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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.