At the moment, it appears Gary Sheffield has no path to Cooperstown.
Look hard enough, though – at his accomplishments, at the changing makeup of the electorate and at similar rallies by overlooked candidates – and it’s not inconceivable Sheffield finds his way to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
This 2020 election marks the back side of Sheffield’s campaign, his sixth of a possible 10 appearances on the ballot and perhaps a key pivot point for a candidate whose support hit a high of 13.6% last year, well shy of the 75% needed for induction.
But Sheffield can look to various examples of players making large leaps in support over time to get in the Hall, or close to it. Most recently, DH Edgar Martinez received a 60-point boost in his final five years of eligibility – going from 25.2% to 85.4% in 2019 to get to Cooperstown.
A similar jolt would get Sheffield close – 73.6%. And one can argue Sheffield has as strong a case as Martinez and others already enshrined.
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Sheffield’s greatest calling card is a combination of Hall-worthy statistics – such as 509 home runs – mixed with periods of dominance that put to rest any notion he was merely a “compiler” of statistics.
His 22-year career spanned several eras, and he wore even more hats in that time – shortstop and third baseman, outfielder, eventually a DH and a dabbler, intentionally or not, in performance-enhancing drugs (more on that later).
By the age of 23, he was the 1992 National League batting champion and All-Star, a third-place MVP finisher and well-established as an intimidating presence in the batter’s box.
That was the first of 12 seasons in which his adjusted OPS was at least 40 points above league average, and the first of a half-dozen seasons in which he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting.
Some of his greatest work was buried in the homer-happy ‘90s, an unprecedented offensive environment laced with chemically-enhanced sluggers.
Sheffield’s greatest overall season was probably 1996, when he led the NL in on-base percentage (.465), OPS (1.090) and adjusted OPS (189) while slamming 42 home runs in Miami’s pitcher-friendly Pro Player Park.
He finished sixth in MVP voting that season, despite out-pointing winner Ken Caminiti in nearly every key offensive category. Caminiti, who carried the Padres to an NL West title that season, admitted six years later that anabolic steroids helped fuel his MVP season.
That reportedly wasn’t the case just yet for Sheffield and fifth-place finisher Barry Bonds.
Sheffield played for eight different teams in 22 seasons. (Photo: Roy Dabner, AP)
Sheffield’s career body of work comes with the qualifier that he, perhaps unknowingly, took PEDs before the 2002 season. In leaked grand jury testimony during the BALCO trial, Sheffield says that during winter workouts, Bonds urged Sheffield to take substances later found to be known as the “clear” and “cream” designer steroids developed by BALCO. The immediate effects seemed negligible – Sheffield actually dipped in almost every offensive category in 2002 – though he enjoyed a large bounceback in 2003. Sheffield finished second in AL MVP voting in 2004 and hit 34 homers and finished eighth in 2005 – the first full year of drug testing with penalties in the majors.
While Sheffield was versatile, athletic and explosive on the offensive end, he was never a great defensive player, ranking in the red in available defensive metrics of his era.
Sheffield’s career timing is not ideal, but it also could be worse. He established his bona fides as an elite offensive player before the power deluge of the mid-1990s, but also had many of his finest seasons overshadowed by players whose greatness was far less enduring.
Consequently, his timing on the Hall ballot is also suboptimal, but his fortunes may be changing. With 11 players earning induction via the writers’ vote the past three years, a ballot backlog is easing. Tolerance, or at least nuance, is more often applied to the PED question among many voters, which may reduce the number of voters who omit Sheffield in the name of unknowable purity.
Early ballot tracking by Hall vote maven Ryan Thibodaux puts Sheffield at 39% in early ballot reveals, which, even with a presumed drop among private ballots, puts him well in position to double his vote total. He’s also “flipped” 31% of voters from no to yes, perhaps an expected boost given that recent inductees such as Martinez and Mike Mussina are no longer on the ballot.
This may be Sheffield’s biggest one-time boost. Finding his way to Cooperstown will likely depend on similar leaps over his final four years. If we learned anything about Sheffield over his 22 seasons bedeviling opposing pitchers, it’s wise never to count him out.
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