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The Coming Candidates and Controversies

Gary Sheffield's numbers are Hall of Fame caliber, though his words raise issues about his candidacy (AP).

Today at Baseball Prospectus, I've got a quick look at the Hall of Fame cases of the freshly-retired Trevor Hoffman as well as the best upcoming candidates at each position according to JAWS. As you'd expect, a few former Yankees come up for discussion, namely Roger Clemens, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield. The piece is a freebie in front of the subscription wall, so I won't go nuts quoting it here since you can get on over and read it yourself, but here's what I had to say about Williams, who falls short of the Hall standard for center fielders and is well behind Ken Griffey Jr. All triple-slash numbers are for career WARP, peak WARP (best seven seasons) and JAWS; for more about the system see here:

Center Field
JAWS Standard: 68.3/44.0/56.1
Best upcoming candidate: Ken Griffey Jr. (79.7/51.9/65.8), eligible 2016

Griffey is the anti-Bonds, in that he bopped 630 homers, made 13 All-Star appearances, won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999), four home-run crowns, and the 1997 AL MVP award, all with nary a PED [performance-enhancing drug] question. As I wrote upon his retirement back in June, while we're still far from knowing the full truth about what happened during an era where illicit substance usage was all too common—and we never will—the fact is that Griffey was never connected to that endless scandal managed to paper over the last 10 years of his career, a span during which he averaged just 19 homers and 99 games a year while dealing with an endless litany of leg problems instead of chasing Hank Aaron's home-run record. Thus, the image of young Junior Griffey has been preserved as the innocent, smiling face of an era on which many observers have soured. He'll sail into Cooperstown.

That's far less likely to be the case for the aforementioned Bernie Williams (57.3/40.9/49.1). He played a vital part in the Yankee dynasty which made 12 straight post-season appearances on his watch, and won six pennants and four world championships from 1998 through 2003, while he earned All-Star honors five straight times, taking home four straight Gold Gloves and a batting title, and bopping a record 22 post-season home runs. Nonetheless, his value is held down by below-average defense (-32 FRAA) and a mid-30s decline which saw him hit just .263/.346/.412 over his final four seasons to finish with 2,336 hits and 287 homers, numbers that won't wow many BBWAA voters.

Of perhaps more interest if not more immediate Hall of Fame relevance, here's what I have to say about Sheff:

Right Field
JAWS Standard: 75.7/46.6/61.2
Best upcoming candidate: Gary Sheffield (79.7/48.3/64.0), eligible 2015

The traditional numbers are there for Sheff: a .292/.393/.514 line, 2,683 hits, 509 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three top-five finishes in the MVP voting, a World Series ring, a batting title, all-time top-25 rankings in homers, RBI, and walks, and strong showings on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards metrics (156 and 61, respectively). Our system doesn't love his defense (-122 FRAA), but even so, he's above the standard in right field, a standard higher than at any other position besides second base, that due to a couple of bums named Ruth and Aaron.

The question is how much the controversies Sheffield found himself embroiled in throughout his career will have an impact on his candidacy, from the subsequently recanted assertions about intentional errors during his early Brewers days to his unhappy exits from Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, to his connection to the BALCO scandal via workout buddy Bonds. Sheffield has never been the focus of public outrage the way Bonds or McGwire or Sammy Sosa have, and one gets the sense that the writers have appreciated the good copy he's given them over the years, so perhaps their evaluation of his candidacy will forgo the soapbox derby in favor of a clearer assessment of his accomplishments. At the very least, the writers will have had a few years to chew on higher-profile PED candidates by the time Sheffield hits the ballot, though it may be hoping too much for a coherent standard to be applied.

Since posting this, I've been engaged in a spirited Twitter-based debate regarding Sheffield's candidacy. Some hold that because he has admitted uses of PEDs, he's got no chance, just as McGwire has no chance. Backing this view, two years ago, Jack Curry (then with the New York Times, now with YES) wrote, "I’ve interviewed numerous writers who have told me they will not vote for any players who were connected to steroids, regardless of the explanation."

However, Sheffield has always maintained that he used the undetectable "cream" of BALCO fame to help heal his stitches from his knee surgery without knowing that it contained steroids, and unlike McGwire's admission or Rafael Palmeiro's vehement assertion that his positive test owed to a tainted vitamin supplement, nobody's really challenged Sheffield's story or even held his feet to the fire on the topic. Cripes, sainted Andy Pettitte has gotten more static for his own admission that he used human growth hormone to heal from injury.

Many (if not most) voters who have expressed reservations about voting for anyone who has admitted using PEDs have shown little room for nuance in their views, but the upcoming ballots which will see Clemens and Bonds come up for election will test the limits of such absolutism, due to the consensus that both players were Hall of Famers in the making before they indulged. Sheffield, who comes up for a vote two years after that duo, could benefit from any precedent set there, though as noted above, any suggestion of a coherent standard among voters on this topic is probably coincidental.

Meanwhile, Steve and I exchanged views over Sheffield's supposedly intentional errors, a saga I recounted in great detail over at Futility Infielder back when Sheff was wearing pinstripes. The short version is that Sheffield, who was drafted by the Brewers, rushed to the majors, and repeatedly mistreated by an insensitive organization — which subjected him to drug testing based merely on his kinship to Dwight Gooden (who was amid drug problems at the time), and sent him to the minors after misdiagnosing what turned out to be a broken foot — was obviously an unhappy camper in Milwaukee. In 1992, after being traded to the Padres, he told the Los Angeles Times' Bob Nightengale, "If the official scorer gave me an error, 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.'"

Those would appear to be damning words, but Sheffield soon recanted the statement in a follow-up article by Nightengale. There's no further evidence to suggest that he made intentional errors during his time with the Brewers, or that any such errors had an impact on the outcome of any games, nothing particularly damning in play-by-play accounts, and certainly nothing that was reported by observers as obvious errors.

There is a note in Nightengale's follow-up: "Sheffield said the only time he may have made an error purposely out of anger was when he was in the Brewer minor-league system." Which, if you look at the context of the way he was mistreated by the organization during his late teens and early twenties, makes a bit more sense. That's not to condone such action, but in the absence of actual evidence that this was anything more than an an isolated temper tantrum, how much sense does holding it against him make? Whatever happened, he wasn't disciplined by the team or the league; it's not like he tossed his bat at an umpire and earned a 50-game suspension, à la Delmon Young in Triple-A circa 2006.

In any event, I've always found Sheffield to be a fascinating player and a compelling case study even if he could be a bona fide pain in the ass for his employers. It'll be awhile before we get to the bottom of his Hall of Fame case.