Bucky Jacobsen represents one of the rarest flavors of big leaguer: the rookie who succeeded and yet never got a second chance. An old 28 when he debuted in 2004, Jacobsen hit .275/.335/.500 in 42 games. His beefy build, bald head, and big bat made him a hero in Seattle; to this day you’ll occasionally see “Jacobsen” jerseys around the ballpark.
But those 42 games constituted the entirety of his career. A knee injury ended his season prematurely and recovery from surgery sidelined him for most of 2005. The Mariners released him that summer and he was out of the game completely two years later.
Such a quick rise and fall was naturally disorienting. In a recent Corey Brock profile at The Athletic, Jacobsen described the nagging feeling that he’d unjustly lost something: “To have success in the big leagues and then not be allowed to continue that? That felt unfair.”
We all know what it’s like to fall just short of our dreams; the Triple-A veteran who plateaus at the highest level is an easy guy to empathize with. But there’s something just as sad about the guys who get their chance, succeed, and fade away, like the dream itself never mattered.
When you’re on the fringes of a big league roster, you develop a few peculiar rooting interests. You certainly want to play — you need to play, need to show why you deserve your spot on the team. But, if you’re a reliever of a certain stripe, some outings are more dangerous than others. You can call it the Goldilocks Theory of a big league audition.
If you’re the last man in the bullpen, you don’t really want to see the starter struggle. If the starter struggles, then the team needs someone to soak up innings. That person will be you, and in 2019, the inning sponge tends to get wrung out in Triple-A.
It’s already getaway day, ominous in itself. Starter Merrill Kelly labors early. He walks two and gives up three runs in the first. Jimmie Sherfy is told to start moving around. In the second, Kelly allows a double and another run. Sherfy is asked to get loose. After two more walks, Kelly is up to 63 pitches; he’s done for the day. Manager Torey Lovullo signals for Sherfy.
Sherfy more or less handles his business. He escapes with the bases loaded in the second. He concedes a run in the third, but nobody really hits him all that hard, and he tosses a scoreless fourth for good measure.
Sherfy is sent to Triple-A the following morning anyway. It doesn’t matter that he’s thrown eight innings of one run ball over the last 10 days, or that he’s struck out a batter per inning while finally limiting those pesky walks. Sherfy had thrown too many innings recently and was deemed surplus to requirements. In truth, he was as good as optioned the second Lovullo summoned him from the bullpen.
Over the last three years, 53 relievers have thrown at least 30 innings with a FIP below 3.50 and an ERA+ better than 120. There’s some fun with arbitrary endpoints baked in there, but this is just supposed to be a quick and dirty way to cobble together a collection of good pitchers. And it is a strong group: Josh Hader leads the list in WAR. He’s followed by Felipe Vazquez, Blake Treinen, and Craig Kimbrel. Tommy Kahnle is 46th, and he’s posted a 2.70 ERA in 120 innings. This is good company to ride with.
Of those 53 pitchers, five haven’t pitched in the majors this season due to injury. Forty-six of the others are either on major league rosters or the injured list. The other is Jimmie Sherfy.
Sherfy has lurked around the edges forever. A 10th round pick for the Diamondbacks in 2013, he took quickly to pro ball, striking out 29 in 17 innings in his debut season, and then 68 in 49 frames the following year. By that point he’d reached Double-A, and his slider spun violently enough to land him on the back half of various Arizona prospect rankings. He struggled in 2016, but rebounded the following spring, earning a trip to the Triple-A All-Star Game and a big league debut in August.
A funny pattern soon emerged. Sherfy continued to pitch well, both in Arizona and Triple-A, but unlike most relievers who succeed in the show, he never stuck. In 31 games and 36 big league innings, Sherfy has posted a 3.17 FIP and an ERA under one. He’s whiffed nearly a batter per inning and has only surrendered one dinger. And yet he’s been recalled and optioned back to Reno (Ed Rooney voice) nine times.
The reasons why are pretty clear. Sherfy isn’t your typical 2019 reliever. At six feet and 170 pounds, he doesn’t really look like a late-inning arm. His very best fastballs touch the mid-90s, but it’s a below average heater overall. None of his offerings have a huge whiff rate. His strikeout numbers are mediocre for a reliever, and he walks nearly a batter every other inning.
Sherfy’s success is built on a combination of deception and home run suppression. Due to the way he moves his glove toward the plate as he begins his delivery and the slight pause in his motion, he’s a difficult guy to time, and that helps everything play up. While his breaking ball isn’t an elite bat-misser, it’s a very tough pitch to hit hard, generating more grounders and popups than solid contact.
Given enough time against big league hitters, Sherfy will inevitably give up more homers, if perhaps fewer than you’d think for a righty without a big fastball. He’s actually been pretty good at limiting big flies as a minor leaguer, even while pitching in an extremely hitter-friendly park in a hitter-friendly league. Even this year, throwing a rabbit ball in Reno, Sherfy has only allowed one home run in nearly 40 innings.
None of this is to say that Sherfy is a future closer, or even a great candidate to be a setup man. Those are difficult roles and you generally want to reserve them for guys with at least one legitimate, bat-missing pitch. Still, they’re not the only jobs worth having.
It’s hard to remember now, but a six-man bullpen wasn’t uncommon earlier this decade. In one memorable stretch, the 2011 Mariners used their sixth reliever once in 40 days. The dawn of the seventh reliever was greeted with an eye-roll in some quarters, scorn in others. Today, most teams seat eight relievers on their very crowded bullpen benches.
In bloat there is opportunity. By both FIP and ERA, the Diamondbacks have an average bullpen. Nobody would say it’s a bad unit, but neither is it an imposing one: Matt Andriese sports a 5.48 ERA and a 4.29 FIP. Both of those figures are better than the numbers compiled by Zack Godley and T.J. McFarland, neither of whom has missed many bats this year. Arizona is currently only using seven relievers, but whether they stay with that or add an eighth, you’d think that Sherfy has something to offer the club.
Year after year, Sherfy’s pitched well in Triple-A. Callup after callup, he’s dutifully recorded outs for the Diamondbacks on Tuesday and flown back to Nevada on Thursday. At 27 and in his final option year, Sherfy’s not exactly a young arm anymore. We don’t know how much sand remains in his hourglass, but there’s a pretty big pile in the wrong half of the tube. The big league dream isn’t exactly fading away, but it won’t last forever either.
Skip the casinos, and Reno has its charms: You can spend a whole day in Midtown and there’s something delightfully down-to-earth about a city that serves its best sandwiches in an unassuming gas station. But nobody wants to make All-Star teams in Reno forever. Like Jacobsen, Jimmie Sherfy has had a little bit of success in the big leagues. It’d be a shame if that’s all he gets.