Revisiting the Awful 2002 Brewers

Fourteen years ago today, the Brewers lost 5-2 to the Cardinals to fall to 27-50. Cardinals starter Woody Williams threw 7.2 innings, struck out seven, and was working on a shutout until Matt Stairs tagged him for a leadoff home run in the top of the eighth inning. Milwaukee starter Jamey Wright gave up five runs in as many innings to see his record fall to 1-6 and his ERA rise to 7.21.

That 2002 Brewers team finished 56-106. It was part of four consecutive 90-loss seasons in Milwaukee and remains the gold standard for awfulness in recent Brewers history. Not only did they lose 106 games, they lost over 100 games by Pythagorean record as well, as they were outscored by a ridiculous total of 821-627 — a cool 1.2 runs per game. They gave up at least 10 runs in 12 different games and were shut out 15 times. They lost 28 games by five runs or more and four games by double-digits.

When the season began I was worried that a season like this might be in the near future for the Brewers — if not this year, then next year after potential trades of Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun. But you don’t just cobble together a team as bad as the 2002 Brewers. No, it takes some truly impressive incompetence, as a look at that roster shows.

That Brewers team was loaded with veterans on offense, with an average age of 30.0 among hitters. Unfortunately, those veterans weren’t any good, as they combined to hit .253/.320/.390, those marks ranking 12th, 14th and 14th in the league. And despite their experience, they were also one of the worst teams in the league in clutch situations, with a .235/.310/.367 batting line in high-leverage plate appearances according to Baseball-Reference — 20 percent worse than their already poor overall performance. The result was the worst run total in the National League, worse than a Pirates team that only had one hitter post an OPS above .800 (Brian Giles). They were so bad they gave 32 plate appearances to this guy:

And yes, that was after the events of the above video.

On the pitching side, the Brewers were absurdly young, with no regular starter over the age of 27. Between overextended 23-year-olds Ruben Quevedo and Nick Neugebauer and journeymen like 27-year-olds Glendon Rusch and Jamey Wright, none of the four starters behind Ben Sheets managed an ERA better than 4.70 (or a 90 ERA+). The club’s 666 walks allowed ranked last in the National League and its 4.73 ERA was better than only the Rockies, who couldn’t even save their pitchers with the Humidor, installed the previous winter. While their bullpen didn’t have anybody great, it wasn’t awful — four relievers threw at least 50 innings with an ERA of 3.12 or better, but it hardly mattered, since the starters almost never gave them a lead.

By season’s end, the Brewers ranked last in the league in Wins Above Average at the following positions, according to Baseball Reference: pitchers overall (-8.8), starters alone (-8.0), position players overall (-9.1), catcher (-3.3), right field (-2.2) and outfield combined (-4.4). The right fielder was Jeffrey Hammonds, the team’s best paid player at $7.5 million. Enamored by his career year in Colorado in 2000, when he hit .335/.395/.529 at pre-Humidor Coors Field, the Brewers gave him a franchise record $21.75 million contract. He hit .257/.332/.397 (93 OPS+) in 128 games for the Brewers in 2002, his best year of his three with the franchise, and still awful — Hammonds graded out poorly enough defensively to finish with -0.6 WAR from Baseball-Reference.

The Brewers under Bud Selig rarely spent money, but maybe that was for the best considering his penchant for signing players like Hammonds, who never had a season of note before raking with the Rockies in a contract year in 2000. The Hammonds signing helped the Brewers be the worst team in baseball despite an Opening Day payroll over $50 million, higher than nine other squads. With Hammonds, Mark Loretta (0.0 WAR in 252 plate appearances) and Jamey Wright (-0.5 WAR in 114.1 innings), the club’s three highest-paid players, combining to be a full win worse than a replacement player, the Brewers didn’t get anything out of Selig’s minimal spending.

The 2002 Brewers were a combination of poor spending decisions, years of bad drafting and bad trades, a stockpile of mediocre (or worse) veteran position players and a rotation full of rushed prospects. Not only did they lack the talent to be a competitive major league team, they lacked any semblance of a plan. The Hammonds signing suggested they wanted to make a symbolic attempt to compete — Look! We signed an All-Star! — without making the effort to put a quality core together.

I don’t know if the Brewers’ current plan is going to work, but at least I can see a plan in the construction of this year’s roster and the farm system behind it. That wasn’t there in 2002 or the early 2000s in general. Those were the Brewers teams I grew up watching, and it felt like it would take nothing short of a miracle to get them to compete.

I don’t feel that way about these Brewers. They’ll have to get lucky, they’ll need big-time prospects like Orlando Arcia and Josh Hader to play close to their potential ceilings and stay healthy, they’ll need to either get a big return for Jonathan Lucroy or sign him to a nice extension, and they’ll need to draft well. But this team has too many talented players, both on the big club and in the minors, and perhaps more importantly, an owner who hates failure in Mark Attanasio. That will be enough to keep the franchise’s lows from reaching such low points as they did in the last decade, and hopefully it will be enough to return them to the high points in a more timely fashion as well.

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