Monday, January 28, 2008

Examining Ben Sheets

Every article written this off-season about the 2008 Brewers contains the phrase “if Ben Sheets stays healthy.” On July 16 of last year, the day that Sheets sprained his finger and was placed on the disabled list, the Brewers were 50-40 and held a 3-1/2 game lead over the Cubs. By the time he was activated on August 29, they had slipped below .500 for the first time all season at 65-66, trailing the Cubs by 2-1/2 games and the Cardinals by 1/2 game; in third place in the division. Of course they never fully dug themselves out of that hole, and for the entire time he was disabled, all you heard about was what a huge impact he had on the team. Obviously the Brewers have a huge emotional investment in Ben Sheets.

Sheets was the tenth player drafted in the 1999 free agent draft. After spending the rest of that year and all of the next putting up impressive minor league numbers, he made the opening day roster in 2001. An 0-2 start got him optioned back to AAA, but after an April 27 call-up, he dominated the first half of his rookie campaign winning National League rookie of the month for June and was the first Brewer rookie to represent them in the All-Star Game. Brewer fans were smitten. On August 14 of that year, then riding a 5-game losing streak, Sheets was placed on the disabled list with tendinitis in the rotator cuff of his right shoulder. The honeymoon had come to an end.

With the memory of Teddy Higuera not yet fully faded and being the best pitcher the Brewers had had since, Sheets immediately picked up a reputation of being injury prone. Although, unfortunately he has lived up to that reputation in recent years, it had little to do with his injury during his rookie year.

He continued to pitch impressively during his second season, however with no other talent around him, the team was failing miserably and fired manager Davey Lopes.

Enter Ned Yost.

Pitching for Ned Yost, one could say, has been both the doing and undoing of Ben Sheets. In his first two seasons under Yost, to say he was the workhorse of the staff would be an understatement. He led the team and established new team NL records for innings pitched in each of the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He also put up numbers to support the workload. His walk and strikeout numbers were staggering. He was named the team’s MVP in both seasons.

Year Age IP WHIP IP/GS BB/9 K/9 K/BB Mgr
2001 22 151.3 1.414 6.1 2.9 5.6 2.0 Lopes
2002 23 216.7 1.417 6.4 2.9 7.1 2.4 Lopes
2003 24 220.7 1.246 6.5 1.8 6.4 3.7 Yost
2004 25 237.0 0.983 7.0 1.2 10.0 8.3 Yost

All of Sheets' numbers were great and getting better; but those innings – 674 over three seasons. In 2005, Sheets tore a muscle in his back and missed time with a virus. In ’06 it was a shoulder strain and tendinitis. Last year a sprained finger. It is becoming apparent that Ben Sheets body is breaking down from the workload placed on it early in his career.

Year Age IP DL Mgr
2001 22 151.3 38 Lopes
2002 23 216.7 0 Lopes
2003 24 220.7 0 Yost
2004 25 237.0 0 Yost
2005 26 156.7 74 Yost
2006 27 106.0 96 Yost
2007 28 141.3 45 Yost

However, there is more to the story. Take a look at Sheets’ stats over the last three years compared to his career before that:

Year Age IP WHIP IP/GS BB/9 K/9 K/BB Mgr
2001 22 151.3 1.414 6.1 2.9 5.6 2.0 Lopes
2002 23 216.7 1.417 6.4 2.9 7.1 2.4 Lopes
2003 24 220.7 1.246 6.5 1.8 6.4 3.7 Yost
2004 25 237.0 0.983 7.0 1.2 10.0 8.3 Yost
2005 26 156.7 1.066 7.1 1.4 8.1 5.6 Yost
2006 27 106.0 1.094 6.2 0.9 9.8 10.5 Yost
2007 28 141.3 1.238 5.9 2.4 6.8 2.9 Yost

Every key indicator of his skills is getting worse. His WHIP has increased three years in a row. His strikeout rate has declined three years in a row. In 2007 his stellar control slipped to just very good. And most alarmingly, he can no longer pitch deep into a game. A natural progression of those numbers would be a 2008 pitcher whose WHIP is 1.4 and who can only pitch 5 innings per start. That’s Sean Marshall or Anthony Reyes – not Ben Sheets.

So, is it that if Ben Sheets stays healthy the Brewers will be fine? Or is there a bigger problem? Is the decline in his effectiveness due to his injuries or is it the other way around? Could it be that Ben Sheets is not as good anymore as everyone thinks? Sheets is 29 years old and will be a free agent at the end of the upcoming season. Many pitchers have made whole careers from that point on; but so have many never pitched past their 30th birthday. The Brewers will have a very big decision to make in the coming months. Maybe it will be time to untie the knot.

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