliber season under his belt and plenty of words to say. He ended up landing with the Yankees with a three-year deal worth about $13 million a year, plus an option on a fourth year. Rumor has it that the Yankees were pursuing Vladimir Guerrero, but owner George Steinbrenner declared by executive fiat that Sheffield should be the new Yankee right fielder. The two men were both excellent hitters, but not only was Guerrero younger, he was far, far more pleasant to deal with. As the Yankees would discover . . .
Sheffield's first year in pinstripes wasn't as good as his previous season in Atlanta, but it was close. He led the Yankees to the division title by hitting 290/393/534. He finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting to . . . Vladimir Guerrero, who had signed with the Angels.
But as all Yankee fans remember, the 2004 postseason was ruined by an unheard-of collapse in the ALCS against the Red Sox. Sheffield wasn't the culprit; he played in all seven games and hit 333/444/533 with three doubles and a homer. The goat horns went to the Yankee pitching staff, although it was also the start of the bashing of Alex Rodriguez (another big off-season acquisition). Problem is that A-Rod hit 258/378/516 in the ALCS; Yankee hero Derek Jeter hit 200/333/233.
The 2004 failure was another step in the aura of dissatisfaction that now plagued the Yankees. Owner Steinbrenner was dissatisfied, the fans were (especially) dissatisfied, and many of the players became dissatisfied. It was not the ideal time to add Gary Sheffield to the mix. The bad feelings didn't hurt Sheffield's production, as he had another fine year in 2005 (291/379/512, 8th in AL MVP voting). But this time the Yankees lost to the Angels in the Division Series, and the bad feelings only got worse.
Sheffield came to the last year of his contract in 2006, which is traditionally the time in which he gets most vocal in his displeasure with the planet Earth. Making matters worse was that Sheffield was injured; he missed most of the season and his offense suffered (relatively speaking; he hit 298/355/450 in 39 games). With trade acquisition Bobby Abreu installed in right and Jason Giambi stuck at DH, the team didn't have a place for Sheffield anymore. Down the stretch, they tried him at first base, which shored up the offense but was pretty ugly on defense. And once again, despite being heavy favorites, the Yankees lost the Division Series; this time to the Tigers in four games.
With Abreu and Giambi in the fold, the Yankees had little need for a fussy 38-year-old with injury problems. Sheffield was issuing demands that the Yankees either pick up his option or trade him. The Yankees were only too happy to take him up on the latter. They sent him to the Tigers (who agreed to sign him to a contract extension). The Yankees got some good pitching prospects, mainly young Humberto Sanchez, in return. It was the fourth time Sheffield had been traded in his career, and each trade had been predicated to some good degree on Sheffield's attitude and demands. That may not be a record, but it's close.
Sheffield has, throughout his career (and in a recently-published "auto"biography) claimed that his perceived attitude problems are mainly the white power structure's attempt to marginalize an outspoken black man. To a certain extent, he may be right. In an entry about Albert Belle I wrote about a year ago, I stated that the media is much more tolerant and even accepting of white athletes with "attitude" problems. They also tend to indeed marginalize or demonize outspoken blacks, or blacks who play with a strong competitive edge (like Belle, Sheffield, or dozens of others I could name).
So in general, Sheffield's theory is true. But I don't believe it to be true in his specific case. Racism certainly plays a part in the depiction of Sheffield as an attitude problem, but it could also be that Sheffield is indeed an attitude problem. I can respect the fact that Sheffield is more outspoken than most athletes today and that this fact alone does indeed get him into trouble in an era when we want public figures to keep their opinions to themselves. But I can also respect the fact that, from what I know of Sheffield's case in particular, he is an ass. In a recent interview, he claimed that manager Joe Torre treats black players and white players differently. But he then denied that Torre was a "racist." He has since stuck to that depiction, but he hasn't helped us understand how those two statements are anything but a contradiction. It must also be said that we've never heard anything like this about Torre before. That doesn't mean it isn't true, certainly, but consider the source. It should also be said that Sheffield named Kenny Lofton specifically as an object of Torre's double-standard, but Lofton recently went on the record as denying Sheffield's claims.
Sheffield's just one of those guys that stirs things up wherever he goes. Things are going well in Detroit (Sheffield's hitting 289/393/522, and the Tigers are strong contenders), but I strongly suspect that things will change as his contract winds down. I don't think that Sheffield is a liar, I just think that he has strong prejudices of his own that lead him to mistake or misrepresent other people's (i.e. Torre's) actions or feelings. I cannot deny Sheffield's general claims that there is racism in sports and that it influences our views of African-American athletes. But he has already shown that he is ill-qualified to point out specific instances of this racism. Also, it's no coincidence that the person he so often sees as its victim is himself.
Gary Sheffield is a truly great player who, I think, is more than qualified for the Hall-of-Fame. Here's how he ranks among other right fielders in career numbers (* indicates stats don't include 2007 season stats; "dt" means stats are Clay Davenport translations):

Win Shares: 421 (10th)
8. Al Kaline 443

9. Paul Waner 423
10. Gary Sheffield 421
11. Dave Winfield 415
12. Tony Gwynn 398

WS/162 G*: 29.36 (8th)
6. Manny Ramirez 30.22
7. Frank Robinson 29.94
8. Gary Sheffield 29.36
9. Sam Crawford 28.70
10. Bobby Abreu 28.04

dtAVG*: .302 (T-15th)
14. Bobby Abreu .303
15. Harry Heilmann & Gary Sheffield .302
17. Sam Rice & Frank Robinson .300

dtOBP*: .406 (5th)
1. Babe Ruth .451

2. Manny Ramirez .415
3. Bobby Abreu .413
4. Mel Ott .408
5. Gary Sheffield .406
6. Tony Gwynn .404
7. Ken Singleton .401

dtSLG*: .556 (16th)
14. Chuck Klein .561
15. Elmer Flick .558
16. Gary Sheffield (.556)
17. Sam Crawford (.555)

EQA*: .319 (T-6th)
1. Babe Ruth .366
2. Manny Ramirez .344
3. Mel Ott .328
4. Hank Aaron .326
5. Frank Robinson .325
6. Vladimir Guerrero & Gary Sheffield .319
7. Bobby Abreu .314

WARP3: 120.3 (12th)
10. Paul Waner 124.9
11. Tony Gwynn 124.3
12. Gary Sheffield 120.3
13. Dwight Evans 119.1

Considering that so many great right fielders have played the game, Sheffield easily ranks high enough by any measure for induction to Cooperstown, especially considering he's got some good baseball still left in him. And, on the lists that are averages, consider that many active players listed (Vlad Guerrero, Bobby Abreu) are still in their early 30's and have several years of declining to bring down their numbers, whereas Sheffield is 38 and not likely to dilute his raw averages much before he retires.

I've gone on rather longer than I intended talking about Sheffield, but I really wanted to make the case for him as an all-time great. He's no Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron; he's not even a Mel Ott or Frank Robinson. But he's good enough to rank with Paul Waner, Tony Gwynn, and Dave Winfield as first-ballot Hall-of-Fame right fielders.

No matter what he says.

To be continued (hopefully with briefer notes about the 30-odd players I still want to talk about) ...

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