On Wednesday afternoon, Ben Sheets threw one scoreless inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates and officially retired from baseball. For good.
“I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt I’m not playing again,” Sheets said. “No matter what, there is not enough help or money to pull me out of this one.” [source]
His final Major League start drew attention from many Brewers fans, as they reminisced about Sheets’ time in Milwaukee. He started 221 games in his career with the Brewers, posting a career 3.72 ERA and 3.56 FIP. He struck out 7.60 batters per nine innings and only walked 1.97 per nine. He always attacked the zone and utilized his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve to confound opposing hitters.
That mix was on display one last time onWednesday afternoon. Sheets’ velocity had dipped into the high-80s at times this season due to shoulder fatigue, but on Wednesday, the 34-year-old right-hander dotted a 94 mph fastball at the knees to lock up Starling Marte for the first out of the game and blew a 95 mph fastball past Andrew McCutchen to strike out the final batter of his career.
It was a fitting end to his career, and emotions couldn’t be held back when tears and hugs filled the Braves’ dugout between innings. MLB.com doesn’t allow the embedding of recent highlight videos. Trust me, though, this is a video that deserves a click and two minutes of your day.
Aside from the poetic finish in Atlanta, Sheets’ retirement has significant meaning in Milwaukee, too. He is statistically the best pitcher to ever don a Milwaukee Brewers uniform. Teddy Higuera ranks as a close second, but Sheets’ career +31.0 WAR ranks atop the heap. His ERA and FIP were not quite as impressive as Higuera’s — though it’s important to remember that Sheets pitched in a much different run environment and did pitch more overall innings with the Brewers. Those two factors push him to the top spot in franchise history.
When Sheets first began rising through the Brewers’ farm system, he was clearly special. Baseball America ranked him as the organization’s #1 prospect in 2001, and he was also the #5 overall prospect in baseball that year. Much of that was buoyed by his spectacular performance with the 2000 U.S. Olympic team in Sydney. Few pitchers receive the “future ace” label from scouts, but Sheets was one of the exceptions. He was special.
No single season proved that better than his 2004 campaign, in which he threw 237 innings and compiled a remarkable 2.70 ERA and 2.65 FIP. That dream season also included 264 strikeouts and a sick 8.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. All of that, and Ben Sheets tied with Brad Lidge (a closer) for eighth in the Cy Young Award voting. Eighth!
Randy Johnson and his stupidly-good season deserved to win the NL Cy Young Award in 2004. He had a 2.60 ERA and an insane 290 strikeouts, so I’m not naively asserting that Sheets should have won the ’04 Cy Young … but eighth?! Obviously, that’s a wound that has not healed.
Sheets had two other defining moments in his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.
First, on a 64-degree afternoon at Miller Park, Ben Sheets tossed a complete-game gem against the Atlanta Braves and struck out a franchise-best 18 batters. The only damage of the day came on a two-out solo home run by Andruw Jones. The story of the day, though, was the strikeout pitch. Sheets only needed 116 pitches, too, which speaks to his efficiency on the mound in that impressive outing.
Jones had perhaps the most glowing review of Sheets that afternoon:
“The way he was pitching, he could have thrown a no-hitter,” Jones said. “When people pitch like that, there’s nothing you can do.” [source]
The 18-strikeout performance was the most strikeouts in a game from a single pitcher since Randy Johnson struck out 20 in 2001 against the Cincinnati Reds, and it remains a franchise record for the Milwaukee Brewers to this day.
The second moment surrounded the magical 2008 season. After seasons of cellar dwelling, the Brewers returned to relevancy by completing a blockbuster trade for CC Sabathia and returning to the postseason for t
he first time in 26 years.
Sheets proved to be a huge part of that run, posting a 3.09 ERA in 198.1 innings. It was his final few innings that stand out most, though. The right-hander dealt with numerous bizarre injuries throughout his tenure with Milwaukee, and that caused many amongst the Brewers’ fanbase to question his toughness. No one could question his toughness in 2008, however, when he pitched through an elbow injury in an attempt to push the Brewers to their monumental playoff run.
Pitching through the pain ultimately cost Sheets his career. He underwent surgery for a torn flexor tendon at the end of the 2008 season. He then had Tommy John surgery on his elbow that cost him the 2009 season. Then, to top it off, he re-tore his flexor tendon in 2010 with the Oakland Athletics.
Those subsequent injuries arguably could have been avoided had Sheets not tried to pitch through the pain in 2008. But he did. A large portion of me believes Sheets pitched when he shouldn’t have in 2008 to prove to his doubters that he was tough, that he would pitch with pain. And he ultimately shouldn’t have. It cost him the prime of his career.
Ben Sheets was a competitor and a special pitcher for the Brewers. He struggled through injuries and never had the type of career many expected after his brilliant 2004 campaign, but he retired on Wednesday afternoon as the best pitcher to ever play for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Now, about that Brewers’ Walk of Fame induction…