The seventeenth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)
LL/USSM Community: 46 IP, 3.95 RA, 3.54 FIP (n=51)
Actual Line: 45.2 IP, 2.36 RA, 3.07 FIP
Closest Projection: phoneslap1, 2.79 RA, 3.44 FIP
If you're like me, you can't believe this was only Sherrill's second full season in the Majors. For one thing, we've been talking about him forever, and for another, he turned 30 in April. It isn't common for a guy to be in the Majors at 30 with so little prior experience. It also isn't common for a 30 year old to take such a drastic leap forward in performance. George Sherrill is not a common pitcher.
The 2007 season began like any other for George. He showed up in Peoria and pitched like crap for the duration of spring training, prompting Mariner fans all over the place to once again question whether or not the guy could cut it as a high-leverage lefty reliever. This is becoming something of an annual event, like the winter solstice or Tony Romo choking in the playoffs (one is a trend). Sherrill has pitched in ST four times. His lowest WHIP in any single March is 1.80, and his overall ERA is 10.48. That doesn't make him a bad pitcher; it makes him someone who needs a little while to get going again after a lengthy layoff. The pear-shaped aren't known for their offseason workout habits. The results, therefore, are irrelevant, although I'm sure that won't stop people from panicking all over again when he sucks wind next spring. People love drama.
Just as he's done every other year as a professional, Sherrill shook off the spring rust just in time for the regular season. He didn't allow his first run until the beginning of May, and didn't allow any more until the middle of June. In fact, Sherrill allowed runs in just three of his first fifty-three appearances before a little rough stretch in August pushed his ERA over two. For more than four months, he, along with JJ, Morrow, and Green, were turning nearly every night into a six-inning game, as the back of the Mariner bullpen refused to give away many leads until the slump. And because of that, for as long as the M's were contending, Sherrill was one of the most valuable players on the team.
With few exceptions, every bullpen needs a lefty. And shutdown lefties like George don't just come around every day. Since 2004 he's held left-handed batters to a paltry .167 batting average, with 98 strikeouts (34%) and 19 walks (7%) in 289 plate appearances. And he hasn't given away an inch against the best of the best. The top left-handed hitters in baseball - Pena, Helton, Delgado, Giambi, Mauer, Cust, Ortiz, Dunn, Hafner, Sizemore, Morneau, and Thome - are a combined 6-45 (.133) against Sherrill, with 22 whiffs. Remember how the Yankees brought in Mike Myers for the express purpose of dealing with David Ortiz? And remember how Ortiz tore Myers to shreds? The Yankees wish they had George Sherrill. Every team wishes they had George Sherrill.
You'd think that would be enough. You'd think that, armed with a dynamite slurve that he can drop just off the outside corner against lefties, Sherrill wouldn't need to be able to do anything else to be a valuable player. But in 2007, he dropped "specialist" from his job title and became a late-inning reliever capable of working effectively against anyone.
Sherrill against righties, 2004-2006: .286/.419/.376, 16.9% uBB, 14.5% K (166 PA)
Sherrill against righties, 2007: .212/.284/.303, 8.0% uBB, 21.3% K (76 PA)
While you have to consider the small sample sizes, walk and strikeout rates tend to stabilize pretty quick, and there's a dramatic improvement there in the 2007 line. Facing right-handed batters, not only did Sherrill become less hittable, but he also cut his walks in half while increasing his strikeouts roughly 50%. His OPS platoon split wound up being only 58 points, which is unheard of for a guy who came into the year as a LOOGY. In his second full season in the Majors, Sherrill went from being one of the best lefty specialists in baseball to being one of the best lefty relievers in baseball. That's a huge step for someone who'd already exceeded pretty much all of our expectations.
What was the difference? Strikes. It was all about throwing strikes. After hitting the zone with a below-average 61% of his pitches in 2006, Sherrill jumped up to 65% last season, and 64% against right-handed batters - light years ahead of where he was before. Sherrill's newfound ability to spot his fastball against righties (67% strikes) allowed him to both stay away from the middle of the plate and work off of better counts, enabling him to use his slurve and changeup as "pitcher's pitches" out of the zone more often. As you can imagine, someone who's able to throw consistent strikes is going to have more success than someone who isn't, for a multitude of reasons, and that's why Sherrill was able to turn himself into a more complete pitcher.
What we now have in George Sherrill is a guy who, were he a free agent, would be looking at big money on a three- or four-year contract. But he's not a free agent. He's still under club control for another four years. This makes him someone who's both a tremendous value and highly desirable to other teams, especially the other teams who aren't yet aware that you're allowed to build your bullpens from within. You better believe that Sherrill's name has been bandied about in trade discussions, and he's a lot more than just a throw-in. This is a guy who could be a legitimate second or third piece in a package for a big-time player.
But I don't want to make it sound like I'm in a hurry to trade Sherrill away, because I'm not. Even if 2007 turns out to be a career year against righties, George Sherrill is still a terrific late-inning reliever who doesn't have to be protected nearly as much as John McLaren thinks he does. And on top of that, for me he symbolizes arguably the organization's greatest strength - being able to build an effective bullpen out of blue-collar nobodies for next to nothing. And it's nice to have that kind of reminder hanging around when so many other parts of the roster are so royally screwed.
George, I've loved you ever since you came over from Winnipeg, and the images I have in my head of lefties flailing helplessly after your slurve can brighten even the darkest of days. No matter what happens between now and the end of your career in Seattle, you'll always be our favorite Governor.