I moved to Upstate New York this winter. The town I live in happens to be more baseball-obsessed than anywhere in the country, but as I look out the window the only visible mounds are foot-tall ones of snow. Seattle in February is hardly baseball nirvana, but if you can find a covered outdoor space (bless you, Stevens Elementary School), you won’t risk frostbite having a catch. On days when the ice has crept furthest onto the windowpane, I’ve found myself flipping on video of baseball from last year. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, the player I’ve been instinctively searched for most has been Justus Sheffield.
The gap between my enjoyment of the player on the TV screen* and the computer screen surprises me. Players with shaky command, high walk rates, and lots of strikeouts frustrate me. I recognize this is a common profile in the modern game, and often an effective one. I don’t mind it in relievers. I want my starters to go 6-7 innings and Let The Defense Work™. It is an aesthetic preference, not an actual superiority of style, and yet watching Sheffield work is fascinating, and I struggle to pull my eyes away.
He’s the near-antithesis of the quintessential workhorse, averaging 5.3 innings per outing between Arkansas and Tacoma in 2019, slinging the ball with a motion reminiscent of a dragonfly spinner toy. His size, command, and slow development of a three-pitch mix have encouraged prospect analysts to push him towards the bullpen for years, but the ability to get outs in bunches has kept hopes of extended use alive. His competitiveness has drawn compliments, but fire needs fuel to sustain. The kindling lies in the catcher’s mitt, and too often Sheffield risks burnout with pitches like this:
Last year, with the third organization of his pro career, Sheff had an outside shot at breaking camp in the rotation, but began his season in Tacoma instead. A disastrous few weeks set him back to Arkansas, where he notably rebounded and adjusted to eventually earn a promotion to Seattle, leaving the minors in his rear-view for good.
The success didn’t quite follow him to T-Mobile Park, but my fascination did. Sheffield will turn 24 in May, making him less than one year the senior of Mariners 2018 first round pick Logan Gilbert. Were they to have gone to school together, they’d have been separated by a single grade level, yet this will be Sheffield’s seventh season as a professional, and just Gilbert’s third - his second pitching in games. The glossary of baseball terminology has a picture of Sheffield next to the term “prospect fatigue”, something reiterated by recent prospect evaluations, but he’s still an unfinished work, attempting to fill in the edges of a painting that are as crucial as what’s center frame.
It is borderline impossible to be a modern starting pitcher with just two competent pitches. The lineups are too deep, the advance scouting too consistent, the margin for error too thin. Sheffield’s main task in 2019, it seems, was to craft a changeup that was compelling enough to keep right-handed hitters off his fastball, and keep his slider from growing stale with overexposure. Despite lacking a traditional 8-10 mph velocity gap, Sheff’s cambio missed bats and showed promise in its big league test run.
The slider was dominant as ever, and Seattle seemed to encourage Sheffield to rein in his intensity, hoping to trade a tick or two of velocity for more pinpoint command. But the numbers suggest things didn’t quite get there, particularly for the fastball. Sheffield’s heater is the type of pitch we understand better than ever in 2020 - because the pitch spins far more slowly than a typical 92-94 mph fastball, it offers less resistance to gravity as it travels. As a result, the pitch is functionally a four-seam sinker. Sinkers, famously, have taken a hit in popularity and effectiveness in the past several years, while high-spin four-seams located at or above the top of the zone have come in vogue. It’s a fascinating issue: the juiced ball and increased awareness in hitters of the outsize value of hitting home runs has made more uppercutting swings more common, endangering pitchers whose natural movement angles towards those swings. Yet pitchers who can avoid barrels often enough to get grounders consistently are among the league’s most valuable, as balls hit on the ground categorically are less threatening and more manageable for pitchers and defenses - even helping to mitigate high walk rates if they can generate double plays.
2020 is make or break, for Sheffield, young as he is. He will be in the Mariners rotation, with no real limitations. Mariners Bullpen Coach and former Director of Pitching Development, Brian DeLunas, told our Joe Doyle earlier this winter that they wanted Sheffield to see Marco Gonzales as a blueprint.
“Well, To be a consistent big league pitcher, the delivery will need to tighten up,” DeLunas said. “Marco (Gonzales) does that better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Being around Marco will really help him.” ... “Yeah, (Justus) has a tendency to be a really amped up guy,” DeLunas said. “He’ll tell you that. He’ll rush down the mound a little bit.”
Is it fun to be told “why can’t you be more like the star of the class” for Sheffield? Probably not, but the two southpaws share a repertoire that can be tailored towards grounders or fly balls, smaller frames, and a top prospect pedigree that has seen the filigree flake away. To get to 160-180 innings this year would be an immense success, and one that likely requires a big step forward in command from the younger lefty. If he’s done that, it will be thanks to health and superior location of his trio of offerings. It may be an off-and-on thing, but the Mariners’ competitive timeline goes, in no small part, based on if they have the mid-rotation starter some scouts have long seen in Sheffield... or something less.
I will be watching every start, eager to find out.