Ben Sheets is 33 years old, hadn't pitched in the majors in nearly two years prior to July following Tommy John surgery and last posted an ERA better than the league average back in 2008. Yet Sheets, signed to a minor league deal a little over a month ago, has quickly become the Atlanta Braves' ace by putting up numbers (1.46 ERA, 23/6 K/BB ratio in 24 innings pitched) that best what he did as a workhorse for the Brewers the better part of a decade ago. He's doing that by racking up swings and misses with his fastball and signature curve.
Sheets isn't wowing hitters with velocity, averaging 90.5 MPH with his fastball and maxing out at 93 MPH. But he's peppering the zone with the pitch (62% have been thrown over the plate, compared to the 52% average for starters) and getting a surprising number of whiffs. Check out his contact rate with the fastball compared to the average for starters:
Sheets' fastball contact rate by pitch location
Average fastball contact rate by location for SP
Sheets has a 17.6% miss rate with his fastball, well above the 14.7% average for starting pitchers this season. The last time Sheets was on a mound with the A's in 2010, he had a 10.8% fastball miss rate.
His curve, by contrast, has been used as a chase pitch (just 35% have been thrown in the zone, below the 45% average for starters). And hitters have obliged, going after 43% of Sheets' out-of-zone-curves (28% average for starters). Those hacks aren't leading to much contact:
Sheets' curveball contact rate by pitch location
Average curveball contact rate by pitch location for SP
Batters have missed 37.5% of Sheets' curves, well north of the 29% average for starters. His curveball miss rate was 27% with Oakland in 2010.
While he was tuning up at Double-A Mississippi this time last month, it's now hard to imagine the Braves' once-vaunted rotation without Sheets. For all the preseason talk of Atlanta's starting pitching surplus, this retread has given the Braves renewed life in the NL East and Wild Card races.