From 2002 to 2007, Ben Sheets was the Milwaukee Brewers.
At least, that’s the way it was in my mind. There were guys like Richie Sexson (who I loved) and Geoff Jenkins. Bill Hall was fun for a while. Starting in 2005, the young talent that forms the current nucleus of the Brewers started flowing in as well. But the only player who qualified as truly elite — or had the potential to do so — was Sheets. When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers the Brewers had ever seen and one of the very best pitchers in baseball. His peak years ran from 2002 through 2008, his age 24 through 29 seasons. Over those six years, Sheets ran a 4.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Among pitchers who started at least 60% of their games at ages 24 through 29, only Pedro Martinez (5.16) is higher.
When we increase the innings threshold to 800 — limiting our search to guys that were full time starters at some point — we get a top five including Johan Santana (4.35), Dan Haren (4.13) and Fergie Jenkins (3.94). The similarities between Haren’s peak years — his last seven, dating back to 2005 — and Sheets’s are remarkable.
Neither of the two spent their peaks considered as one of baseball’s elite by the general public. When their teams competed, they were typically overshadowed by another ace (CC Sabathia for Sheets, Brandon Webb or Jered Weaver for Haren). But Haren has stayed healthy into his 30s — he enters his age 31 season this year with seven consecutive 200-inning seasons to his name, a feat Sheets never achieved after doing so for a third and final time in 2004.
The “what could have been?” with Ben Sheets will be the question that will stick with me from my childhood baseball viewing experience. Dan Haren isn’t the same pitcher by any means — he doesn’t sport the same 12-to-6 curveball and operates with a bit of a different flair from Sheets — but I like to think his success is similar to what Sheets would have been capable of with good health.