The Search for a New Core: Lessons from Previous 90-Loss Teams, Part III

We return for Part III of Lessons From Previous 90-Loss Brewer Teams. For a quick refresher, I am trying to use this portion of the offseason to look back at previous Milwaukee Brewers teams which lost at least 90 games, in order to see if there are any lessons from those past failures that can help inform the decision-making of the current staff. See Parts I and II, where I covered the expansion years and the period leading up to the late-70s, early-80s teams.

Today, we’ll look at the 1984 and 1985 seasons — the initial low point after the 1982 World Series — and then we’ll jump ahead to 1993, which looked to be a transition year to a younger team.


Team W-L: 67-94

Pythagorean W-L%: .438

After two-straight playoff appearances in 1981 and 1982 — which remains the only time the franchise has achieved such a feat — Milwaukee’s 1983 season started strong, but ended on a sour note. They still had the American League Eastern Division lead on August 25th. Then, they inexplicably lost 18 of their next 24 games and dropped out of the playoff picture, costing Manager Harvey Kuenn his job. Not unlike the 2014 club, to be fair.

With that bleak backdrop, the 1984 team lost its first five games and never could put it into gear. The squad brought back much of the same lineup as 1983, but they were getting old, regularly starting five position players on the wrong side of 30, and were no longer effective. Cecil Cooper was 34 and posted his lowest OBP (.307) and ISO (.111) since arriving in Milwaukee. Jim Gantner saw most of his power disappear. He managed to get three more hits in 1984 (173) than the previous year, yet his extra-base totals declined from 42 to 31. Depending on how seriously you want to take defensive metrics from the 1980s, he also posted the worst FRAA of his career at -15.5. Ben Oglivie’s TAv also declined from .302 to .266. I could go on from here, but there’s really no need. The offense lead the American League in runs in 1982, was sixth of 14 teams in 1983, and finished rock bottom in 1984. They were last in home runs, 11th in stolen bases, and 12th in walks. This offense was dreadful in contrast to the teams known as Harvey’s Wallbangers. To top off this sob story, Paul Molitor battled injuries and only saw action in 13 games.

LESSON: Management can’t get complacent with the players they have and not look for upgrades. In this case, the team aged fast, lost its power, and had nothing to fall back on. We’ve seen this recently occur with the Philadelphia Phillies and earlier with the Houston Astros, where the clubs clung onto players from their glory years instead of trying to reload. Milwaukee management seemed to think replacing Kuenn would vault the team back towards the playoffs. The related lesson is to be wary of relying on aging players. The only under-30 position players worth anything on the Brewers in 1984 were Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Rick Manning. Even if Molitor had stayed healthy, he couldn’t have propped up that lineup. Dion James emerged and got regular playing time after April, but it was not enough for this team.


Team W-L: 71-90

Pythagorean W-L%: .432

The 1985 season was another dreadful offensive year for the Brewers. The team finished 12th in the American League in runs scored, dead last in home runs, and dead last in walks. The aforementioned Dion James got hurt and barely played. The lineup didn’t get appreciably younger, though it should be mentioned that Ernie Riles stepped in to play shortstop as Robin Yount made his shift to the outfield. The team shuffled a lot of players in and out, the majority of whom were below average. Only five batters ultimately qualified for the batting title: Cooper, Molitor, Ted Simmons, Gantner, and Yount. They combined for an unimpressive 12.7 WARP.

Looking at the pitching staff, things weren’t much better. The staff finished 12th in the American League in runs allowed — which is at least symmetrical — aided by allowing the most home runs in the league. Pete Vuckovich returned from injury as nothing more than a shell of his former self, producing -0.3 WARP and a 5.51 DRA. Newly signed free agent Danny Darwin lead the staff with 217.2 innings pitched, making 29 starts and 10(!) relief appearances. He had a 4.42 DRA and saw his home run rate nearly double, going from 0.8 the year before in Texas to 1.4 in Milwaukee. The most notable pitching performance was the debut of Teddy Higuera. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, establishing himself as the best pitcher on the staff and posting a rotation-best 3.67 DRA.

LESSONS: Well, if you’re going to be bad, then at least Milwaukee made some shrewd moves to help the team progress towards its next contention cycle. Darwin was a fine signing to stabilize the rotation and soak up innings. Moving Yount off shortstop was a painful necessity, but by acknowledging the reality of his injuries, the team preserved his bat and found a viable fill-in for at least one year. Higuera got the call in late April, and the team stuck with him through his first two bad starts, instead of panicking and sending him back to the minors after allowing nine runs in 13.1 innings.


Team W-L: 69-93

Pythagorean W-L%: .465

The 1993 campaign was an odd season for Milwaukee. Their record dropped 23 games from 1992, and they underplayed their Pythagorean projection by a half-dozen games. The biggest culprit for the struggles was the pitching staff. After allowing 604 runs in 1992, fewest in the American League, they allowed 792 in 1993, dropping to 10th in the league. Of course, Chris Bosio didn’t return from the end-of-the-season rotation, and though it would be reasonable to expect the team to have some difficulty replacing his 231.3 innings and 3.91 DRA, it shouldn’t be a disaster. But that’s what happened. Cal Eldred had a promising 14-start half-season the previous year, where he had a 2.94 DRA. In 1993, though, he made 36 starts and pitching 258 innings with an unsightly 4.00 DRA, as his HR/9 increased from 0.4 to 1.1 and his BB/9 rose to 4.2 from 3.2. Bill Wegman hurt his shoulder and hit the DL, but not before seeing his DRA rise from 3.99 to 5.23. Jaimie Navarro also backslid. His BABIP rose from .256 to .317, along with a DRA at 5.03. Ricky Bones was the only start to see a bump in his performance, and even then, his DRA was barely below 5.00 at 4.94, and he struck out two fewer batters in 40.3 more innings.

The Brewers scored 733 runs in 1993, only seven fewer than the previous season, but in a higher run-scoring environment, they dropped from fifth to ninth in the American League. The team transitioned to a younger core, with Yount the only starter over 30 in the lineup. Dave Nilsson, John Jaha, and Bill Spiers transitioned into starting roles, as the team didn’t resign Scott Fletcher, Paul Molitor, and Franklin Stubbs and traded Dante Bichette.

LESSONS: Young pitchers are volatile. Shocking, I know. But as the developmental process has come under more fan scrutiny over the past few years, I think most people have realized that young pitching is fragile and rarely develops evenly. There was nothing wrong with Milwaukee’s plan regarding its pitching staff in 1993. Young starters can fail. In that same vein, moving towards a younger lineup and looking to lay the foundation for another run at contention was also a smart plan. The 1993 season should remind fans and management of the need for patience with younger players.

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