Ben Sheets Didn't Deserve This

I wonder what Ben Sheets is up to these days, and I wonder what he thinks about the Brewers.

Ask a Brewer fan these days what they think about Sheets. I'm sure a serious fan might recognize the stellar career Sheets had as a Brewer, the historically great season he had in 2004, and the tremendous contribution he had to the '08 playoff run, but... I think many would call him an often-injured bust who never lived up to the hype. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ben Sheets was to the mid-2000 Brewers as Zack Greinke was to the late 2000 Royals. Lovable character, overcame obstacles to success, and mostly, was really the only attraction on some bad, bad teams. I want to take a moment to remember the season Sheets had in 2004. Here are some fun facts about that year:

  • Since 2004, the following pitchers have had a season in which they amassed more WAR than Ben Sheets did that year: Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, Randy Johnson. Each did it once. Greinke, Verlander, and Lincecum did it in 2009, and Johnson did it in 2004. Roy Halladay has a shot to do it this year.
  • Despite that remarkable number, Sheets finished 8th in the Cy Young voting that year. It says a lot about baseball analysis, I think, that Zack Greinke was able to win the AL Cy Young in 2009 with a 16-8 record (though that is considerably nicer looking than Sheets's 12-14). 
  • 264 strikeouts. 32 walks.

We're all familiar with the rest of the story. From 2005 through 2007, Sheets was the productive but often injured mainstay. And in 2008, it nearly all came together. Young hitters like Braun, Fielder, Hardy, Hart, and Weeks were starting to turn things around on the offensive side, and the acquisition of CC Sabathia gave the Brewers a big time ace.

But Sheets was a big part of the story that year. He was the team's leader in innings pitched, with 196. He had about the same WAR as Sabathia, with 4.5. His 3.38 FIP was lower than Gallardo's or Marcum's this year. 2008 was, in many ways, the preview of this year. It was the young guns coming up and starting to play well, a rental pitcher carrying the team to the postseason, and the postseason revealing the shortcomings-- weak bullpen, lack of depth in starting staff, and a younger and slightly more erratic lineup. Weeks and Hart, especially, have come a long way since then.

Those holes have been patched up quite nicely now and it looks like we're going to be in for a fun ride. But it's impossible to discredit what that '08 team did for the fanbase, the team, and the city of Milwaukee. And that couldn't have been done without Ben Sheets.

This all brings me to the story of one of my favorite baseball games ever. It was just over 3 years ago today, on September 6th, 2008, that Ben Sheets faced Jake Peavy at Miller Park. The Brewers were up 4 in the Wild Card and back 4 in the division going into play on that day. They were looking for their 82nd win (they would win 90 games). What we didn't know on that day, however, was that doctors told Sheets he was risking making some trouble he had in his elbow could become worse if he continued to pitch. He did anyways.

Anyone who saw that game surely remembers it, and especially if you didn't, do yourself a favor and watch the highlights on MLB.com. Sheets won 1-0 in a complete game shutout after getting out of a jam in the ninth. It was a typical Sheets start, he gave up 5 hits, walked 1, and struck out 7.

Sheets made another start in that awful series in Philadelphia that got Ned Yost fired, going 6 innings and giving up 5 runs. He left his next start against the Cubs after 2 innings with elbow pain. That's when he first revealed the elbow problems that had been giving him trouble for a few weeks already.

That wasn't enough for Sheets, who knew he was risking long-term injury by trying to pitch more. It was obvious he didn't have it in his final try, on September 27th, when he only lasted 2 1/3 against the Cubs in a loss as part of the ultimately victorious final series that brought the Brewers to the playoffs. From Adam McCalvy in 2009:

After that game, likely his last in a Brewers uniform, Sheets declared, "That's all I have. I've got a broke arm."

We know a lot more know than we did when that was written in early 2009. Sheets deserved to be remembered as a warrior for that final month-- he knowingly sacrificed future earnings to get the Brewers to the playoffs, and sure enough, in the three years since, he has sat out two and been far less effective in the one season he did pitch.

I hope Ben Sheets watches the Brewers these next few weeks, and I hope he knows he's a big part of what turned this team around.

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