After a three month comeback, Ben Sheets announced that he will be retiring after today’s game. He was given the start today and in his one inning, he looked like a pitcher nowhere near retirement. He struck out two hitters in a 1-2-3 inning, blowing a 96 MPH fastball past Andrew McCutchen to end his career.
Living in Wisconsin, I watched most of Sheets’ career as a Milwaukee Brewer. He was drafted 10th overall by the Brewers in 1999 out of Louisiana-Monroe. His biggest individual achievement came the next year, dominating Cuba in the gold medal game at the Sydney Olympics, throwing a three-hit shutout. The next season, he was in the Brewers rotation, struggling initially before improving the next couple years.
His career year was 2004, as he posted a 2.70 ERA with a matching FIP and xFIP. This was his last injury-free season, as he threw 234 innings over 34 starts. He only walked 3.4% of all batters faced that year, while striking out over 28%, but allowed an average amount of homers, making it a very Curt Schilling-like season. The Braves had first-hand experience of this, striking out 18 times against Sheets in a game that season. Unfortunately, he was on a bad Brewers team and Sheets was only able to muster a 12-14 record, dampering his only chance at a CYA, receiving just a single 3rd place vote.
The next two seasons were nearly on par rate-wise, but he only accumulated 260 innings, and this was just the beginning of the injuries. The strikeouts disappeared after the 2006 season, though he was able to put together one last good season in 2008, posting a 3.09 ERA in 198 IP. Unfortunately, elbow pain that eventually led to TJ surgery held him out of the Brewers’ first playoff appearance in 26 seasons.
After surgery, he missed the entire 2009 season, and entering free agency, the Oakland A’s took a chance with him. He made 20 starts in 2010, posting a below-average 4.53 ERA and 4.71 FIP before his elbow blew out again, leading him into what seemed to be a permanent retirement.
After throwing BP to his son this spring, Sheets realized he might have one last chance to play. The Braves signed him to a minor league contract July 1, and within two weeks, he was facing the New York Mets in his first big league action in almost two seasons. At that point, no one thought he would end up being as important as he was. Brandon Beachy was lost for the season, Kris Medlen was bouncing back-and-forth between the minors and the Braves bullpen, Randall Delgado was starting to fade, Mike Minor was just starting to turn things around, and Paul Maholm was still a Cub. Sheets held the rotation together until Medlen turned into the best pitcher in baseball the last two months.
While his career can be looked at as “what could have been,” Sheets still has quite a few accomplishments to hang his hat on. He was on the only gold-medal USA baseball team, he is one of 14 pitchers to strike out at least 18 in a nine-inning outing, and his near 25 WAR is in the top 350 of all-time. One would think he would be able to continue his career as a reliever, alas Kerry Wood, but after two major elbow surgeries, I can see why he has no regrets walking away. He was one of the few bright spots on some bad Brewers teams early in his career, sacrificing a lot of wins during his prime to build a winning organization in Milwaukee. He came to Atlanta with no idea what he could do, and he did more than anyone expected. It was enjoyable watching him at his best, and we wish the best of luck to him in his life after baseball.