Don’t Sleep on the Brew Crew
If you’re an old school Milwaukee Brewer fan, you remember the days of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor tearing it up in the American League East in the 1980s; and prior to them, you may even recall the days of George Scott and Don Money making names for themselves as Brewers in the 1970s.
Back in those days, there were only two divisions in each of the American and National Leagues: East and West. The Brewers were divisional rivals of the Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, and Indians. To give you a sense of what that looked like, here are the final American League standings from 1985:
It’s not a guessing game as to how many changes have occurred across Major League Baseball since the 1970s and ‘80s — not only due to expansion and league and divisional re-alignment, but also due to new ballparks and shifts in game rules and technological advances. Every team’s gone through its ups and downs over the past 35-40 years, and that’s certainly the case for the Brewers. The last World Series the Brewers won was actually none; and the last and only one they made it to was in 1982, in which they lost to the Cardinals. It’s funny now to observe that unless or until another league or divisional re-alignment occurs, this particular feat could never again be repeated – as the Brewers and the Cardinals now occupy the same division in the National League Central.
But in recent years we’ve seen a different Brew Crew. They nearly made it back to the World Series in 2018, taking the Dodgers all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS. They’ve competed pretty seriously over the past five years, despite injuries and having one of the more mid-range payrolls in the league. The 2022 Brewers’ payroll stands at $128,581,128.00. Given they are considered a “small market team” by most standards, this is a rather surprising payroll. For comparison’s sake, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2022 payroll stands at $38,575,000. The Baltimore Orioles’ 2022 payroll stands at $41,421,166.
But that difference in payroll, combined with both shrewd general management and intelligent management of resources and personnel, can allow an MLB team to compete with the best of them – as proven by the Atlanta Braves, who won the World Series in 2021 with a payroll of $153,060,458. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and New York Mets all had payrolls that would’ve landed them in the World Series if teams won by payroll alone; and yet it was shrewd general management and intelligent management that helped the Braves reach the World Series by putting just the right players, at the right time, on the field to get the job done.
Manager Brian Snitker #43 of the Atlanta Braves hoists the commissioner's trophy following the team's 7-0 victory against the Houston Astros in Game Six to win the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
The 2022 Brewers include the likes of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Brent Suter, Devin Williams, and Josh Hader as pitchers – among the best in the league and noted among starters and relievers. On the field, position players include Willy Adames, Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Kolten Wong, Hunter Renfroe, Luis Urias, Omar Narvaez, Rowdy Tellez, and Keston Hiura. Most of these names don’t leap out at you as belonging to players who are the “faces of the game” or “perennial silver sluggers” or “the best position players in the league.” Some are well enough known by fans as contributors who make the Brewers an above average team; but sometimes, which team is a winner comes down to more than just employing one or two “faces of the game.”
Tyrone Taylor #15, Kolten Wong #16, and Willy Adames #27 of the Milwaukee Brewers run off the field following the end of the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles during Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 11, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
As an aside, we’ll see how well the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim do this year, given they’ll have two of the most noteworthy faces of the game on the field – Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. And, of course, as we are reminded by the absence of Mike Trout from the field last season, the major caveat in all discussions of team success is player health. The Mets had lined up a pitching rotation for 2022 that began with the likes of Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, pretty unarguably two of the best pitchers in baseball. But deGrom’s been bitten by the injury bug prior to even starting one game for the Mets so far, and it’s difficult to tell how much impact that will have on team success this season.
Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets throws a pitch during the third inning of the Spring Training game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Clover Park on March 27, 2022 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Below are some stats that might provide some insight into who the Brewers were last year – and who they might be this year:
Player OPS (sample of starting position players)
Omar Narvaez: .743
Kolten Wong: .783
Willy Adames: .886
Luis Urias: .789
Christian Yelich: .736
Lorenzo Cain: .729
Rowdy Tellez: .814
Hunter Renfroe: .816*
*With the Boston Red Sox in 2021
Source: Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/MIL/2021.shtml
As a baseline, an OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentage) above .800 puts a player in the upper echelon of hitters. An OPS above .750 is above average for hitters. An OPS between .700 and .750 is average for hitters. And an OPS below .700 is below average for hitters.
Pitcher ERA (sample of starting pitchers and relievers)
Brandon Woodruff: 2.56
Corbin Burnes: 2.43
Freddy Peralta: 2.81
Josh Hader: 1.23
Brent Suter: 3.07
Devin Williams: 2.50
Source: Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/MIL/2021.shtml
Collectively, these earned run averages are among the best in the league for the 2021 season for starting pitchers who pitched in at least 28 games and relievers who pitched in at least 58 games.
Of course, there are many more advanced analytics we could review that would provide a more complete picture of who the Brewers were last season and who they might be this season; but the point here is that for a somewhat under the radar team, the Brewers’ president of baseball operations, David Stearns, and general manager, Matt Arnold, have quietly assembled an above average team – and for a fairly average player personnel budget — that surely looks like it can contend once again (with the caveat, of course, that most of the key players stay healthy for most of the season).
The Brewers are situated in a division in which the main competition is going to come from three teams: the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs, and the Cincinnati Reds. The Pittsburgh Pirates are still in rebuilding mode; and we’ve already noted their player personnel budget for the season, which represents a team that’s primarily trying to build from the inside — and not one that’s trying to rebuild by spending wildly on free agents or inherited expensive contracts (via trade). The competition may be rather tough for the Brew Crew, as among other notable players, the reigning NL rookie of the year, second baseman Jonathan India, is a Red; pitcher Marcus Stroman was signed by the Cubs this offseason; and third baseman Nolan Arenado, acquired from the Rockies last season, is still a Cardinal. It was a pretty wild race for the NL Central last season, and we can expect to see more of the same this year.
Jonathan India, Marcus Stroman and Nolan Arenado.
What it seemingly will come down to for the Brewers is how well their pitching holds up. In the waning days of last season, reliever Devin Williams – known for his “airbender” changeup — punched a wall; sustaining an injury that required offseason surgery – and rendering himself unable to finish out the season pitching for his team. That kind of thing just can’t happen again. You may well recall when Kevin Brown sustained a similar self-inflicted injury in 2004, while pitching for the Yankees. The difference was Brown injured his non-pitching hand. Williams’ instincts were not as quick; and resembled more what happened to Hunter Strickland, now with the Reds, when he self-injured his pitching hand in 2018.
With three strong starters at the top of the rotation, and several high quality relievers in their bullpen, the Brewers are well positioned to once again win their division. Though they won the NL Central last season, they were quickly (and without much ado) dispatched from the NLDS by the ultimate World Series-winning Braves. At the time, none of us knew the Braves would become world champions. Looking back now, that the Brew Crew was eliminated early on by the team that won it all provides reinforcement for their being worthy contenders at the time – and for their again possibly being worthy contenders this year. Though they didn’t sweep the first series of this season, MLB teams play 162 games. And that gives the Brewers plenty of time to show us who they really are — and what they can ultimately achieve.