Ben Sheets is Awesome

In many ways, 2006 was a disappointing season for Ben Sheets, who only made 17 starts, a good number of them after the Brewers were out the NL Central race. It was the fourth time in his six-year career that he finished with a losing record, and his ERA was the highest it had been since 2003.

It wasn’t all bad, though: Sheets’s core skills—throwing strikes and preventing bases on balls—were intact. In fact, he was as good as ever, allowing 11 walks and striking out 116 in 106 innings. As Dan Szymborski pointed out (comment #23), those numbers made for a one-of-a-kind performance: no other pitcher has ever thrown 50 or more innings in a season while striking out a batter per inning and walking fewer than one per nine.

He Walked Nobody

In fact, either one of those two accomplishments is quite rare. Since World War II, only 11 pitchers have kept their BB/9 under 1.00 in a season with 100 innings or more. They’ve done it 19 times; Bob Tewksbury and Dan Quisenberry each managed it three times, while David Wells, Jon Lieber, Greg Maddux, and Bret Saberhagen did it twice:

Year    Last         First    IP      ERA     BB/9
1962    Fischer      Bill     127.67  3.95    0.56
1963    Brown        Hal      141.33  3.31    0.51
1982    Quisenberry  Dan      136.67  2.57    0.79
1983    Quisenberry  Dan      139.00  1.94    0.71
1984    Quisenberry  Dan      129.33  2.64    0.84
1985    Hoyt         La Marr  210.33  3.47    0.86
1990    Tewksbury    Bob      145.33  3.47    0.93
1992    Tewksbury    Bob      233.00  2.16    0.77
1993    Tewksbury    Bob      213.67  3.83    0.84
1994    Saberhagen   Bret     177.33  2.74    0.66
1995    Maddux       Greg     209.67  1.63    0.99
1997    Maddux       Greg     232.67  2.20    0.77
1999    Saberhagen   Bret     119.00  2.95    0.83
2002    Lieber       Jon      141.00  3.70    0.77
2003    Wells        David    213.00  4.14    0.85
2004    Lieber       Jon      176.67  4.33    0.92
2004    Wells        David    195.67  3.73    0.92
2005    Silva        Carlos   188.33  3.44    0.43
2006    Sheets       Ben      106.00  3.82    0.93

Not all of those 19 seasons were dominant ones, but it’s tough to perform poorly when you allow so few free base runners.

He Struck Out Everybody

It’s much more common to strike out a batter per inning, but it’s still a sign of a great pitcher. Eight pitchers did it in 2006, while only three accomplished the feat in ’05. Two of them—Johan Santana and Jake Peavy—did so both years:

Year   Last      First     IP      ERA     K/9
2005   Santana   Johan     231.67  2.87    9.25
2005   Prior     Mark      166.67  3.67    10.15
2005   Peavy     Jake      203.00  2.88    9.58
2006   Cabrera   Daniel    148.00  4.74    9.55
2006   Hamels    Cole      132.33  4.08    9.86
2006   Kazmir    Scott     144.67  3.24    10.14
2006   Liriano   Francisco 121.00  2.16    10.71
2006   Martinez  Pedro     132.67  4.48    9.29
2006   Peavy     Jake      202.33  4.09    9.56
2006   Santana   Johan     233.67  2.77    9.44
2006   Sheets    Ben       106.00  3.82    9.85

With the occasional exception of someone like Daniel Cabrera or Brandon Duckworth, who sneaked on to the list in 2002, pitchers who register a strikeout per frame are the most dominant of their kind. Generally, however, they aren’t control freaks; here are the walk rates of the eight hurlers whose 2006 K/9 was above nine:

First     Last       BB/9
Cabrera   Daniel     6.32
Hamels    Cole       3.26
Kazmir    Scott      3.24
Liriano   Francisco  2.38
Martinez  Pedro      2.65
Peavy     Jake       2.76
Santana   Johan      1.81
Sheets    Ben        0.93

Even setting aside Cabrera’s bizarre season, Sheets stands out.

All At the Same Time

It would be boring to look at the list of pitchers who have managed both feats: as I pointed out above, Sheets comprises the whole thing. But to put that accomplishment in perspective, let’s relax the standards a bit, to eight or more strikeouts and two or more walks.

Now we’re looking at the cream of the crop. Only 39 pitchers have ever achieved that standard, more than half of whom did it in the last decade. The list is a little long, but I can’t resist sharing it with you:

Year    Last        First   IP      ERA     BB/9    K/9
1998    Brown       Kevin   257.00  2.38    1.72    9.00
1999    Foulke      Keith   105.33  2.22    1.79    10.51
1999    Martinez    Pedro   213.33  2.07    1.56    13.20
2000    Brown       Kevin   230.00  2.58    1.84    8.45
2000    Martinez    Pedro   217.00  1.74    1.33    11.78
2001    Martinez    Pedro   116.67  2.39    1.93    12.57
2001    Mussina     Mike    228.67  3.15    1.65    8.42
2001    Oswalt      Roy     141.67  2.73    1.52    9.15
2001    Schilling   Curt    256.67  2.98    1.37    10.27
2001    Vazquez     Javier  223.67  3.42    1.77    8.37
2002    Martinez    Pedro   199.33  2.26    1.81    10.79
2002    Schilling   Curt    259.33  3.23    1.15    10.97
2003    Mussina     Mike    214.67  3.40    1.68    8.18
2003    Schilling   Curt    168.00  2.95    1.71    10.39
2003    Schmidt     Jason   207.67  2.34    1.99    9.01
2004    Johnson     Randy   245.67  2.60    1.61    10.62
2004    Schilling   Curt    226.67  3.26    1.39    8.06
2004    Sheets      Ben     237.00  2.70    1.22    10.03
2005    Johnson     Randy   225.67  3.79    1.87    8.42
2005    Martinez    Pedro   217.00  2.82    1.95    8.63
2005    Santana     Johan   231.67  2.87    1.75    9.25
2005    Sheets      Ben     156.67  3.33    1.44    8.10
2005    Vazquez     Javier  215.67  4.42    1.92    8.01
2006    Santana     Johan   233.67  2.77    1.81    9.44
2006    Schilling   Curt    204.00  3.97    1.24    8.07
2006    Sheets      Ben     106.00  3.82    0.93    9.85

It’s no surprise that many of the same names—Santana, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Jason Schmidt, among others—show up multiple times. Schilling did it four times, Pedro five. Incidentally, the only player before Pedro to do it twice was Sandy Koufax. Roger Clemens managed the feat in 1984, but hasn’t since.

As you might have noticed, Sheets was the only pitcher to show up on the list in each of the last three years. Admittedly, his performances weren’t quite up to the level of his fellow list members, if only because he missed several starts in each of the last two seasons. But despite injuries, he’s proven himself to be one of the very few pitchers in baseball to maintain this level of dominance.

Getting What He Deserves

Not only has Sheets had bad luck when it comes to run support, he was particularly poorly supported by his defense last year. Due to his remarkable strikeout and walk figures, combined with a modest home run rate, his FIP last year was a mere 2.48.

His ERA of 3.82 was best among 2006 Brewers starters, and well below the league average of 4.49, but obviously it does not do him justice. In fact, this is yet another way in which his 2006 season was notable: only a few dozen pitchers in the modern era have ever had larger differences between their ERA and FIP, and among those with 100 IP, Sheets topped the unluckiest in 2006:

Last    First      IP      ERA     FIP     FIP-ERA
Sheets  Ben        106.00  3.82    2.48    -1.34
Moehler Brian      122.00  6.57    5.33    -1.24
Kim     Byung-Hyun 155.00  5.57    4.38    -1.19
Loewen  Adam       112.33  5.37    4.25    -1.12
Pineiro Joel       165.67  6.36    5.29    -1.07

It seems likely that this is a fluke, if only because Sheets’ FIPs have traditionally been close to his ERAs. Whether it was rotten luck or unusually bad defense, this difference was yet another way in which his 2006 campaign was unique.

Looking Ahead

Projection systems generally try to avoid making judgements based on luck, so it’s no surprise to find that PECOTA, ZiPS, and CHONE all predict that Sheets will be among the best pitchers in baseball next year.

Each one anticipates Sheets will have a K/9 above 8.5, a BB/9 below 1.7, and an ERA no higher than 3.36. The question for 2007, as it has been for the last two seasons, is whether Sheets can stay healthy. PECOTA, the most optimistic in terms of playing time, gives him 177.2 innings pitched, a number that some Brewers fans would sell their soul to guarantee.

Ben Sheets is an unusually dominating pitcher, and one who hasn’t yet gotten his due from mainstream baseball fans. It would only take one more year like last year—minus the bad luck—to drastically change that.

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