Steroids Aren't The Only Reason Gary Sheffield Faces Tough Hall of Fame Odds

Gary Sheffield’s retirement immediately ignited some discussion about his Hall of Fame qualifications. Sheffield’s candidacy is interesting because it raises a number of questions about the Hall of Fame and upon what criteria members should be selected. Sheffield’s numbers were very strong, but his links to steroid use, the era in which he played, the number of teams for which he played and various controversies which followed him for most of his career make him less of an automatic selection.

Because of the offense rich era in which Sheffield played, some of his career numbers need to be placed in context. However, even this context shows that he was a great hitter. Sheffield’s career OPS+ of 140 is higher than numerous corner outfielders in the Hall of Fame including Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Paul Waner, Billy Williams, Roberto Clemente and Dave Winfield. While these players may not be inner circle Hall of Famers, most were hardly controversial selections. Similarly, Sheffield maintained that number over almost 11,000 plate appearances, more than Waner, Williams or Clemente. Wins above replacement, however, are less friendly to Sheffield as his 63.3 total makes him more of a borderline case better than Williams or Winfield, but surrounded by people like Reggie Smith, Al Simmons, Dwight Evans and Goose Goslin. These players either rank among the weaker members of the Hall of Fame or not in the Hall of Fame at all.

Sheffield was perceived as a star throughout much of his career. Six times he finished in the top ten of his league’s MVP voting, good for the 55th highest MVP vote share of all time. Everybody ahead of him on the list is either in the Hall of Fame or not yet eligible except for Dave Parker, Jeff Bagwell and Juan Gonzalez. Sheffield also was selected to the All Star team nine times, demonstrating that he was generally viewed as one of the best players in the game throughout most of his career.

While Sheffield is not an automatic first ballot Hall of Famer, his numbers suggest that his candidacy should be strong, but there are several other factors which will weaken his bid for the Hall of Fame. First, and most obviously, Sheffield played in the steroid era and steroid use during the Balco investigation. Given how steroid use has damaged the candidacies of Sheffield’s contemporaries like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and how the suspicion of steroid use lead some voters to leave Bagwell of their ballots this year, it is likely that Sheffield will lose votes because of this as well.

Second, and less obviously, Sheffield was one of the few truly great hitters to play on many teams. Not only did Sheffield play on eight different teams, but he was a legitimate star for five of them. During the course of his career there were five different teams for which he had an OPS+ for a single season of 140 or better. Rogers Hornsby, Jim Thome and Reggie Jackson did this for four different teams, but nobody else did it for five different teams. Sheffield did not just move around a lot in the beginning and end of his career, but did so in his prime as well. Sheffield played in 2,576 games in his career, but did not play in more than 558 games for any one team. Moreover, there were eight teams for which he played in at least 100 games and seven teams for which he played in more than 200 games. Many players move around a lot, but few who were as good as Sheffield do.

None of this changes how good a player Sheffield was, but it will influence how he is viewed as time passes. There will be no loyal fan base to advocate for his election to the Hall of Fame as Bostonians did for Jim Rice or New York fans and writers did for Phil Rizzuto. Playing for so many teams will also help Sheffield fade from memory faster. Nobody spent their whole childhood rooting for Gary Sheffield the way Chicagoans in their 50s may have rooted for Billy Williams or Ernie Banks or Milwaukeeans 30s or 40s rooted for Robin Yount. Few of the teams for which he starred will pay a lot of attention to Sheffield as time goes by because he simply wasn’t there long enough; and because he seemed to have a nose for controversy and leaving with rancor. For example, fans of the Dodgers, for which he had four good years years, or the Braves and Yankees for which he three good years each, except for some time when he was injured in 2006, will not have warm memories of Sheffield as he just passed through briefly on his way to another team.

Sheffield is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate due to his association with steroids and having played in an era of inflated offense. For borderline candidates, a career that can be easily crafted into a narrative is extremely helpful. The vision of Jim Rice as the most feared hitter in baseball for a few years, even if this wasn’t really true at the time, helped the Red Sox slugger make it to Cooperstown despite his less than Hall of Fame numbers. Other recent inductees such as Kirby Puckett benefited from similar narratives. Sheffield’s career, despite his great accomplishments as a hitter, is devoid of events that could help define this narrative. There were no memorable great plays, clutch hits, or monster seasons. Nor was he the backbone of any franchise for more than a year or two. This adds up to a profile that, fairly or not, will hinder Sheffield’s Hall of Fame chances.