Who Had The Best Rookie Season in Brewers History?

The Brewers have had two Hall of Famers spend, at the very least, the majority of their career in Milwaukee: Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. The organization has had several players make multiple All-Star games, and they’ve boasted two MVPs of the league: Yount and Ryan Braun. And yet, the best rookie season in Brewers’ franchise history belongs to Pat Listach.

Listach was a 24-year-old shortstop during his debut season in 1992. His 4.4 bWAR and 5.3 WARP at such a young age makes it seem as if his future should have been brighter than the sun on a sweltering summer’s afternoon; indeed, what we know of Listach’s contributions indicate that much of his early value came from his offense, which ages better and which we are more confident in our ability to measure. By all rights, this high-quality young infielder should have been a key addition to an exciting core that already featured Yount and Molitor.

Obviously, though, this is not what happened. Listach went on to play five more seasons in the big leagues and averaged just 71 games per year. He never came close to being as good as he was in 1992 — in fact, between 1993 and 1997, Listach was below-replacement-level overall. He remained a poor fielder, and his bat never returned to its 1992 heights. So while his repeated injuries clearly contributed to the brevity of his career, he was never the same player even when he was able to make it onto the field. 

As a franchise, the Brewers have had limited success in terms of wins and losses, and half of their playoff appearances have come in the time since Listach retired. When he broke through in 1992, the Brewers had enjoyed postseason baseball only twice — and the last time was ten years prior in 1982. Listach, then, was a bright spot and a source of optimism for a franchise in sore need of someone to whom Robin Yount could pass the torch. In fact, general manager Sal Bando said that he thought they were “set at short for a long time with [Listach].”

The irony of Listach’s career being cut by short by injuries is that he was seen as extraordinarily durable after his standout rookie season. Manager Phil Garner was impressed by his “physical and mental toughness,” and that same article touts Listach’s ability to start 111 consecutive games during his rookie year. And, of course, the fact that he could not stay healthy again does nothing to impugn his incredible 1992 campaign. 

However, his inability to both hit and stay on the field became the defining characteristics of his career. We often see players who are either hurt or productive, and one would be forgiven for assuming that would be Listach’s path once he started struggling with injuries. However, that was not the case at all, and in fact, he never posted a True Average above .240 (reminder: a .260 TAv is considered league average) for the rest of his career. 

Injuries themselves are not wholly random or unavoidable; it is, in fact, quite likely that Listach’s small stature contributed to his lack of durability, regardless of what Garner said after 1992. However, they are also unlikely to be the direct fault of the player or reflective of some character or work-ethic flaw. Instead, some players are simply biologically and genetically more prone to injuries, especially when the same knee was giving Listach continual troubles.

But the same logic about biology and genetics also applies to talent as a baseball player. It is the reason that so many young men work so hard to be Major Leaguers and such a minuscule fraction of them do. And Listach, unfortunately for the mid-90s Brewers, was probably not ever good enough to be a real difference maker even had he been able to stay healthy. 

In 1992, when he was undeniably at his best, he was an average to slightly-above-average defender, depending on which metric (FRAA or Total Zone) you prefer. Defense, in general, declines from the moment someone reaches the big leagues, and Listach’s repeated knee injuries would have accelerated that decline. Most significantly, though, he probably never had a long-term future at shortstop anyway, as evidenced by the fact that the Brewers played him at second more than short in the minors.

Therefore, the key to Listach’s future would have been his production at the plate.  Middle infielders can be valuable pieces if they combine average defense with an average bat — several players have made a career out of it — and Listach did that in 1992. He posted a 99 OPS+ and a .272 TAv, which was more than good enough to make him valuable. The problem was that he never hit again. For the rest of his career, the .238 TAv he put up in 403 plate appearances in 1993 was his high-water mark.

In today’s environment, Listach would likely have been seen as a clear regression candidate. He compiled a .366 BABIP in 1992, which was well-above the league average of .285 and likely unsustainable even given his speed, and he combined his low power with an untenably high strikeout rate of 19.1 percent. Such numbers are a recipe for disaster. However, to say that baseball people of that era were fooled by Listach is also likely unfair. After the 1992 season, Tom Haudricourt of what was then known as the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote derisively about “‘experts’ [who] believe Listach has a low ceiling.” This characterization did, though, prove correct.

Ultimately, Listach was a flash in the pan who provided a season of joy for a franchise that was severely lacking hope. He was not, however, someone who anyone should have considered building a team around, and his injury problems made that clear quite soon. The Brewers have had a number of fantastic players in their history; the fact that it was this man, though, who would provide them with their best rookie season ever is fascinating.

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