Player spotlight: Ben Sheets

On Monday, Victor Wang went over Ben Sheets’ risk profile. Today, I’d like to discuss his specific skills and check out a little PITCHf/x data.

Numbers

+------+-------+------+----------+-----------+-------+------+---------+------+-------+-------+
| YEAR | IP    | ERA  | LIPS ERA | DIPS WHIP | K/9   | BB/9 | K/BB RI | xGB% | BABIP | HR/FB |
+------+-------+------+----------+-----------+-------+------+---------+------+-------+-------+
| 2004 | 237.0 | 2.70 |     2.77 |      0.99 | 10.03 | 1.22 |    1.35 |   42 | 0.292 |  10.0 |
| 2005 | 156.7 | 3.33 |     3.21 |      1.10 |  8.10 | 1.44 |    0.76 |   37 | 0.281 |  10.0 |
| 2006 | 106.0 | 3.82 |     2.91 |      1.00 |  9.85 | 0.93 |    1.35 |   40 | 0.342 |   7.6 |
| 2007 | 141.3 | 3.82 |     4.01 |      1.25 |  6.75 | 2.36 |    0.23 |   36 | 0.287 |   8.7 |
| 2008 | 198.3 | 3.09 |     4.00 |      1.20 |  7.17 | 2.13 |    0.34 |   40 | 0.285 |   7.0 |
+------+-------+------+----------+-----------+-------+------+---------+------+-------+-------+
|   1H | 108.0 | 2.85 |     ---- |      ---- |  7.90 | 2.05 |    0.55 |   42 | ----- |   9.1 |
|   2H |  75.3 | 3.46 |     ---- |      ---- |  5.97 | 2.27 |    0.00 |   36 | ----- |   4.0 |
+------+-------+------+----------+-----------+-------+------+---------+------+-------+-------+

While his ERA might not reflect it, Sheets definitely had a down year — his second in a row actually. His LIPS ERA sat just above 4.00 in both 2007 and 2008. His raw skills did improve a little bit this year, as seen most clearly in his K/BB Run Impact and expected ground ball rate (xGB%) (LIPS ERA doesn’t show it because LIPS is a relative stat that is calculated according to each year’s specific run environment &mdash this year’s NL must have been a little easier than last. EDIT: Also, Sheets induced more infield flies in 2007; his K+IFFB/9 was 8.21 in 2007 compared to 8.12 in 2008), but he is clearly a worse pitcher than he was from 2004 to 2006.

Sheets will be 30 next year, and echoing Victor, “I think we can say there’s a pretty good chance Sheets is past his peak.”

If we look at his half-season splits, we notice that his first half was significantly better than the second half. Higher strikeout rate, higher expected ground ball rate, and lower walk rate. I suppose this could give us some hope that he might be able to bounce back in 2009 since he pitched pretty well for at least a portion of 2008. Of course, the opposite side of the coin is that he was pretty bad in the second half, and if that carries over into 2009, he and his owners would be in big trouble.

One interesting thing to note is Sheets’ Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Aside from a horrible 2006 (during which he threw the fewest innings), it has been much better than league average (which is around .300). This is a repeatable skill for a select few excellent pitchers, and there’s a pretty good chance Sheets possesses that skill.

Also take note of his Home Run per Fly Ball Rate (HR/FB). It has been significantly better than league average (11 percent) three years in a row now. After three years, it’s time to consider the possibility that this is a legitimate skill that Sheets has picked up. We must consider, though, that Sheets has pitched just 445.2 innings over those three years — the equivalent of two seasons for many pitchers. We could also take pause when we notice that it was much closer to 2004 and 2005 levels in the first half of the season (although that may not mean much).

Make of this information what you will. If he can continue to keep the BABIP down and the HR/FB trend is based on legitimate skill, Sheets’ actual ERA could continue to beat his LIPS ERA going forward. This would allow Sheets to remain a top pitcher despite his peripheral decline, although I don’t know if I’d bet on it.

PITCHf/x

Since Josh Kalk is having some trouble with the PITCHf/x data (completely understandable after nearly a full season’s worth of pitch tracking), I won’t go too in-depth with Sheets. We’ll do some basic scouting and wrap things up. Because of this, take note that the data here only reflects his starts up until July 29, although once we get the rest I’ll be sure to take a look and see if anything changed in his physical skills between his very good first half and his not-so-good second half.

image

+-------+-----+-------+------------+------------+
| PITCH | %   | SPEED | MOVEMENT_X | MOVEMENT_Z |
+-------+-----+-------+------------+------------+
|    FB | 62% |  93.3 |      -4.85 |      10.43 |
|    CB | 33% |  80.6 |       3.15 |      -2.76 |
|    CU |  5% |  87.1 |      -6.29 |       6.76 |
+-------+-----+-------+------------+------------+

Sheets tends to get away with throwing (primarily) just two pitches—rather rare for a starting pitcher. He throws his change-up (a solid pitch) just five percent of the time and relies heavily on his fastball. The fastball, strangely enough, gets less horizontal movement than a league average fastball. Sheets makes up a little for it with good speed (93 MPH) and great rise (a.k.a. vertical movement)—nearly 10-and-a-half inches.

It’s harder to make a definitive judgment about the curve. The averages for it are quite unimpressive (if we only looked at the averages, it would have fallen under the “crappy” classification I talked about in my curveball article), but there is a wide range of variability. Some actually break in on a right-hander, while others break away as far as 10 or 11 inches (these would fall under the power “slurvy” curve classification — similar to what Francisco Rodriguez throws — which I found to be most effective).

Is this intentional? Can he control how much curve each particular pitch gets? My guess would be yes, at least to some extent.

It seems to me that it would be nigh impossible to throw a pitch a full third of the time, have that much variability, and still post a 2.0 BB/9. Looking at the spin direction and spin rate of his curves (feel free to contact me if you’d like to see the exact data), I also see pretty wide variability. This article indicates that Sheets changes his grip on his curve, but that was all I was able to dig up. If you’ve found something else that verifies this, shoot me an e-mail.

I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess that Sheets controls how much spin he puts on his curve depending on the situation. If he needs a “get me over”-type breaking ball, he imparts less. If he’s going for the kill, he imparts more. If this is the case, I can definitely see why people rave about the pitch. It’s essentially like he’s using two different breaking balls. One is a filthy slurve/11-to-5 combo curve, while the other comes in looking like the former, deceiving the batter by failing to break as much.

Unfortunately, we don’t have data from before 2007, so we have nothing from Sheets’ glory days to compare all this to. Once I get a hold of the full season’s worth of data, however, I’ll be sure to check all of this plus some of Sheets’ non-physical skills (i.e. location, usage by situation, etc) from the first half against the second to see if he changed anything. Hopefully this was interesting enough for now.

There was a great article about Sheets written by David Gassko (who was aided by our Chris Neault) back in May. Definitely a great read if you’re interested in more about Sheets’ PITCHf/x data, injury history, and mechanics.

Market value

Not a lot of rankings are out yet, so for now we’ll have to make due with what’s available. As the off-season goes on, I’ll be adding additional rankings to the list to give us a more complete picture of how our competition views each player.

RotoHog Value: 12th SP
Yahoo! Big Board: 21st SP
ProTrade Value: 28th SP
CBS Sportsline: 31st SP
Mock Draft #1: 40th SP (R13)

We’re definitely looking at a small sample and some year end data that may not actually be measuring what we’re looking for, but it appears there are widely differing opinions on Sheets. Even at #40, though, he went in the 13th round of my first mock draft. Mike Podhorzer of the Fantasy Baseball Generals took him in the tenth round of his first mock draft.

Overall, I’d say there aren’t many sound conclusions we can draw about his market value yet. It’s just too all over the place, and with the prior caveats, I’m going to decline to make any real guesses about where it will ultimately end up.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, I doubt I’ll be drafting Sheets this year. I’ve never owned him before, and his decline in skills (combined with the great 2008 ERA) and the constant injury risk makes him someone I doubt will fall far enough for me to take. If you feel otherwise, feel free to comment or send me an e-mail. Discussion is always welcome.

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