With a weak list of first-year eligible names and with what looks to be a softening towards players with PED-ties, 2021 could get Gary Sheffield on track towards eventual enshrinement.
With the release of the first-year eligible players for the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot on Monday, conversations that began as soon as the 2020 results were announced only ramped up. Per the official website of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, results of the upcoming ballot—as voted on by the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America)—will be announced on January 26th on MLB Network.
Players debuting on the 2021 ballot include Mark Buehrle, A.J. Burnett, Michael Cuddyer, Dan Haren, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Hudson, Torii Hunter, Aramis Ramirez, Nick Swisher, Shane Victorino, and Barry Zito.
Names returning include Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Todd Helton, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones, Sammy Sosa, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Abreu, and the subject that made this piece possible, Gary Sheffield.
However, before we delve into Sheffield, it is important to briefly shine a light on those who best look to garner the necessary 75 percent needed to be enshrined among baseball’s immortals.
Of the newcomers to the upcoming ballot, Mark Buehrle—with his 214 wins, World Series Championship, authorship of2 no-hitters, one of which being a perfect game in 2009, and career 59.1 rWAR (baseball-reference) and 52.3 fWAR (fangraphs)—boasts the best odds of remaining on the ballot. That being said, electing a pitcher with a career ERA and FIP of 3.81 and 4.11, respectively, would certainly lower the standard for Hall of Fame pitchers. However, the recent election of Jack Morris, the owner of a 3.90 ERA, and the fact that Andy Pettitte, a contemporary of Buehrle’s who retired with a near-identical 3.83 ERA has managed to hang on with 9.9 and 11.3-percent in his two years on the ballot, counting Buehrle out may seem a tad short-sighted.
A mention of Tim Hudson would best serve as a sign of respect given the case for Buehrle. The owner of a 3.49 ERA and 120 ERA+, Hudson finished his career with 57.9 rWAR and could most certainly amass a few votes, but his case, should it be further explored, will take ample time to dissect.
With respect to the remaining ballot newcomers, however, see the selection as acknowledgement for long and successful careers, but Cooperstown will not bear a plaque with their likeness.
As for the returning names, Curt Schilling looks to be the closest thing to a lock. Entering his 9th year on the ballot, the three-time World Series winner, who has long been at the mercy of the BBWAA due to his controversial political beliefs, earned 70 percent in 2020, representing a 9.1-percent jump from 2019. While traditionalists may scoff at his mere 216 regular season wins, Schilling made his name in the postseason, posting a 2.23 ERA over 133.1 innings pitched.
Baseball purists will call Omar Vizquel the best defensive shortstop not named Osborne Earl Smith, but those who delve deeper into player peripherals will asses the player as a whole.
For Vizquel, while his 11 Gold Gloves are most-certainly indicative of someone who could, to use baseball slang, “pick it” at his respective position, his offensive numbers leave little to be desired, as attested to by a career OPS+ of 82 and meager 45.6 rWAR. That being said, Vizquel received 52.6 percent of the vote in his third year of eligibility, a near-sign that he’ll garner the necessary 75 percent within the next year or two to earn enshrinement.
Fellow left-side-of-the-infield mate Scott Rolen returns for his fourth year on the ballot after earning 35.3 percent in 2020. His 70.1 rWAR ranks 10th among third basemen, but the 8-time Gold Glove award winner has largely been ignored due to low counting statistics, particularly his 2,077 hits.
And no preview of this year’s ballot would be complete without mentioning the aforementioned Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. For as long as most can remember, these two have been the poster-children for an era of suspicion and deviation from baseball’s moral code.
While cheating in baseball is as old as the rules of the game itself, that hasn’t barred those who succumbed to the temptation to achieve further greatness. Bonds, Clemens, Ramirez, Sosa, and the anti-hero of this piece, Sheffield, all defined an era that for many, cast a dark-cloud over the sport.
2021 marks the ninth year for Bonds and Clemens, and while the stew of suspicion surrounding their ties to PED’s would be enough to suffice Oliver Twist tenfold, the 7-time NL MVP and 7-time Cy Young Award winner walked away with 60.7 and 61 percent in 2020. On average, Bonds and Clemens have each seen a 1.73-percent boost in total votes since 2017.
For Sheffield, Bonds, and Clemens, the softening of stances from the BBWAA in conjunction with a weak-first year class could aid them greatly.
With that said, it is imperative to mention that while the likes of Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza, players whom too were connected, though imperative to mention, loosely, to PED’s garner induction into Cooperstown, their HOF paths were less strenuous and the numbers less gaudy.
For Sheffield, 2021 will represent his seventh year of eligibility and one where he’ll look to build on a 16.9-percent boost he received when he finished with 30.5 percent in 2020.
A recent inductee to look at when examining Sheffield’s case is Larry Walker. Though never linked to PED’s like Sheffield, who was named in the 2004 BALCO report, Walker finished his seventh year of eligibility with 21.9-percent of the vote. Walker would, through several instances of championing via Twitter, eventually earn induction on 76.6 percent of the vote in 2020.
Offensively, Sheffield and Walker were nearly identical, finishing their careers with a 140 and 141 OPS+. Going on the basis of the triple-slash line, Sheffield posted a total line of .292/.393/.514, while Walker retired at .313/.400/.565, though Sheffield played in 588 more games.
Never regarded as a great defender, as noted by a career -27.7 dWAR, Sheffield’s career WAR, per baseball-reference, sits at 60.5, a mark which puts him 18th all-time among right fielders.
Defense aside, Sheffield’s 80.8 oWAR(offensive WAR) merits induction alone. A mark which ranks 36th all-time, above the likes of Al Kaline, Jim Thome, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Gwynn, etc., Sheffield’s strengths lied in a knack for low rates of swing-and-miss, finishing his career with 304 more walks than strikeouts, as well as his prodigious power, retiring with 509 home runs. For his career, Sheffield struck out in just 10.7 percent of his plate appearances.
Gary Sheffield vs. Miguel Cabrera vs. Chipper Jones: pic.twitter.com/KovtgluMyT
— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) November 18, 2020
It wasn’t until joining the Marlins mid-way through their inaugural season in 1993 that Sheffield firmly established himself as a consistent middle-of-the-order threat. In parts of six seasons from 1993-1998—punctuated by the franchises first World Series title in 1997—Sheffield posted a .426 on-base percentage, slugging .543 and finishing with a robust 156 OPS+. His 1996 season, the single-best for a Marlin per OPS+, for which Sheffield finished the year with a mark of 189, saw the bat-wiggling wizard hit a then-franchise best 42 home runs, and post a Williams-like .465 OBP. ‘96 also saw Sheffield walk 142 times opposed to just 66 strikeouts.
There’s a multitude of ways to slice the legitimacy of Sheffield’s Hall of Fame-hopeful cake, so we’ll circle around to this point: despite the ties to PED’s, to continue to exclude someone merely on suspicion, as has been the case with the already-mentioned Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, would be an injustice to those looking to immerse themselves in the history of the sport.
Not only this, but with the likes of Schilling, who one could argue has mustered more controversy than the likes of Sheffield, on the heels of Cooperstown’s doorstep, where is the fine line between morally abhorrent and a mere slap on the wrist?
It is important to note here, while Clemens and Bonds have been unapologetic in failing to admit their delvings into the world of steroids, Sheffield was forthcoming in his drug use. He admitted to using a BALCO-supplied drug during the 2002 season in a 2004 Sports Illustrated piece.
Voters possess the right to vote as many as ten per ballot. Given the less-than-stellar list of newcomers, the likes of Sheffield, Rolen, Vizquel, Schilling and, with hindsight, Bonds and Clemens can only see vote totals further sway in their favor. And while Gary Sheffield may never be able to officially proclaim himself a Hall of Famer*, 2021 will prove sink or swim for his case at attaining baseball’s highest honor.
*If it’s any consolation, we inducted Sheffield earlier this year