Does Gary Sheffield belong in the Hall of Fame?

With 2021 ballots out the BBWAA’s voting body, Hall of Fame candidacies are up for debate again. Does Gary Sheffield belong in Cooperstown?

The 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame voting results will be announced in January. The Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA) has sent out ballots to its voting body, as they consider Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and others who are far less controversial. Somewhere in between is one Gary Sheffield.

Sheffield is on the ballot for the seventh time. In his first five years he managed to stay on the ballot, coming in with between 11.5 percent and 14 percent of the vote. Then in 2020, he jumped to 30.5 percent. As long as they stay on the ballot, Hall of Fame candidates are on the ballot for a maximum of 10 years, and 75 percent of the vote is required for induction. So over the next four years, Sheffield will have to more than double his 2020 vote percentage.

Is Gary Sheffield a Hall-of-Famer?

Over 22 seasons in the big leagues (1988-09), Sheffield had a .292/.393/.514 slash-line (.907 OPS, 140 OPS+) with 2,689 hits, 509 home runs and 1,676 RBI. He had at least 20 home runs in 14 seasons and at least 30 homers in eight campaigns. Narrowing to his 14-year peak (1992-05, as noted by Chris Bodig of Cooperstown Cred, his 153 OPS+ (adjusted for ballpark) was the fourth-best among hitters over that span (behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez).

Sheffield was a nine-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger and he won one batting title (.330) with the San Diego Padres in 1992. He was a blend of power and average rarely seen in combination, with three other league top-10 batting average seasons, seven seasons in the top-10 in home runs and six seasons in the top-10 in RBI. He also finished top-10 in on-base percentage 10 times, leading the NL in 1996 with the Florida Marlins (.463), and he’s still 21st all-time in walks (1,475). He had an OPS north of 1.000 in a season five times.

Via his relationship with Bonds, Sheffield was looped into PED use via the BALCO scandal. His personality was often not for the faint of heart, which has surely hurt his standing with Hall-of-Fame voters who still place importance on such things. He played multiple positions during his career, first coming up with the Milwaukee Brewers as a shortstop before moving to third base and eventually both corner outfield spots. But he didn’t play any of those positions well, as further evidenced as advanced metrics entered the lexicon. Via Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs, Sheffield’s -195 Fielding Runs (via Baseball Reference) is the second-worst (lowest) all-time.

That defensive ineptitude (or indifference, depending on your perspective), diminishes Sheffield’s WAR and JAWS standing. His 60.5 bWAR is 118th all-time among position players, and 18th among right fielders. Per Jaffe, that career WAR is higher than 13 of 26 currently Hall-of-Fame enshrined right fielders.

All things in play, Jaffe offered a comparison for Sheffield: Dave Winfield. Winfield had 3,110 hits and 465 home runs, with similarly bad (though not as severely bad) accounting of his defense by the advanced numbers (despite the fact he won seven Gold Gloves). Winfield was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in 2001.

As older voters are replaced by younger ones, the stigma attached to players at all tied to PEDs is diminishing. Sheffield is not the object of controversy to the same level and he didn’t offer denials on the topic the way Bonds, Clemens and some others have been and have, and in the big picture, the whole PED thing is becoming less important.

So is Gary Sheffield a Hall-of-Famer? For me it boils down to this. If Harold Baines — and to a lesser extent, Larry Walker — are Hall-of-Famers, so is Sheffield.

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