Defense Matters: Sheffield is not Edgar Martinez

Race to 400 Points

Hitting: 560 Points

Fielding: -200 points

Baserunning: -10 points

Black Ink: 20 points

All-Star Bonus: 18 points

Silver Slugger Bonus: 15 points

Generally a pain in the neck: -15 points

Total: 388 Points

Part of me felt compelled to recycle the same article I posted last year, however I feel it is important to dig deep on Sheffield. As many, many, people attest: Gary Sheffield was as good a hitter as Edgar Martinez (some would say he was a better hitter than Edgar Martienz). Martinez, after spending nine seasons being unfairly penalized for not playing the field, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Gary Sheffield, despite similar offensive contributions, languishes on the ballot (we shall see if a less crowded ballot benefits Gary).

I am here to make the argument: no, Gary Sheffield should be penalized for his atrocious defense.

To start: I never bought into, and firmly disagree, with the idea that designated hitters should be heavily penalized in the first place. By our own metrics designated hitters are already penalized. Best I can tell: a DH has never won an MVP. Baseball Reference heavily penalizes designated hitters in its WAR metric (which is not a recognized and staple statistic for argumentation). Edgar Martinez overcame the limits of his position before he came on the ballot; the additional penalty he faced for the Hall of Fame was unfair.

Gary Sheffield, unlike Martinez, played the field. Unfortunately: he was atrocious in the field. By some calculations Sheffield is among the worst defensive players in baseball history. This is undisputed. What's surprising is Sheffield struggled defensively in spite of his athletic prowess. Sheffield's defense hangs like an albatross over his head. Offensively: Gary Sheffield is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. Defensively he's in whatever the heck you'd call a museum to honor players who harm their teams (that alongside Omar Vizquel's bat). It's a huge anchor which must be addressed, and addressed carefully.

The Edgar Martinez Comparison

First, I want to address a question: was Gary Sheffield a better offensive player than Edgar Martinez? Tough call. Gary Sheffield played much longer than Martinez; he debuted at 19, and accumulated over 2,000 more plate appearances than Martinez. Here are their career batting lines:

.312/.418/.515 (OPS+ 147), 2,247 H, 514 2B, 309 HR, 1,202 SO-1,283 BB, 1,219 R, 1,261 RBI, 66.9 oWAR, 8,674 PA

.292/.393/.514 (OPS+ 140), 2,689 H, 467 2B, 509 HR, 1,171 SO-1,475 BB, 1,636 R, 1,676 RBI, 80.8 oWAR, 10,947 PA

OK. The first clear thing: Sheffield played much longer than Martinez which resulted in more hits, doubles, homers, and other related counting stats. Both boasted keen batting eyes, and did not strike out much. Both walked more than they struck out. Edgar Martinez is among the few hitters to maintain a .300/.400/.500 batting line over an entire career, while Sheffield falls just short. To be fair: Sheffield did debut younger, and if you take away some of his poorer younger seasons, his career totals near Martinez's career totals:

Sheffield Age 27-40:
.294/.406/.529 (OPS+ 145), 328 2B, 392 HR, 1,915 H, 876 SO-1,177 BB, 1,237 R, 1,246 RBI

Then again, it depends on what timeframe you choose. Or is it fair to cherry pick the 7 best offensive seasons from each and compare those? Overall: I think it is fair to say they were both comparable hitters. By Black Ink: Martinez was a touch better (he led the league in hitting twice, on-base percentage three times, RBIs/Runs/OPS once). Sheffield led the league in hitting, on-base percentage and OPS once a piece. By sheer career dominance Sheffield was better for far longer. I can pick more seasons which compare comparably to Martinez, than I can for Martinez to compare to Sheffield.

Which brings us back to the question: should we penalize Sheffield for (as its argued) his manager's decision to play him in the field? The answer is: yes, of course we should. We penalize Edgar Martienz for the Mariners' stupidity in not promoting him full time before his age 27 season, we penalize Omar Vizquel for Mike Hargrove batting him second in the lineup. How can we not penalize Sheffield for his poor defensive play? Every facet of the game matters, and we must account for each part of it. Of course hitting accounts for more, but the fact that Gary Sheffield was an insane, feared, Hall of Fame hitter is why we're even having this discussion in the first place. If Sheffield was any worse as a hitter: we would not be having this discussion. Heck, we penalize Edgar Martinez for playing DH: he was a good defender at third base, his primary position.

There are other parts to the Gary Sheffield argument. He stole 250 bases in his career (which frankly did not add much to his overall career), he bounced around a lot (playing for Milwaukee, San Diego, New York, New York, Detroit, Miami, and LA). Yes, he was embroiled in the Mitchell Report although the key speaker against PEDs, Tom Verducci, has cleared him from wrong doing which should be good enough for anyone. Sheffield was a key part of the first Florida Marlins World Series victory. But then again, none of these other parts are really that relevant: it's really about whether you think Sheffield's defense should weight him down as much as bWAR suggests.

I personally think we should consider all aspects of a player's career, and not focus too hard on specialists. Which leads me to believe Sheffield is not a Hall of Famer. I will admit: the case is borderline, and if the Hall of Fame starts electing even more sub-par players like Harold Baines into its ranks, the arguments against Sheffield ring hollow.

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