Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Hall of Fame case for Gary Sheffield

The world is a very tribal place, and there are opinions you're supposed to hold because your side has agreed to them. Within the segment of the baseball community I tend to run with, one of those opinions is that Edgar Martinez belongs in the Hall of Fame, and it's understandable, because he was a tremendous hitter. The argument against Martinez is that because he was a designated hitter most of his career, his offensive numbers should be discounted. "He only played half the game." Early in his candidacy, Martinez's support was modest, and as recently as 2015 he received only 27.0% of the vote, That number rose to 43.4% a year later though, and then to 58.6% last year. Martinez currently has 81.0% of the known votes for this year (available via Ryan Thibodaux's HOF tracker), and while that figure may dip below 75% when the final total are announced next week, if it does he'd be a lock to get in next year. Edgar's supporters have won. What I'm wondering is, if Martinez belongs because he was that good a hitter, why not Gary Sheffield, who was every bit as great at the plate?

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that Sheffield was among those named in the Mitchell Report, meaning he was found to have a connection to performance-enhancing drugs. I understand that this alone keeps many Hall of Fame voters from voting for Martinez, but if PED connections were the main thing keeping Sheffield from drawing the same sort of support as Martinez, we could expect his current percentage of the votes to be something like 80% of what Bonds is drawing (because if Bonds had no PED connections, he'd be at very close to 100%, meaning Martinez is at ~80% of what Bonds is at). Bonds is at 65.6% of the vote, so if the only difference between Martinez's support and Sheffield's were PED-related, Sheffield should be at 52% or so. Instead he's way down at 9.7%. He's in danger of falling off the ballot entirely in another two or three years. Clearly even among those who don't believe PED connections should disqualify one from Cooperstown, Martinez is viewed as having the far stronger case. What this article presupposes is, maybe he doesn't?

Here are some career numbers for both players:

Edgar Martinez224730912191283.312.418.515147
Gary Sheffield268950916361676.288.393.514141

Martinez has the better rate stats, but they're pretty close. Sheffield has the much larger counting totals. His advantage in counting stats is due in part to appearing in 521 more games than Martinez did, but if Martinez had played in another 521 games at the beginning and/or end of his career, his rate stats would almost certainly be less impressive.

Here are the same statistics, but only for the best 15-year stretch of each player's career, which for Martinez is 1990 to 2004, and for Sheffield is 1992 to 2006. This gives each player an almost equal number of games and plate appearances:

Edgar Martinez218130711931231.313.421.521149
Gary Sheffield210343412951368.304.410.549152

Sheffield still has better counting totals, and he now has the better adjusted rate stat as well, if only slightly. Sheffield was called up and put in the lineup at the age of 19. He held his own, but he wasn't yet the hitter he would become, and those years drag his career rates down. Looking at more comparable samples of the two players' work, Sheffield comes out ahead.

If you want to look at a smaller number of seasons in order to compare each of them at their best, here are each player's ten best qualified seasons by wRC+, my preferred offensive metric:

Edgar Martinez182165164163161157157154142138
Gary Sheffield185173172163159154144142141141

They are very close together in most instances, with Martinez having a notable edge in their respective 7th and 8th seasons, but in terms of absolute peak, it's Sheffield who had the better seasons. While it's very close, forced to choose, I would argue that Sheffield was the better hitter.

Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus are the three most prominent baseball stat websites in existence. Each has their own (generally similar, but somewhat different in the details) measures of performance, including some version of what can be called batting runs:

  • Baseball Reference has Sheffield ahead of Martinez 590 to 569.
  • FanGraphs has Sheffield ahead 566 to 522.
  • Baseball Prospectus has Sheffield ahead 638 to 566.

Dating back to 1950, when Baseball Prospectus' number's begin, Sheffield ranks 14th among all hitters in batting runs at Baseball Reference (Martinez is 17th), 12th at FanGraphs (Martinez is 18th), and 13th at Baseball Prospectus (Martinez is 20th). All three sites agree Sheffield provided more total value with his bat. All three sites agree Sheffield was the better base runner as well.

Martinez played third base during his first five full seasons, and is the consensus among various defensive metrics is that he was an average defender, perhaps slightly better even. That provided his team with some value, and is part of the reason that despite trailing Sheffield as an offensive player, Martinez is ahead of him in both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR. (Sheffield is ahead in WARP at Baseball Prospectus, and his lead there is sizable enough that if you average out the three sites' figures, Sheffield is on top ever so slightly, 66.4 to 65.9.) The far bigger factor in Martinez moving up (or closing the gap) on Sheffield is that while he is penalized for playing 70% of his career games as a designated hitter, Sheffield is penalized even more for being a poor defensive right fielder.

Should bad defense be considered worse than no defense?

If your argument for Martinez's HOF case involves giving him a bit of extra credit for the defense he might've played had he been given the opportunity, are you also considering that his excellent longevity was probably due at least in part to the relative lack of wear and tear he underwent because he didn't have to play defense?

If your argument comes down to him having been such a great hitter, his not playing defense isn't a factor, than doesn't it stand to reason that someone who was an even better hitter also belongs in the Hall of Fame?

I have no interest in trying to litigate the steroid era. If your reason for believing Sheffield doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame is about PED use, I'm not vain enough to think after all these years I'm going to change your mind. For the rest of you though, I return to the question I asked at the top: If you believe Edgar Martinez belongs in Cooperstown, why not Gary Sheffield?


  1. Amen! Sheff should be in the Hall!

  2. I agree, but if it ever happens, it's not going to be for a long, long time.

  3. He's a 100% Hall of Famer, there's no discussion really about it

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