Welcome to Part II of my review of previous 90+ loss Brewer season, in which I examine previous poor seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers in order to see if I can find some lessons for the current management team. Part I covered the franchise’s first three years in Milwaukee after their move from Seattle.
After a brief respite in 1973 and 1974, the Brewers once again crossed the 90-loss threshold from 1975 through 1977. Immeditely following these three years are arguably the best stretch in Brewers history. The team finished above .500 for the next six season and made the franchise’s lone World Series appearance. Today, we’ll examine the path to contention for the 1975-1977 Brewers.
Team W-L: 68-94
Pythagorean W %: .427
After two seasons below the 90 loss threshold under manager Del Crandall, the Brewers backslid in 1975, costing Crandall his job with one game left in the season. Though the record was poor, the position players of future contending teams began to take shape. Robin Yount played his first full season and took a step forward at the plate, raising his TAv from .239 to .252 and his walk rate from 3.3 percent to 5.4 percent.
After going up and down in 1973 and 1974, Gorman Thomas got 2.5 months of consistent at bats during the summer. He flashed power (.192 ISO) and patience (11.1 percent walk rate). Unfortunately, his other skills failed to show up. He struck out in 30 percent of his plate appearances and he didn’t provide any value on the defensive side.
Sixto Lezcano also made his full season debut in 1975, though like Yount and Thomas, he wasn’t ready to be a productive member of a lineup, producing 0.1 WARP, with all the value coming from his bat. He would prove to be closer to being a productive player than Yount and Thomas, though.
The lineup, though weak, at least had some promising players. The pitching staff was a tire fire. The top five starters all had below average ERAs. However flawed that metric may be, that’s not a good indicator for any staff. The total staff finished last in the American League in runs allowed and strikeouts, and 11th of out 12 teams in hits and walks. At least they only allowed the eighth-most home runs in the league!
Lesson: The most important lesson was identifying future productive talent and letting them play through their growing pains. The advantage of losing seasons with low expectations is allowing promising players to get big-league reps. While every player’s development path is different, there is something to be said for allowing young players to grow in a lower pressure big league environment.
The other lesson? The team can’t compete if the pitching doesn’t give it a chance.
Team W-L: 66-95
Pythagorean W %: .437
To check in on the young hitters, Robin Yount’s age 20 season was one to forget. He posted career lows in TAv (.230), extra base hit percentage (3.5 percent) and ISO (.049), as he stopped driving the ball. He gained back some defensive value, but still was worth less than replacement value.
Gorman Thomas saw his at bats stay the same, even though his games played went down. While his batting average was superifically ugly .198 at a time when that mattered, he raised his TAv to .253, maintained his walks, and cut his strikeouts. The missing ingredient was his power, as his ISO was the lowest he post until after he left Milwaukee.
Sixto Lezcano made his offensive leap, posting a 20.2 VORP and 2.8 WARP. His rate stats generally stayed the same, but he posted a career high .347 BABIP, as more singles fell in. Though this season was fueled by luck, he kept his gains and those singles turned into power starting in 1977.
I ignored Darrell Porter in 1975, even though he had a strong season. Unfortunately, his value cratered in 1976, and the Brewers traded him in the off season. He had a career low BABIP (.232), home run percentage (1.1 percent), extra-base-hit rate (4.5 percent) as well as dips in his walk rate (17.4 percent to 11.4 percent) and TAv (.291 to .242).
The pitching saw some improvement, as it was no longer the worst staff in the American League, with three pitchers throwing 200+ innings to stabilize the staff. Bill Travers had a career year, setting high marks for IP (240) and DRA (3.90). He’d continue to provide replacement level production the next few years. Jim Slaton also had a career year for IP (292.7) and DRA (3.72), but only had one more season in Milwaukee. Lastly, Jim Colborn ended his Milwaukee career with 225.7 solid innings with a 3.83 DRA
Lesson: Aside from patience and trying to develop a pitching staff, trades were the big story from 1976. Development paths can be uneven, but trading Porter, a young All-Star catcher off one terrible season, proved to be a mistake. There was the dual evaluation failures of thinking Charlie Moore could replace Porter’s production, as well as not receiving enough value in return. The caveat here is Porter’s substance abuse issues and what the team knew about them. However, even if they were determined that Porter was on a downward slope and addiction would prevent a bounceback, this was poor treatment of a valuable asset. Teams that are as bad as Milwaukee was at this point cannot make these types of evaluation mistakes.
There was another trade in December 1976 which helped set Milwaukee up for success. The Brewers traded George Scott back to Boston for Cecil Cooper. Cooper spent the last 11 seasons of his career in Milwaukee, making five All-Star teams and providing above average offense at first base, while Scott’s career was finished at the end of 1979. Cooper’s bat would help propel a potent offense to the top of the American League.
Team W-L: 67-95
Pythagorean W %: .418
Before the 1978 breakout, the team had one more year of growing pains. Catcher of the future Charlie Moore was handed the starting spot and produced a .234 tAV with replacement level defense. The next year he was in a timeshare with Buck Martinez.
Gorman Thomas was sent to the minors, as his terrible batting averages finally caught up with him. The 1977 starting centerfielder, Von Joshua, gave back 21.1 runs in the field according to FRAA and was not on the team in 1978.
Jim Wolhford, acquired in the Porter trade, was the left field starter. While he was competent defensively, he produced -12.3 VORP as his OBP dropped and he wasn’t ready for a full time role.
To round out the hitting disappointments, there’s the curious case of Dan Thomas. Thomas was considered a top prospect, and had performed decently well in a 1976 cup of coffee, with a .312 TAv. But after a religious conversion during the offseason, likely prompted by some mental health issues, Thomas declared that he would no longer play on the Sabbath, taking him potentially out of two games a week. He was demoted to the minors in May. He, and others, believed it was because of his refusal to play. He was ultimately released that year. To read more on Thomas, see here.
Lessons: Not everything is going to click at once, so it’s imperative for a team to realize mistakes and fix them. Moore was the catcher of the future, until he struggled and Buck Martinez was acquired. Instead of doubling down on Wohlford to prove that the Porter trade was not a mistake as he thrived in Kansas City, Larry Hisle was signed as a free agent. Gorman Thomas was demoted for a full season, then took the starting centerfield job from Von Joshua after he proved unable to handle the role.
Combine those moves with further development of Yount and Lezcano, Cecil Cooper mashing, and cobbling together just enough pitching, and there was a 23 game improvement. The playoffs were a few years away, but this was a fun and competitive team, which what fans should hope for.