[Ed. note: please welcome Zach Mason, aka the Real Zach Mason, to staff! You might already know Zach from his excellent FanPosts; we could not be more delighted to have him publishing them more regularly as a member of the staff. You can follow Zach on Twitter @RealZachMason; look for his signature sunhat emoji.]
Let’s begin with a tour through time. Here are Justus Sheffield’s last 18 months, as told by Lookout Landing.
Kate, recapping a typical Sheffield outing in 2020:
I whined in the thread about the fact that I only seem to recap Justus Sheffield starts, but since they’re usually pretty good games, I should probably shut my ungrateful mouth.
Anders and John, in the 2020 Exit Interviews:
He saw excellent results overall . . . Given that he’s a part of the Rookie of the Year discussion, he’s pretty much guaranteed a spot in next year’s rotation.
Matthew, on Sheffield’s first 2021 start:
Though it wasn’t entirely his fault, Sheffield’s line when he exited the game was pretty mid.
John, keeping it real after Seattle beat Cleveland in May:
Better teams will punish an outing like this . . . But tonight, it was enough.
Kate, on a June loss to the Rockies:
Sheffield wasn’t generally missing big, except when he was, but he was continually missing his spots.
Isabelle, trying to make the best of a poorly broadcast win over Toronto:
(we don’t need to talk about a woefully typical four IP, seven hits, four runs outing from Justus Sheffield)
Barfsicles on a barf stick fresh out of a barfy freezer sold by Mr. Barf Man to a barfy little tune.
For the visual learners in the class, here’s the .gif equivalent:
There was a fleeting moment in the shortened 2020 season when Sheffield looked like the mid-rotation starter that was promised. After he ditched his four-seamer for a sinker, with all of his pitches dropping on the way to the plate, his already excellent slider seemed even better. It looked like Sheffield might have found his groove as a weak-contact machine.
But it only looked that way. His 3.58 ERA was propped up by allowing just two home runs over 55 ⅓ innings. Under the hood, his xFIP was 4.27 and he had an 8% swinging strike rate, 8th worst in baseball among pitchers with at least 50 IP, bad even for a contact manager.
Then things got worse.
Last year, he lost command of his slider, a pitch that used to do this:
Justus Sheffield's nasty slider to fan Tommy Joseph pic.twitter.com/iVtZMmh8co— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) February 25, 2018
Without his most effective pitch, the whole Jenga tower collapsed. His sinker ceded its premium location, and his slider ceased to cha-cha consistently. The result? His entire arsenal started getting hit more often than a vape pen on Euphoria, to the tune of a .396 xwOBA. That’s an 83-point increase over his already middling 2020 numbers. MVP Shohei Ohtani was second in the American League last year with a wOBA of .393. Imagine a lineup where every hitter was better than Shohei Ohtani. If you watched Justus Sheffield last year, you don’t have to imagine.
As Scott Servais put it, “I don’t think any of us have a magic potion or wand to wave to get him back on track again, or we certainly would. It’s a combination of things. He’s just not locating throwing the ball great. He’s making mistakes at the wrong time in the game and it adds up. It kind of snowballs.”
Perhaps the most humiliating moment was his final start of the season, when he gave up six runs and couldn’t escape the second inning against the Yankees, the team that traded him. Like when you trip over your shoelaces in front of the ex who dumped you (for a Canadian).
After that, Sheffield spent seven weeks on the Injured List with a forearm strain, and when he returned, he was demoted to mop-up duty out of the pen. Hopes that his stuff might play up in relief did not come to pass, and he ultimately finished the season in Triple-A Tacoma. The team lost so much trust in him that in a must-win game in the thick of the playoff chase, they opted to go with Tyler Anderson on just two days rest.
In a previous 40 in 40, John wrote, “2020 is make or break for Sheffield.” That was two years ago, and while we’ve all had a weird relationship with time since March of 2020, somehow again, this year is truly make or break for Sheffield. With the likes of George Kirby and Matt Brash nipping at his heels, he’s nearing the end of his rope.
What reason do we have to think that this Sheff isn’t cooked and he can put his terrible 2021 behind him? After all, we’re talking about a guy who both the Guardians’ and Yankees’ player-development teams moved on from, the reddest of red flags.
The optimist’s take is that the man has only started 32 MLB games, equivalent to just a single full season’s worth of starts. He’s been around forever, but, if you can believe it, this is only his age-26 season. He’s not even a full year older than Logan Gilbert.
Learning to pitch at the MLB level takes time, and progress often isn’t linear. Sheffield won’t ever become an ace; but he could still become a playoff-team-worthy backend starter or at least a swingman. If he pulls it together, it’ll start with recapturing command of his slider. And perhaps instead of the magic wand or potion Servais was grasping for, they should try a time-turner and get him back to his old four-seamer like Mikey suggested. Justus has been delayed, and he’s running out of chances. But he’s not out of time yet.