The Unseen Magic of Ben Sheets

Ben Sheets was really good, especially when he threw his curveball. (via Barbara Moore)

Ben Sheets was really good, especially when he threw his curveball. (via Barbara Moore)

It is understandably difficult to keep things in perspective when your team becomes just the fifth since the divisional era began 45 years ago to sit in first place for 150 days and miss the playoffs. That was the dubious accomplishment of this year’s Milwaukee Brewers. But some perspective can be found if we go back 10 years, to 2004. Those Milwaukee Brewers finished 67-94, earning the club its fourth straight 90-loss season and 12th straight losing campaign. The 2014 Brewers, despite it all, won 82 games. That would have been a minor miracle 10 years ago.

The 2014 Brewers’ collapse was legendary. They sat at 73-58 on Aug. 25 and went on a brutal 9-22 down the stretch. And yet, the 2004 Brewers laugh in the face of that collapse. After a 10-9 victory over the Rockies on July 1, Ned Yost’s nine sat at 41-34, a half-game behind the Cubs for the NL Wild Card and just 3.5 games behind a Cardinals team that went on to win 105 games. Lyle Overbay was hitting .333/.399/.544 with 31 doubles. Dan Kolb had 24 saves with a 0.87 ERA. Things were pretty good.

Of course, the signs were there. This was a team starting Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell and Wes Helms in the infield with Victor Santos, Wes Obermueller and Ben Hendrickson in the starting rotation. From July on, the Brewers played like the Brewers had played for the previous decade and change. They finished 26-60 and were outscored by 144 runs — 1.67 runs per game. Things were back to normal.

Normal, for those early 2000s Brewers, meant there would always be one game in every five worth watching: the one when Ben Sheets toed the rubber. Sheets was a hero from the beginning in 2001, a perfect young star to latch onto in the franchise’s darkest days. Sheets was an Olympic gold medalist in 2000 and the team’s lone All-Star in 2001 after opening his career with 3.59 ERA and 10-5 record in his first 16 Brewers starts. Here, a Brewers fan could think, was the future.

Some pitchers are crafty. Some pitchers are deceptive. Some are clever. Some paint with the strike zone as their canvas. Not Ben Sheets. Sheets was less painter and more boxer. He was one of the few two-pitch starters of the new millennium, and both pitches were pure power. By 2004, his fastball was consistently in the mid-90s. But the main event was the hammer, a low-80s curveball with the kind of sharp 12-6 movement typically reserved for pitches 10 mph slower.

Despite a disaster in his first game — 3.1 innings pitched, four runs, three walks — in St. Louis, Sheets, now 25, was off to the best start of his career. In his next seven outings, he threw 46.2 innings with a 2.89 ERA and a whopping 45 strikeouts against five walks. The 183 batters he faced mustered just a .218/.247/.397 line.

Here, an aside for statistical context. The average major league team in 2014 produced 4.07 runs per game and hit .251/.314/.386. Ten years ago, the average major league team produced 4.81 runs per game and a .266/.335/.428 line. Mike Hampton threw 172.1 innings for the 2004 Braves, and his 4.28 ERA earned him a 100 ERA+ for his efforts. This year, Chris Young threw 165.0 innings with a 3.65 ERA for the Mariners and earned the same 100 ERA+. A 2.89 ERA for Ben Sheets in 2004 was what we would have then called a Big Deal.

(For peak hilarity: Joe Kennedy’s 3.66 ERA in 162.1 innings for the 2004 Rockies earned a 135 ERA+. Tyson Ross’s 2.81 ERA for this year’s Padres earned a 119 ERA+.)

On May 16, 2004, Sheets made his ninth start of the season, against the Atlanta Braves. He did this:

The Braves scored a run off Sheets that afternoon, but nobody particularly cared. After 115 pitches and 91 strikes, Sheets and his deadly fastball-curve one-two punch had 18 strikeouts, a Brewers record that has hardly faced a real challenge since. Mike Fiers recorded 14 strikeouts in six innings this season at Wrigley Field, but was pulled after 105 pitches. A decade later, in one the highest strikeout eras in major league history, Sheets remains the only Brewers starter in franchise history to strike out more than 14 in a single start.

On April 26, 2013, Anibal Sanchez struck out 17 Braves in a start for the Tigers. He matched Brandon Morrow’s effort from Aug. 8, 2010 for Toronto against Tampa Bay and Johan Santana’s start for the Twins on Aug. 19, 2007 against the Rangers. Nobody in the 10 seasons since has matched Sheets’ 18 though. Given current views on pitch counts — just 216 starts lasted to even 115 pitches in 2014, a 4.4 percent rate — it could be some time before we see an 18-strikeout game again.

“I’m not a big strikeout guy, so this is kinda all new for me,” Sheets said after the game. “Pretty cool though.”

It didn’t stay new for long. The 18-strikeout performance was his third 10-strikeout game in nine starts. He would add six more before the end of the season. Including the 2004 season, only five starters since have thrown more double-digit strikeout games than Sheets’ nine in one year: Randy Johnson (13) and Johan Santana (12) in 2004, Yu Darvish (12) in 2013, and David Price (11) and Corey Kluber (11) in 2014.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Few starting pitchers can succeed with two pitches any more. The rise of the platoon has made a change-up necessary for nearly all right-handers, and many left-handers as well. It takes a special secondary pitch to neutralize hitters on both sides of the plate, and Sheets’ 12-6 curveball was that pitch.

The 12-6 curveball, for me, evokes memories of Barry Zito, whose curveball wasn’t thrown so much as it was flipped. As early as 2007, Zito’s average curveball velocity was a mere 70.4 mph. Even Clayton Kershaw’s yakker averages under 75 mph. For many pitchers, the 12-6 curve is the “slow” breaking ball combined with a hard slider with sharp horizontal movement.

Not Sheets. His 12-6 curveball had the sharpness and velocity many pitchers get out of their sliders. His curveball in 2004 averaged 81 mph, sixth-fastest in the league. The speed combined with its near perfectly vertical break made for a deadly combination. Between his fastball and curve, Sheets could make the same release point hit opposite corners of the strike zone. A demonstration, from the 18-strikeout game:

sheetsfastball sheetscurveball

Backed up by his fastball, which reached as high as 97 that afternoon, Sheets’ curveball wreaked havoc upon Braves hitters. Of the 18 strikeouts, 14 came on the curve, including 12 swings and misses. All 14 of those knockout curveballs were thrown at least 81 mph, including three at 84.

Sheets, bolstered by the Brewers’ surprisingly competent play in the season’s first half, carried a 9-5 record and 2.26 ERA into the All-Star break with an absurd 133:19 K:BB ratio in 123.1 innings. Sheets stumbled out of the break, including a stretch of seven starts with at least four runs allowed. But even in this cold streak, Sheets struck out 64 batters against five walks in 53.2 innings; such, it seems, is life on a terrible team for even the best pitchers.

By September, Sheets had fallen below .500, at 9-10. The 2004 regular season extended into October, and Sheets managed to fit seven more starts in before making the annual trip to the couch for the playoffs. All seven were quality starts. In 53 September and October innings, Sheets racked up another 61 strikeouts against eight walks and allowed 12 runs, nine earned. Hitters mustered a .212/.251/.337 line against him. The Brewers went 3-4 in these starts, with Sheets taking the decision in all seven. In the four losses, Milwaukee scored zero, one, two and one run(s) respectively behind their ace.

Sheets’ final 2004 line: 237 innings pitched, a 2.70 ERA and 2.65 FIP, 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.2 walks per nine, 0.9 homers per nine, 8.25 K/BB and five complete games in 34 starts. Sheets ranked in the top 10 in the major leagues in the following pitching categories: ERA (fourth), WHIP (third), H/9 (eighth), BB/9 (fourth), K/9 (fifth), innings pitched (tied for fourth), strikeouts (third), complete games (tied for second), K/BB (first), ERA+ (fourth), FIP (second), bWAR (fourth) and fWAR (second).

Thanks to the hapless second-half Brewers and his 12-14 record, however, Sheets earned all of one voting point in the 2004 Cy Young Award vote. Roger Clemens (18-4, 2.98 ERA) rode his record to a dubious Cy Young victory over the man who should have won it, Randy Johnson, whose 16-14 record with the Diamondbacks cost him the award. Johnson led the league in both bWAR (8.4) and fWAR (9.5) behind a now unfathomable 290 strikeouts in 245.2 innings. Sheets, thanks to the lowly Brewers, also finished behind Roy Oswalt, Jason Schmidt, Carlos Zambrano, Carl Pavano and Eric Gagne and tied with Brad Lidge.

Of course, it’s not like a third-place Cy Young finish for Sheets would have done much to soften the blow of the Brewers’ horrific finish. The first half of 2004 was the club’s first real push toward a playoff spot in Sheets’ career. The future, at the least, was bright.

From 2002 through 2004, Sheets had been a bastion of health. He made 34 starts each year and pitched 674.1 innings, more than all but one major league pitcher threw in the regular season from 2012 through 2014: James Shields, who tossed 683.1 innings in 101 starts.

Whether it was overwork or simply the reality that every pitcher is an injury risk, the rest of Sheets’ career was a series of unfortunate events. In 2005, he lost 37 days to vestibular neuritis, effectively an extended bout with vertigo, and another 32 days to a right shoulder strain. The shoulder sent him to the disabled list again twice in 2006. In 2007, a right finger injury cost him 45 days.

But the most difficult news came in 2008, as a right elbow injury in the final days of the season cost him what would be his only opportunity to pitch in the playoffs in Milwaukee. Sheets was one of the few players on the 2008 playoff Brewers to endure the dog days of the early 2000s. An opening game start in the National League Division Series was set up to be the perfect reward for his efforts. But on Oct. 1, interim manager Dale Sveum announced that a torn elbow muscle had ended Sheets’ season, ending his Brewers career. Over eight seasons for the Brewers, Sheets recorded 86 wins against 83 losses with a 3.72 ERA and set the club record for strikeouts with 1,206 — a record that fell to Yovani Gallardo this past season.

The Sheets story — incredibly talented pitcher shows flash of brilliance, is grounded by injury and fades into obscurity — isn’t a unique one. It’s the story of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and Rich Harden and Brandon Webb and Erik Bedard and dozens of others before and since.

But in each of these stories is a unique brilliance. Aside from CC Sabathia’s magical second half in which he carried the Brewers on his back into those 2008 playoffs, I have never seen a period of sustained brilliance quite like what Sheets did in 2004. Sheets was like a wrecking ball every time out that season, with a one-two punch few in the league could stand up to. As much as it was overshadowed by the poor supporting cast around him and the massive second-half collapse, the way Sheets dominated hitters in 2004 was rapturous.

At the very least, however, the 18-strikeout performance on May 16 lives on, a shining trophy of the best Ben Sheets had to offer. It remains one of the best individual baseball performances the city has ever seen, and part of one of the best individual seasons nobody paid attention to.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 years ago

As a fellow Brewers fan, I always appreciate hearing people talk about Ben Sheets. He was dominant when he was on, but he was always dogged by injuries. Even his “healthy” years seemed to be miss a 4 or 5 starts from his frequent blister issues.

9 years ago

Sheets was fun to watch and a fantasy favorite of mine (that K/BB…) Webb was another. I saw him spin a one-hitter at the BOB in ’06 against the Cards.

Dr. Doom
9 years ago

Thanks for this. As a Brewers fan since I was young (firt game as a 5-year-old in the summer of 1992), I can say that Sheets was one of the lone bright spots in my first decade-and-a-half of watching The Crew. 2004 was a vevery special year. It looked like he was on his way to being the Next Big Thing. Thanks for this article.

BTW, I watched every pitch of that 18-
K game, and it was glorious.

Josh Robinson
9 years ago

I really enjoyed Ben Sheets pitching. I was lucky enough to grab him in a fantasy draft that year. I remembered he was an Olympic hero but he went crazy that year. And that curve, that glorious, knee buckling, fall off a table Uncle Charlie. If somehow injuries were turned off in the MLB, think how lucky we would have been to see Sheets, Woods, and Prior over this first decade of the 21st century.