Last week, we posted a poll on Twitter asking our followers which young Mariners player they could most like to see figure it out. I was on the Torrens train simply because I believe having a catcher who can hit is a huge advantage. To my surprise, a solid majority of you voted that you’d like to see Justus Sheffield figure it out.
After my initial surprise, I began to think about it and realized that Sheffield had become a bit of an afterthought in my head. I thought about how I had viewed him during his days as a prospect and early in the pros, and was ashamed that I had subconsciously written him off after one down year (the guy is 25 for crying out loud!).
Justus Sheffield: Analysis
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t cooled on Sheffield after a disappointing season in 2021. When he initially came over in the Paxton trade, I was super high on him. I loved the move and saw Sheffield as a sure-fire mid to top rotation starter for the rebuilding Mariners. I thought “This will be great, let’s get this guy some innings while he’s young and he’ll be able to develop into a solid starter by the time the Mariners are ready to contend.”
After a strong 2020 season, my opinion of him remained staunch. Given the situation, the success he had on the mound in the shortened season was enough to inspire confidence that he would be all the Mariners hoped for when they traded for him.
I take many of the results from the shortened season with a grain of salt, but let’s just compare his Fangraphs stat line from that 2020 season to 2019 and 2021 and see if it gives me a leg to stand on to make the argument that it’s too early to give up on Mr. Sheffield.
2019 – Record: 0-1, ERA: 5.50, K/9: 9.25, BB/9: 4.50, HR/9: 1.25, BABIP: .371, GB%: 52.3%
2020 – Record: 4-3, ERA: 3.58, K/9: 7.81, BB/9: 3.25, HR/9: 0.33, BABIP: .314, GB%: 50.6%
2021 – Record: 7-8 ERA: 6.83, K/9: 7.06, BB/9: 4.82, HR/9: 1.57, BABIP: .350 GB%: 46.3%
Justus Sheffield: The Bad
Okay, so there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Statistically, there are no improvements to speak of from 2020 to 2021. After an up and down (okay, mostly down) start to the year in ’21, Sheffield went on the injured list after a horrendous start against the Yankees in which he lasted only 1.2 innings and gave up 6 earned runs. Sheff wouldn’t pitch again in the MLB until almost two months later and was relegated to a relief role in those outings.
There are a couple of things that stand out to me about those stat lines. First, and probably one of the more alarming things is the steady decline in ground ball rate. This shows that batters are getting wood under the ball. That’s not what you want to see when you have an infield defense as strong as the Mariners do.
To dig a little deeper on that, if we look at his home run to fly ball ratio (16.5% in 2021 vs. 4.4% in 2020), it shows that a good chunk of those fly balls are leaving the yard. Again, not ideal.
Sheffield all but abandoned the use of a four-seam fastball in 2020, and it looks like he’s removed it from his arsenal for good after only throwing 8 four-seamers over the entire ’21 season, instead opting for his sinker.
In ’21 however, opponents tagged up his sinker like Giancarlo Stanton at a little league game. On top of that, his average velocity is no longer up in the 96-97 mph range it once was, indicating he will not end up being the dominant power pitcher the Mariners expected when he joined the squad.
Justus Sheffield: The Good
One fairly consistent bright spot over Sheffield’s career has been his slider. Opponents have just not been able to do much damage, averaging a pedestrian .210 BA over the last two seasons, including .219 slugging % in 2020. While that SLG number jumped to .472 in 2021, I feel like honing in on this pitch is going to be what makes or breaks Sheffield’s career, in fact, it could be the golden ticket for Justus to make it as a long-time starter in the MLB. Just look at that bite!
The key to maximizing a killer breaking pitch like Sheff’s slider, is having another pitch to set it up with. Even relievers with a limited pitch arsenal typically rely on at least two pitches to miss barrels. Edwin Diaz sets ups his put-away slider with fastballs up and in. Diego Castillo uses his slider more than any other pitch but works in sinker here and there to keep batters off balance.
It will be imperative that Sheff either figures out how to get his sinker to work for him, or finds another fastball variation that does in order to get the most value out of his slider.
Justus Sheffield: The Reason For Hope
Now I want to go back to a point I made in the first paragraph…the dude is only twenty-five years old. We have seen plenty of guys figure it out later than that, including that ace we just signed from Toronto…Robbie something? Yeah, him.
While Robbie Ray produced at a much more consistent clip than Sheffield early in his career, it was his age 25 season in 2017 where it all came together. That season was statistically comparable to the year his Cy Young season Toronto, and since then (excluding 2020) he hasn’t had a season with a losing record.
We don’t need Justus Sheffield to blossom into an ace. For now, I’m sure we would all take 5-6 innings of decent pitching, once a week. Heck, even some successful outings from the bullpen would be a great sign. Something that he can build on while giving him more exposure to major league hitters.
Justus Sheffield: How It Could Play Out
Jumping right back into the starting rotation might be a little optimistic. Back in July, fellow contributor Jamey made the case that Sheffield needed to spend some time in MiLB to work out his mechanics, and honestly, I wouldn’t mind him seeing him start out the ’22 season with AAA Tacoma to give him a little more time to figure things out.
If the Mariners are unable to bring back Tyler Anderson or sign another pitcher in free agency, I’d like to see Sheffield get another shot. After all, one down season should not make or break a career, and for how high we all were on him from 2018-2020, it feels too early to give up hope.
Whether it’s out of the bullpen or in a starting spot, Justus Sheffield should get a chance to pitch in the bigs again in 2022. What he does with those opportunities will go a long way in defining his role with the team moving forward. If he’s able to find a fastball variation to pair with his slider, I believe he still has a chance to be an effective big-league pitcher. Whatever happens this year, I’ll be rooting for his success.