During the past week and a half we’ve spent a lot of time discussing various pitchers connected to the Yankees. I wanted to switch gears for a change of pace and take a look at a pitcher who (a) I’ve been advocating for for quite some time; (b) I wanted the Yankees to sign last offseason; and (c) they will have absolutely zero interest in because after a fairly middling comeback with the A’s he blew his elbow out yet again, sidelining him for the remainder of 2010, likely most of 2011 and possibly ending his career: Yankeeist favorite Ben Sheets.
It may seem like an eternity ago, but once upon a time Sheets was one of the best pitchers in baseball. From his debut in 2001 through his last good season in 2008, he accumulated 31.0 fWAR, fourth-most among all pitchers in the National League, behind only Roy Oswalt, Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb. If you remove his rookie season, and look at 2002-2008, he was the arguably the third-best pitcher in the NL.
In 2004, the best season of his career, he put up a ridiculous 2.70 ERA/2.65 FIP/2.70 xFIP in 237.0 innings, worth a jaw-dropping 8.0 fWAR, second only to the Big Unit’s utterly insane 9.9. Sheets struck out the world that season, posting a 10.03 K/9, walked almost no one (1.22 BB/9, second-lowest that season after David Wells) and basically just didn’t let runners get on base (.231 BAA, microscopic 0.98 WHIP). If Randy Johnson didn’t exist, Sheets would’ve won the Cy Young hands-down that year.
Sheets lost some velocity between 2008 and 2010 (avg. fastball 92.6mph to 91.2mph) but not a ton, though his fastball was more hittable than it had ever been before (-13.0 runs above average). Hitters swung at more pitches out of the zone from Sheets than they ever had before (29.5%), laid off more pitches in the zone than they ever had before (60.4%) and overall swung at fewer total pitches than they ever had before (44.4%). Additionally, they made more contact on out-of-zone pitches than ever before, made more contact on in-the-zone pitches than they ever had before (a crazy-high 92.2%) and in turn made more overall contact than at any previous time in his career. Sheets also located less than half his pitches in the zone for the first time in his career and had the lowest swinging strike percentage of his career (6.8%).
So yeah, Sheets’ 2010 was pretty bad; frankly I’m amazed it wasn’t even more of an unmitigated disaster, as he seemed reasonably effective the few times I got to see him pitch, although I suppose you could qualify the elbow injury in the disaster category. I’m sure we’ll see Sheets try and give it a go with another team once he’s done rehabbing his injury — he’s still only 32 — but at this point the best Sheets could probably hope for is a minor league deal with the possibility of making the Majors. Unfortunately, given Sheets’ injury history and the fact that his aborted comeback year saw him more hittable than he’s ever been in his career, I’m not certain it’s in the cards for the former ace.