Tuesday, October 25, 2005

2003: Sheff or Vlad?

Immediately following the Yankees untimely exit from the playoffs, I was prompted by my buddy Jon to defend the decision following the 2003 season to sign Gary Sheffield rather than Vlad Guerrero. Obviously, he was frustrated at Sheffield’s lack of performance in the series and equally frustrated at Vlad’s success.

I told him it sounded like an interesting endeavor, and immediately jotted a few things down in my notebook on the topic. But then this little light went on in my noggin, and I began to wonder why Jon was even pondering this question.

True, he hit .333 in the series against the Yankees, but he had zero RBI and extra base hits to go with a mere two walks (.333/.400/.400) If it weren’t for his five runs scored (three in the 11-7 drubbing), he would have had a bona fide terrible series.

Then came the Chicago series, where he went 1 for 20 with zero walks, for a line of .050/.050/.050. The Yankees series considered, it looked a little like this: .184/.225/.225, 0 RBI, 3 K. For a quickie comparison, the derided A-Rod went .133/.380/.429, 0 RBI, 5 K. And the man in question, Mr. Sheffield, went .285/.318/.318, 2 RBI, 2 K.

Of course, the playoffs provide such a small sample size that much of what happens must be yielded to luck. But this isn’t leading any closer to the point I’m eventually going to make. Rather, this is merely to ask the question of why Sheff v. Vlad even came up following this series. Vlad’s performance was by no means impressive and if anything, the argument should be: why are Sheff and A-Rod catching flak while Guerrero gets a pass?

Jon, you wanted it, and here it is: why signing Gary Sheffield was a more attractive option than Vladmir Guerrero.

When both of these men appeared on the free agent market following the 2003 season, everyone could agree that they were elite right fielders. Not only could both slug with the best of them, but they both had (have) cannons for arms – though Vlad is surely superior in that department. There were two differences, however, that would stand out in the minds of fans.

The first was the age factor. Vlad would be 28 years old entering the 2004 season, while Sheffield was entering his 35th year. Seven years is nothing to be taken lightly in baseball, especially when one is, by most conventional standards, entering his prime, and the other, by those same standards, in the twilight years.

The second was the injury question. Sheff hadn’t missed a considerable amount of time since 1995 with Florida (he had 130-plus games played every year since), while Vlad had missed some time in 2003 with back problems. Big, bulky guy with back problems? Surely that was a red flag for anyone interested in bringing in Vladdy Daddy.

So Vlad has the edge in age, while Sheff has a slight advantage with injury risk. It’s only logical now that we move to offensive productivity. When you have two monstrous bats like Sheff and Vlad, it’s hard to nit pick, but I’m going to any way.

If you’re a believer in the importance of OBP and walks to strikeouts ration (yes, I am), the choice becomes a bit clearer when analyzing these statistics. Since 1998 was Vlad’s first full season in the majors, the analysis will begin there. His OBP from 1998 through 2003: .371, .378, .410, .377, .417, .426. Sheffield over that same period: .428, .407, .438, .417, .404, .419. I think these numbers speak for themselves.

As do their strikeouts to walks numbers. Gary Sheffield has walked more times than he has struck out in every season since 1993. What this demonstrates is an impeccable command of the strike zone, which is an invaluable asset. Put yourself on base for free often, and avoid putting yourself in the dugout without putting the ball in play. Guerrero, on the other hand, accomplished this feat only once, which was during his career year of 2002 (he did again in ’05, though that was due more to his lack of strikeouts. Plus, we’re not talking about ’05, we’re talking about everything up through ’03).

Another underused offensive statistic is number of pitches seen per plate appearance. This not only lets the other guys get a good look at what a pitcher is hurling, but it also wears said pitcher down, making him more vulnerable and allowing an early entry for the guys in the bullpen.

Free-swinging Vlad had seen an average of 3.16 pitches per plate appearance through 2003. Sheffield, ever the picture of plate discipline, had seen 3.64 per plate appearance. The difference over the course of a 650 plate appearance season is 312 pitches.

To further prove that these misfit statistics do hold some weight in discerning players, I’m going to take this quick second to list both men’s slugging percentages through the years, beginning in ‘98:

Vlad: .589, .600, .664, .566, .593, .586
Shef: .524, .523, .643, .583, .512, .604

Seeing as how these numbers are so volatile from year to year, it becomes clear that they are not very efficient in analyzing performance. On base percentage, however, seems to fluctuate less, and thus can be deemed a consistent performance.

Intangibles are another angle to view this conundrum from. Vladimir Guerrero played every inning of his MLB career with the Montreal Expos, a team that had a mere two winning seasons from his debut in ’97 through his departure following ’03. Sure, one year they finished second in the AL East, but they were an egregious 19 games behind the Braves and 12.5 back of the Giants for the Wild Card. Translation: never been in a real pressure situation.

Not only had Sheff been on three postseason teams, including the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins, but he had also played in big market LA, so playing under high scrutiny was nothing new to him. But while he had postseason and pressure experience behind him, Sheff was known for an attitude problem. Obviously, that has to be a factor in signing someone, but Sheff’s behavior was far less severe when compared to some of his peers. Hey, Paul O’Neill was said to have had an attitude problem.

This final point is a personal one, as I’m sure it didn’t play a part in the front office’s decision (though I’m sure number of pitches seen per plate appearance didn’t either). Vlad is an intimidating fellow. Bring him along with you to a gathering, and he’s going to command respect because he’s so large and intimidating. But Sheff…Sheff could be confused for a serial killer. And yes, that’s a good thing. If you were to bring Sheff to a party, everyone there would kiss your ass just so he wouldn’t jump them and take their wallets.

I think I mention this once a game: Sheff must be the scariest guy for a pitcher to face. He in the batter’s box waggling his bat like he’s winding up for the kill, and his demeanor makes it seem like he’s going to punish the pitcher, not the ball. And that, my friends, is something you cannot put a price tag on.

Vladimir Guerrero came awful to signing his name to a contract for the Yankees, and if it weren’t for The Boss and Sheff hammering out some details in the 11th hour, Vladdy Daddy could be in pinstripes right now. But all things considered, is that really what the Yanks wanted? Gary Sheffield exemplified the Yankees style of disciplined hitting, and brought a bat full of frozen ropes with him. His numbers that lie beneath batting average, home runs, and double prove that he is, despite his age, still an elite player, and probably will be beyond the expiration of his contract following the 2006 season.