Arriving quicker than most people thought after signing, Ben Sheets could not have produced better results in his Braves debut. After six scoreless innings, optimism is running high among a lot of fans. While it seems like he has thrust himself in the #3 spot, how much does he improve the rotation?
To answer this, we have to first figure out what level Sheets is likely to perform. Using my standard ERA/FIP/xFIP slashline, Sheets’ performance yesterday turned out to be 0.00/1.90/3.84. The batted ball profile was deceiving, considering three of the eight flyballs never left the infield. That is why the xFIP shows such a spike. He is still a flyball pitcher, so he will allow his share of homers eventually. He also allowed four line drives, but three of them were caught by outfielders.
His stuff was not the old Sheets, which is part good, part bad. His velocity was not what it was during his elite years, sitting at 90-92, instead of 92-95. The fastball also had less run, tailing 2-3 inches instead of 5-6. It also didn’t have “life,” about two inches flatter yesterday than his Brewer days. His curve was slower and had a bit more sweep, which is harder to hit but likely easier to pick up.
The nice thing we saw was the third pitch, a cutter. He never threw a third pitch (usually a changeup) more than 5% of the time as a Brewer, which became a problem when he couldn’t find his curve. The cutter is not a great pitch, however. On average, it actually backed up a couple inches with little depth. He also threw it at a typical slider speed, 5-6 MPH off his fastball. Here is a chart of movement comparison:
As you can see, the difference in movement between the fastball and cutter is minimal. A lot of pitchers have effective cutters with the same movement. Roy Halladay has similar movement on his cutter, but his is very effective because his normal fastball (two-seam sinker) has nine inches of tail, creating the illusion of seven inches of “cut.” The only effective cutters I see above are the three that actually moved into lefties. Three out of 19 is not what I would call a consistent pitch. Another bad sign is the lack of swings, only 21%, on a pitch intended to shorten at-bats.
Overall, Sheets looks to be a vast improvement over Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor, with one of them likely heading out of the rotation. He also looks to be no worse than Randall Delgado, who has been fading recently. Replacement level ERA for Braves pitchers this year has been just shy of 5.00, basically what JJ and Minor have produced. If Sheets gets 80 innings in over the rest of the season, about 13-14 starts, his 3.80-3.90 ERA should produce about 10 runs, or one win, more than JJ or Minor over that span. We all know how much one win can affect a playoff race, so getting that win for so cheap is a plus for the organization.