I was one of the 505 Kicktarter backers for “The Hall of Nearly Great”*, a collection of essays on players who, for one reason or another, fall short the Hall of Fame, but who were fantastic in their own right**. If you follow baseball people on Twitter, you’ll likely be familiar with the vast majority of the writers. Nearly all of my favorite baseball writers contributed to this book.*** I’m not finished yet, but so far it is just excellent. I can never be reminded enough just how much Jack Morris owes Lonnie Smith for his famous base-running blunder.
A few weeks before I received my copy of the “Hall of Nearly Great” the Braves announced that they had acquired Ben Sheets and that he would begin throwing in the minors. On (or very nearly) the day I received the book, the Braves announced that Sheets would be starting on Sunday. Several Brewer fans, myself included, have a strong affinity for Sheets and we’re rooting for the guy, but in chatting with people on Twitter I’ve also seen reactions ranging from confusion over this affection to outright hostility towards Sheets. If you watched Ben Sheets pitch for the Brewers for 8 years I have no idea how you can have anything but love for the guy. Sheets served some of the most atrocious Brewer teams in history, lived through the rebuilding period, and gave absolutely everything he had in breaking the Brewers quarter-century playoff drought. You’ll often hear people say that every arm has a certain number of pitches in it, and the Brewers extracted every single one of them from Sheets. Ben Sheets is a perfect candidate for the Hall of Nearly Great.
I will always think of Ben Sheets as a kid, but he’s just a year younger than I am and I get sore after 7 innings of softball. He was selected in the first round by the Brewers with the 10th overall pick way back in 1999. Sheets was a college phenom, once having struck out 20 batters in one game. He would always remain a threat to run off a big string of strikeouts at any given time, but we’ll get to that later. He always seemed to live in the zone and rely on his stuff to evade bats, and while this would occasionally lead to some hard-hit balls, more often than not it led to 2-hour games of 10+ strikeouts. Outside of maybe Mark Beurhle, there is probably no modern pitcher who worked as quickly as Sheets. For this reason alone he was a joy to watch.
In 2000 he became an Olympic hero, leading the Tommy Lasorda-managed US team to a dramatic victory over Cuba. In the Gold Medal game he pitched a complete game shutout 3-hitter, striking out 5 while walking none. Only one Cuban advanced past 1st base.
All of this made Sheets a legend before he ever threw a pitch in the majors. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that no home-grown Brewer ever had as much hype or pressure to perform as did Ben. The Brewers hadn’t had a winning record since 1992 and while it would be unfair to call any one flaw an Achilles’ Heel****, their biggest problem had really been pitching. In 2000, Jeff D’Amico***** competently anchored a most incompetent staff that saw major innings pitched by Jimmy Haynes, Jamey Wright, John Snyder, Jason Bere, and Paul Rigdon. There is probably a parallel universe where D’Amico and Sheets led the Brewers back to glory in 2001, but in real life injuries ruined D’Amico, and Sheets would struggle a bit in anchoring one of the worst rotations in the history of baseball. It was so bad that Sheets actually led the starters in WHIP his rookie season – with a 1.414. No other Brewer starter was less than 1.5.******
Sheets took a few years to really round into form, but he was never bad, and truthfully, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The 2001 Brewers gave meaningful playing time to Devon White*******. The 2002 Brewers are remembered fondly for the ridiculous free agent acquisition of Jeffrey Hammonds. One can easily forgive Sheets for taking a few years to develop under one of the most backward regimes in baseball. He actually made the All-Star team his rookie season, but someone had too, per MLB rules. The fact is that early on Sheets walked too many people, didn’t strike out quite as many as he needed too, and had an issue with the HR ball that would never really go away. In 2003 he cut his walks, cut his WHIP, but his HR total spiked. Still there was progress, and you could always see him just on the cusp. The fastball moved. The curveball was devastating. In 2004 it all came together. Boy did it come together.
Randy Johnson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In 2004 he was the only pitcher in baseball arguably better than Ben Sheets. Sheets upped his SO/9 from 6.4 to 10. He cut his BB/9 from 1.8 to 1.2. He cut his WHIP to .983. Perhaps most impressively, in the same number of games as in 2003, he struck out over 100 more people (157 to 264). Because baseball writers with votes are complete and total morons, and because Sheets went 12-14, he only finished 8th in Cy Young voting. (Randy Johnson also didn’t win, which possibly worse.) Roger Clemens won, but what makes Sheets’ 8th place finish particularly galling is that Carl Pavano finished in front of him. Carl Pavano. He went 18-8 so I guess he deserved it.
On May 16th, 2004 the Brewers played the Atlanta Braves in a day game at Miller Park. The next time the Giants’ announcers complain about the half-open roof, they should consult this game. The Braves won 96 games and finished first in the NL East. They featured Chipper and Andruw Jones in their primes, JD Drew being JD Drew but younger, and Rafael Furcal playing his usual stellar defense. On this day they also started Dewayne Wise, who I didn’t realize had been around that long. You learn something new every day. Nick Green didn’t strike out on May 16th, 2004. This is notable because he is the only Brave who didn’t strike out. Chipper struck out and he only had one at bat. Mark Derosa only struck out once, which turned out to be a banner day. Sheets would strike out 18 in 2 hours and 31 minutes. It remains one of the most dominant pitching performances in MLB history. An RBI groundout by Bill Hall in the 7th would give the Brewers enough of a cushion for Ned Yost to stick with Sheets for the final two innings. When Hall hit said groundout, Sheets was at an impressive but not legenday 12 strikeouts. He would strike out the side in both the 8th and the 9th while never having a 3-ball count. He was untouchable.
He would strike out 10+ on 9 occasions and throw 5 complete games over 237 innings. It’s not a an exaggeration to say that in 2004, Ben Sheets had the greatest season in the history of the franchise. He put up an 8.0 WAR (per fangraphs) for a 67-win team. He was basically responsible for 1/8th of their wins.
There is one big problem with 2004. One glaringly obvious, awful, terrible, problem. 2004 was the last time that Ben Sheets would ever throw over 200 innings in a season.
He would be plagued by injuries throughout the rest of his career, always brilliant when on the field (WHIPs of 1.066 and 1.094 in 05 and 06, another All-Star game in 2007). The Brewers finally had a winning record in 2007. They finally grew some stars. Braun, Fielder, Gallardo, Weeks, Hart and Hardy played with the big club, and all contributed. And for the first time since 1992, they had a winning record. Ben Sheets waited for years and played with some of the most atrocious teams you could possibly assemble, and finally, it looked like all of that work would pay off.
You know how this ends. Reed Johnson destroyed Yovani Gallardo’s knee, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan, and Seth McClung were found wanting, and in a desperate bid for the playoffs, the Brewers shortened the rotation to get more out of Sabathia and Sheets. Just as Sheets was about to roll over to 200 innings, his elbow gave out. Maybe it’s because of the workload from 2004. Maybe it’s because he threw that amazing curveball 33% of the time in 2008, more than any other pitcher in baseball, but Ben’s arm just didn’t have 200 innings in it anymore. His career as a Brewer ended on September 27th, 2008 on a single by Mike Fontenot with Casey McGehee on deck. He would throw 198.1 innings, striking out 158 while walking only 47. He would not pitch in the playoffs. He was done.
In 2008 Ben Sheets gave everything he had left to the franchise that was too incompetent to put a winner behind him. He was a good soldier. He was, in many ways, the best soldier. For most of his career the Brewers didn’t deserve Ben Sheets. They abused him, they marketed him, they made him their star. Sheets made a pretty penny, so it’s not as if I feel bad for him, but it’s worth noting that he stuck with his original franchise in the old-school, pre-free agency way, and when they needed him most he gave everything his arm had to give. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Brewers, who won the Wild Card by one game, would not have made the playoffs without his efforts. 2004 was his greatest effort, but 2008 was his most important.
He pitched today for the Atlanta Braves, and he pitched well. Very well, actually. It was good to see. Every start he has after this I’ll fully be expecting his arm to disintegrate, and hoping beyond hope that it lasts just log enough to snap off one more curveball
Damn that curveball was amazing.
*Formerly the Hall of Very Good before, I’m guessing, they ran into a trademark/copyright issue.
**Examples: Lonnie Smith, Norm Cash, Ray Lankford, Frank Viola, John Olerud, and Moises “Pee Hands” Alou.
***Examples: Posnanski, Keri, Span, Bois, Calcaterra, Neyer, Radbourn.
****as the 90s Brewers were composed largely of Achilles’ Heels.
*****D’Amico will warrant his own post at some point.
******This remains true even if we include Ruben Quevedo, and, sadly, the limited innings of Jeff D’Amico.
*******Devo acquitted himself nicely in his short stint as a Brewer, hitting .273/.343/.459 in 126 games, hitting 14 Hrs and stealing 18 bases while being caught only 4 times. The Brewer outfield of Burnitz/Jenkins/Devo all posted ERA+s over 100. White made 5 mill in 2001, his final season. Burnitz would make 7 million for the Mets in 2002. They would be replaced by Alex Sanchez and Jeffrey “ugh” Hammonds. The Brewers would pay Hammonds over 15 million in his two plus seasons in which he hit .252/.327/.408 with 19 Hrs total while proving once and for all Selig/Taylor regime at the time had no concept of adjusting for home stadiums. Alex Sanchez was just about the dumbest sunnovabitch ever.