The Milwaukee Brewers just suffered through a 94-loss campaign. It was their worst season since 2004 and their 14th season in franchise history with 90+ losses. The numbers are grim, but instead of dwelling on current failures, maybe it’s best to take a look at the previous 90-loss teams to see if they offer any lessons for the new Brewers management team. Today, we’ll go back to the beginning of the team’s time in Milwaukee and look at their first three years in Wisconsin.
Team W-L: 65-97
Pythagorean W %: .408
Technically in their second season as a franchise in 1970, the newly-christened Brewers showed a slight improvement compared with their only season in Seattle. Tommy Harper led the team with 8.5 WARP in what turned out to be his peak year. The 1970 campaign was his age-29 season and he only produced one more year with half as much value, which occurred in Boston. This Brewers team was still basically an expansion squad, as it featured no true homegrown players. As a result, there’s no one you can point to on the roster as a potential developing talent, or a young guy still getting his sea legs in the big leagues. Fourteen players had more than 100 at bats. Of those, only two were less than 26 years old.
Dave May was traded to Milwaukee from Baltimore in June 1970. He had a nice five-year run with the Brewers through his peak and post-peak years until his bat fell off in his age-30 season. Steve Hovley, the other young player, was traded a few days before Day May was acquired for Tito Francona and Al Downing.
The pitching staff was led by Marty Pattin and Ken Sanders providing above average production, but the majority of the staff was old and ineffective.
Lessons: It’s too difficult for expansion teams to compete. With all of their veteran players, the Brewers tried to be respectable, but it didn’t quite work out. At least none of the veterans were blocking young talent.
Team W-L: 69-92
Pythagorean W %: .440
The team got at least slightly younger in 1971. While, once again, only two of the top-ten players in plate appearances were under 26, only two were older than 30 years old. There are much worse strategies than giving a bunch of 27-year-olds playing time and hoping for some breakouts.
Johnny Briggs led the team in WARP with 4.4. He was acquired in April after a slow start in Philadelphia. This proved to be a shrewd move for a guy in his age-27 season, who had produced just under three wins the previous two seasons. He had several productive years with the Brewers, including 4 WARP in 1972.
On the pitching side, Ken Sanders blossomed into a relief ace, back in the day when that still meant something. He pitched in a career-high 83 games and 136.3 innings with a DRA of 3.13. Bill Parsons had a strong rookie season that saw him finish as a runner up to Chris Chambliss in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Lessons: It looks like the Brewers were starting to move away from over-the-hill veterans and more towards guys closer to their primes. The trade for Briggs was a solid move. The team also started to see an influx of drafted talent. Namely, Darrell Porter had his first cup of coffee in 1971.
Team W-L: 65-91
Pythagorean W %: .415
The good news: The 1972 campaign was the last of three consecutive 90-loss seasons for Milwaukee, as they improved every year of their existence. The bad news: The team still had five years of lackluster play, plus three more 90-loss seasons before they broke through as a contender. Aside from the Royals, all of the 1969 expansion teams struggled out of the gate.
While 1972 still featured stalwarts such as May, Briggs, and young catcher Ellie Rodriguez, the offseason saw a major trade. Milwaukee traded Tommy Harper, Marty Pattin and other pieces for George Scott and Jim Lonborg. While Lonborg only lasted one season in Milwaukee before the Brewers traded him to Philadelphia, Scott became a mainstay masher in the lineup for five years, in addition to providing Gold Glove defense at first base. Of course, all that production was for lousy teams.
Too many plate appearances went to players who weren’t particularly good. Rick Auerbach finished behind Scott in plate appearances that year. His TAv was .222 and he produced 3.4 VORP. The hitters as a collective finished in the bottom half of the American League in every traditional offensive category. They didn’t hit for power (9th in home runs) nor were they patient (9th in walks). No one on the team was terrible, but no one performed like a superstar either.
The outlook on the pitching side wasn’t much better. Lonborg was already 30 and only played one season in Milwaukee. Ken Sanders fell back from his career year. His DRA rose to 4.22 while his hits (8.6 from 7.3), walks (3.0 from 2.2), and home runs (1.0 from 0.6) per nine innings all spiked up from 1971. He was traded with Lonborg to Philadelphia after the season. Bill Parsons regressed from his rookie year and only had one season left in Milwaukee.
One bright spot was the discovery of Jim Colborn. Acquired via trade with the Cubs before the season, Colborn served five seasons in the rotation as a dependable innings eater. Outside of 1973 he was never spectacular for the Brewers, but there’s value in being able to count on a pitcher to make 30+ starts a year, especially on bad teams. Colborn fulfilled that duty.
Lessons: It’s one thing to get younger. There’s value in seeing how young guys can play, and it’s a move that can help to cut costs. However, if an organization can’t scout and find worthwhile young talent, then the team isn’t going to improve. Milwaukee was still relying on players from trades because the farm system still wasn’t producing enough talent to stock the big league club. Until the Brewers improved at scouting, they couldn’t break out of their doldrums.