In truth, I saw Sheets as a once-dominant but injury-prone 34-year-old pitcher, four years removed from being his vintage self. Nothing more, nothing less.
On top of that, due to Tommy John surgery, Sheets hadn't even thrown an inning of professional baseball since 2010. Before that, he hadn't pitched since 2008.
So pardon me if I didn't cheer in jubilation when Sheets began his comeback trail with the Mississippi Braves on July 4. He was more of a footnote to me than anything, as I still had notions that Atlanta would make a move for Zack Greinke or Ryan Dempster.
Five weeks later, Sheets is anything but a footnote.
He only threw 10.2 innings in his two minor league starts, but did so with a 1.89 FIP and 10 strikeouts against a single walk.
Atlanta rushed him up to the majors on July 15 to plug a hole in the rotation, and Sheets responded with a six-inning, five-strikeout, two-hit, one-walk effort, in which no runs were surrendered.
And the rest, they say, is history.
Through five starts in an Atlanta Braves uniform, Sheets has tossed 32 innings, recording a 4-1 record while posting a 1.41 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.
He is not without his critics though, as they point to his 87.8 percent strand rate as an indication of fortunate bounces, and his average fastball velocity of 90.6 as a declining skill.
I would be naïve to suggest that Sheets is likely to maintain his 1.41 ERA, or to even ponder the possibility of a return to his 2004 form, which saw him post a WAR of 8.0, an ERA of 2.70, a K/9 rate of 10.03 and a BB/9 rate of 1.22. Either instance would make me worthy of being beaten with a stick and chased out of the Writer Community here at Bleacher Report.
But still I wonder, just how good will Ben Sheets be the rest of the year?
That's not the 95-mile an hour Ben Sheets fastball of old, but velocity isn't necessarily indicative of success. Jered Weaver, arguably the American League Cy Young winner at this point, throws an 88.3 mile an hour fastball.
The advanced metrics don't even suggest a steep decline in Sheets' future performance. Sheets' .309 BABIP against is actually .14 higher than his career norm, and his FIP, a stat that suggests what his ERA should be—independent of the abilities of the fielders behind him—is 2.80. If Sheets were to have logged enough innings with his 2.80 FIP maintained, he would rank third in baseball in FIP, behind Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.
I'm not even sure a comparison of this version of Ben Sheets to vintage Ben Sheets is even fair anymore, because he has literally reinvented himself. He's become an entirely different pitcher.
With lesser velocity, he no longer overthrows, and his command has benefited greatly. Sheets' BB/9 (1.97) is the best it's been since 2005. His strikeout rate has declined to about 6.5 K/9, but he's also not allowing home runs (.28 HR/9).
And get this: in five starts and 32 innings pitched, Sheets has a WAR of .9. "Big deal," you may say. But if you extrapolated that over 30 starts (roughly 192 innings), his current performance would garner him 5.4 WAR, which would have been 12th in baseball last year, ahead of Matt Cain, Cole Hamels and Tim Lincecum.
Here's my favorite part: he now throws a pretty dominant change-up to keep the hitters guessing. His curveball (or his "dragon snapper," as ESPN Fantasy Analyst Matthew Berry refers to it) is still as sharp as ever, and he's still throwing it as much as he ever has (career usage rate: 28.5 percent, 2012 usage rate: 28.6 percent). In other words, by using his fastball roughly 12 percent less than his career average (understandable since he no longer throws 95), he has been able to increase his change-up usage rate to 23.2 percent, as opposed to 7.8 percent in 2008.
He throws his fastball with impeccable command, he teases hitters with his improved change-up and then flashes his vintage curveball to remind everyone of the pitcher he used to be—and the pitcher he is still capable of being: a crafty frontline starter with veteran gall, brilliant command and one heck of a curveball.
Ben Sheets is back. Back from a surgery he didn't think he could come back from, back to a level no one thought he could reach again.
And in a season chock full of the tremendous stories of Mike Trout, R.A. Dickey and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the comeback trail of one Ben Sheets may top them all.
Ben Sheets is helping rewrite the 2012 MLB season. But in his version, he's much more than a footnote.
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