Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Expectations were high early, down later, and culminated in another great September run
Coming into 2019, the expectations for the Milwaukee Brewers were as high as anytime in a couple of generations. With one or two things going a little differently, Milwaukee might have been playing in the World Series in 2018. Hope and enthusiasm pervaded Brewer Nation and was reinforced with major free agent additions and high risk/high reward decisions. While the season did not meet the early expectations, Milwaukee played a brand of baseball that frustrated and excited the fan base that culminated in a September run that is becoming synonymous with Craig Counsell managed Brewers’ teams.
2018-2019 Offseason — Position Player Enhancement and Betting on Young Pitchers
David Stearns had decisions to make coming into 2019. Should he try to resign certain pitchers that helped Milwaukee in 2018? Which young arms that showed promise and performed well in 2018 should he trust in 2019 and in what capacity? With a superior bullpen in place, where should the focus be in free agency? In what areas could the team improve and how/who?
Stearns answered those questions firmly. Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Lyles all helped the Brewers in 2018. To begin 2019, each would be playing for other teams. With that in mind, who would get the five rotation spots?
The Brewers felt their bullpen to be a strength both in depth and with regard to capability in high leverage. They would chose to stand pat for the most part, except for one move. They did make a trade with Texas to acquire Alex Claudio. Claudio was coming off a disappointing 2018, but Stearns saw out of whack BABIP numbers against him and felt he was in line for a rebound in 2019.
The Brewers spent their major resources on improving their position player depth, second base and catcher. Milwaukee added Cory Spangenberg on a one year deal, and traded Domingo Santana to Seattle for Noah Zavolas (who pitched in the minors all season) and Ben Gamel. On January 14, Yasmani Grandal signed with the Brew Crew ensuring an extreme offensive upgrade at catcher. On February 17, Mike Moustakas signed to play second base instead of his natural third base. He was obviously a ‘place holder’ until Keston Hiura was ready, but an excellent one.
Milwaukee filled in major league openings or potential openings to come in other ways. Below is a list of players acquired and lost prior to the season beginning, during Spring Training, and into very early season.
Lost via Free Agency: Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Joakim Soria, Jonathan Schoop, Curtis Granderson, Xavier Cedeno, Stephen Vogt, Nick Franklin, Dan Jennings, Jett Bandy, Mike Zagurski
Traded Away: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Erik Kratz, Sal Biasi
Acquired via Trade: Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, David Freitas, Noah Zavolas, Bobby Wahl, Adam Hill, Felix Valerio, C.J. Hinojosa
Free Agents Signed: Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Jake Petricka
Claimed via Waivers: Donnie Hart
Lost via Waivers: Josh Tomlin
Rule 5 Draft: nothing
Minor League Contracts: Jay Jackson, Alex Wilson, Tuffy Gosewisch, Deolis Guerra, Burch Smith, Josh Tomlin, Brett Lawrie, Josh Fields, Michael Tonkin
Spring Training — Position Players Set; Pitchers Not So Much
Those making up the positional player group were pretty much a given coming into Spring Training. The outfield would be Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, and Ben Gamel. The infield would be Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, Orlando Arcia, Jesus Aguilar, and Eric Thames. Hernan Perez would be Craig Counsell’s utility man, and Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina would catch. The only real questions on the position player front were would Corey Spangenberg get a shot (he would not until late in the season) and when would Keston Hiura be called up?
The Brewers came into the season confident in their bullpen arms, but they were thrown for a loop in Spring Training. Devastating news came as one of the “electric dudes” was lost for the year before the year even started. Corey Knebel required Tommy John surgery. A second “electric dude” only threw three pitches in Spring Training before he was shut down for shoulder fatigue. Jeremy Jeffress’ velocity was significantly down from 2018 and concerns were aroused about his health and effectiveness. With the losses of Joakim Soria, Xavier Cedeno, and Dan Jennings already, what was a perceived strength became an area of concern. Junior Guerra, Matt Albers, Alex Claudio, and a collection of pitchers Brewers’ fans never heard of would have to pick up the slack.
The big question mark in Spring Training would be the starting rotation. With Zach Davies and Chase Anderson coming off struggling seasons, neither was guaranteed success. Jimmy Nelson might or might not be ready for a role, but as a starter? With Wade Miley in Houston, Jordan Lyles in Pittsburgh, and Gio Gonzalez in the New York Yankees minor league system, the Brewers had only one spot in the rotation secured. That went to Jhoulys Chacin who had been the Brewers best starting pitcher in 2018.
Milwaukee had four slots, and three of them could go to pitchers that had never pitched in such a capacity before. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff all found a measure of success in 2018, but were they ready for the responsibility of holding down a rotation spot in 2019? Optimism around the three young guns was high, and their performance in Spring Training merited did nothing to temper it. The Brewers had a big decision on their hands.
March/April (17-14) — Offense Carries Team as Young Guns and Chacin Struggle
Jhoulys Chacin was the Opening Day pitcher. To the surprise and to the consternation of some, Milwaukee filled three of the other four rotation spots with Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff. Zach Davies would get the final rotation spot, while Chase Anderson opened the season in the bullpen.
Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Zach Davies will round out the Brewers’ rotation to start the season, Craig Counsell says. Chase Anderson will open in the bullpen.
— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) March 21, 2019
Milwaukee started the season well outscoring opponents while their pitching figured things out. Zach Davies proved to be the best starting pitcher early in the season posting a 1.38 ERA over six starts over the period. The young guns had their struggles with Burnes struggling the most giving up home runs at an unsustainable pace. Teams slugged .848 against him, and he posted a 10.70 ERA across four starts. Freddy Peralta (7.13 ERA) and Brandon Woodruff (5.17 ERA) had their difficulties too. The big surprise were the trials faced by Jhoulys Chacin, who posted a 5.24 ERA.
With the starting pitching playing so poorly early, it was amazing that the Brewers were three games above .500 at the end of April. The offense carried the team during this phase of the season. Christian Yelich had his best month-plus in late March and April of 2019. He slashed .353/.460/.804 while hitting 14 home runs over that period. Yasmani Grandal did his best to carry the club over this period too. He slashed .283/.356/.500 while hitting 6 homers. Mike Moustakas (.267/.353/.556) and Eric Thames (.273/.349/.564) also hit very well early to keep the Brewers on top of the NL Central. Even Lorenzo Cain performed decently offensively during the early stages with a slash of .273//331/413. For all intents and purposes, the Brewers were out-slugging opponents.
The bullpen pitched okay in the months of March and April. Junior Guerra demonstrated the good as he pitched to a 2.20 ERA over that time period. Alex Claudio and Matt Albers were just okay. Josh Hader was dominant except when he was not. On April 15, 19. 21, and 30, he gave up home runs late in the game. Two of those games resulted in losses, and the questions began to swirl about Hader.
May (15-12) — Gio and Hiura are a Breath of Fresh Air
The month of May went about as well as April, but the starting rotation was becoming a concern. Zach Davies continued to pitch well posting one of the lowest ERAs in baseball. Chacin continued to pitch poorly as he posted a 6.46 ERA in May. While two of the young guns were floundering, however, one was emerging into a good pitcher — Brandon Woodruff. Opposing hitters in May were only able to hit .155/.203/.236. Was this the infancy of a developing ace? May would be his most dominant month, but he pitched well until being injured later in the season.
The Brewers would acquire Gio Gonzalez late in the month of April. Prior to Gonzalez’s arrival, the Brewers were getting consistently good starting pitching from Zach Davies. To that point, though, the rest of the rotation was problematic. While Woodruff emerged, Gio stabilized the rotation in a big way. Over five May starts, he would pitch to a 3.12 ERA and keep the Brewers in virtually every start. Without his steadying force, the Brewers likely would have fared much worse during this critical stage in the season. We also may forget that being solid at the back end of rotation is good to have. Chase Anderson was solid over three starts in May posting a 3.46 ERA. The bleeding that was taking place in the starting rotation had been stopped for the time being.
The offense continued produce in May even though there were hiccups. The reigning MVP had his first slump in some time. That is if you can call .247/.367/.568 a slump. In reference to Christian Yelich, it marked the end of an amazing stretch of baseball, but one he would pick back up. Yasmani Grandal continued to have a hot bat during this month (.271/.402/.565), and Mike Moustakas continued to slug (.270/.311/.557), but the offensive production really emerged around two right handed hitters.
The book was starting to get out on the Milwaukee Brewers and their offense. They were susceptible to left-handed pitching because of ther southpaw-heavy lineup. To counter that Jesus Aguilar and Ryan Braun had to step up. Aguilar failed miserably to this point in the season. Braun had failed in the first month plus of the season, but he looked like younger version of himself during the month of May, slashing .363/.427/.588. With the void created by Aguilar, the Brewers needed a right handed bat beyond Braun and the switch hitting Grandal. What would become the greatest counter to left handed pitching in the Brewers lineup over the long haul was Keston Hiura, and it all started when he was finally called up for a struggling and injured Travis Shaw on May 14. Over 15 games in the month, he slashed .296/.345/.537. With Braun and Hiura, the Brewers had a potent and balanced offense even if Aguilar and Shaw struggled.
Jeremy Jeffress pitched well in May as he posted a 2.57 ERA for the month. That would be the last month that Jeffress would pitch well in a Brewers’ uniform. Josh Hader was absolutely dominant in May posting a 0.71 ERA and striking out 14.9 per nine. Surprisingly that would be Hader’s second worst K/9 in 2019. Junior Guerra was decent posting a 3.55 ERA, and Adrian Houser showed his stuff played up in shorter stints posting a 1.35 ERA for the month.
June (13-13) — Playing .500 Baseball with Sub-.500 Teams
In June it starts to get hot, and the Brewers were treading water. The problem with that was this month was supposed to be the easy part of their schedule. It was expected to be the part of their schedule where they went on a run. Instead they played .500 ball against teams that all finished below .500 with the exception of two games against Houston.
The biggest reason for this is the starting rotation. The stabilizing presence of Gio Gonzalez would not see the mound in June as he dealt with a sore shoulder. Zach Davies came down to Earth posting a 5.24 ERA. Brandon Woodruff was not as good but still effective getting hitting around for six runs in a start on the first of the month. Chacin kept up his season long ineptness. Chase Anderson gave a lot of runs to bad teams. Freddy Peralta got two starts. He was great in one start and terrible in the other. The once-steady rotation was destabilizing once again. Unfortunately the offense was not scoring with runners in scoring position as it had early in the season.
Christian Yelich returned to form slashing .365/.437/.712. Moustakas (.289/.385/.600) and Thames (.333/.419/.746) had their best month of the season. There were runners on, and there were games in June where the offense would explode. Against the competition faced one would think the Brewers would have plated more runs than they did resulting in more wins than they acquired.
During this month a few of big things happened with the offense. Keston Hiura was sent back down to San Antonio and Travis Shaw took his place in the lineup. This would be the last month Shaw would see regular playing time as he continued to be virtually an automatic out with every plate appearance. While Jesus Aguilar was not an automatic out, he was not proving to be a dangerous hitter. He was increasingly playing himself to a bench role as he continued to be outperformed by Eric Thames. With two bats that posed no danger coupled with Orlando Arcia at the bottom of the lineup, Milwaukee became an easier offense to maneuver.
At the top of the lineup, the table setter of 2018 was setting very few tables at this point in 2019. The injuries that followed Lorenzo Cain throughout the season had to be taking their toll in June. LoCain hit .233/.327/.256. The 2018 MVP candidate was turning into Billy Hamilton clone with fewer stolen bases.
With three huge spots doing nothing in the batting order and the starting pitching going through a woeful stretch, it was necessary for the bullpen to step up. Junior Guerra floundered. Jeremy Jeffress started his decline towards low leverage situations. The obvious fillers that made up the bullpen carousel between San Antonio and Milwaukee were just not as good as the previous seasons. Yet even with these problems, certain members of the bullpen came up big.
Alex Claudio (1.64 ERA) and Matt Albers (2.12 ERA) posted their best pitching performances during June. Josh Hader was most dominant during this month (0.68 ERA and 16.9 K/9). Adrian Houser continued to look like a force out of the bullpen posting a 2.67 ERA and 13.2 K/9). With so many holes in the starting rotation and the batting lineup, these four bullpen arms ensured that Milwaukee stayed in the pennant race.
July (12-13) — Mediocre Rotation; Mediocre Results
While Milwaukee stayed in the race, the Brewers just were not playing well in the month of July. Since it was the first month of the season that the Brewers posted a sub-.500 record, the results suggest they were not playing well. While there were a couple more teams that could be deemed “good” on the schedule during this month (Cubs, A’s, and Braves), this was not an especially tough month in terms of strength of schedule.
The starting rotation would come to miss their budding ace, Brandon Woodruff during the month of July. While he made three starts during the month (two of which were strong starts), he skipped a start between July 4 and July 16. In his next start on July 21, he would be hit around a bit. He was hit around a bit because he injured himself. After that start, Woodruff would go on the injured list with an oblique injury and remain there until September 17. In the middle of a pennant race, Milwaukee would not have its best starting pitcher down the stretch.
The second-best starting pitcher to that point had fallen off dramatically in June and continued that fall into July pitching to a 4.67 ERA. In reality, Zach Davies’ first three starts in July were quite good, but his last two starts were two of his worst all season. Chacin continued to make his starts, and he continued to make sure the opposing team had the best chance to win. Gio Gonzalez finally did get healthy to make two starts in July, but he wasn’t yet back in top form. Adrian Houser took several turns in the rotation as well. He struggled in July, but those struggles would be stepping stones to better results later in the year. The solid Chase Anderson was better than solid in July as he put up his best month of the season pitching to a 2.90 ERA. Anderson was the only reliable starter for the month. With that in mind, the offense picks up the slack, right?
The right handed hitters and Christian Yelich produced and the rest of the left handed hitters slumped in July. Yelich continued to be awesome (.352/.441/.670), and Keston Hiura returned to the major league team and raked (.355/.429/.699). Jesus Aguilar finally contributed just in time for trade season. Over nine starts in July he slashed .298/.346/.574. Finally, Ryan Braun hit .267/.338/.550.
One thing becoming very apparent is that the Brewers were not as strong defensively as they were in 2018. Lorenzo Cain was obviously battling injury. Grandal was still learning the pitching staff. However the key to the infield defense, Orlando Arcia, was not performing well according to advanced metrics and Craig Counsell. Counsell actually began taking playing time away from Arcia as the Brewers called up Tyler Saladino. Contributing virtually nothing offensively, Arcia had to provide exceptional defense and he was not. Once his playing time was limited, however, he started to play better on defense. That transformation began in July.
While Josh Hader was unhittable in May and June, he did give up four home runs during three outings in July. In two of those outings, home runs won the game for the opposing team. As a result, questions about Hader resurfaced. Matt Albers became a bad pitcher in July, and it just got worse as the season wore on. Junior Guerra was just okay, but a couple of relievers stepped up. Freddy Peralta pitched well for the most part with a couple of hiccups at the end of the month. Jay Jackson surprised folks with solid pitching performances.
What was a strength early in the season for Milwaukee became a severe weakness. The Brewers sat near the bottom in MLB in team batting average with runners in scoring position around this time. With the starting pitching floundering, the offense was no longer picking up the slack as they were. All in all, the Brewers coming out of July with the record they did was a blessing.
August (12-14) — Stearns Fails to Bring in a Big-Name Starter or Reliever
The trade deadline came and went and the Brewers failed to bring in Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, or anyone else of real note. Instead David Stearns acquired Jake Faria in a trade with Tampa Bay as Brewer Nation said good bye to Jesus Aguilar. Ray Black and Drew Pomeranz came to Milwaukee in exchange for one of the fan base’s favorite prospects, Mauricio Dubon. Jordan Lyles came back to the Cream City as Stearns sent Cody Ponce to Pittsburgh. There was a great deal of criticism leveled at the Brewers’ front office during this time, and once again there was a vocal minority suggesting that the end was nigh for the Brew Crew, especially after Milwaukee dropped the first four games played in August. Milwaukee would play better baseball later in the month, and that should have been a signal for things to come.
The starting staff now had what would become a very strong addition that would essentially replace Brandon Woodruff’s earlier effectiveness every fifth day with his own. They also had to replace Jhoulys Chacin in the rotation as well as he was released (eventually ending up in Boston). In August, Lyles was outstanding. He would go 3-1 and pitch to a 2.63 ERA. Adrian Houser was effective as a starter in August as well. Lyles and Houser were vital as Zach Davies and Chase Anderson did not pitch well in August. Gio Gonzalez came back and gave a few strong five inning performances, but there were a couple of outings that ballooned the ERA.
Offensively Milwaukee looked as if they coming around at times. Ryan Braun carried Milwaukee with a .357/.418/.600 slash. Yelich continued to perform at an MVP level (.306/.398/.541), and Eric Thames, Mike Moustakas, and Keston Hiura all slugged well over .500 in August. Lorenzo Cain was starting to get on base more as well once he was no longer hitting at the top of the lineup (.349 OBP). The man who replaced him most nights at the top of the order was rookie Trent Grisham. While he did not set the world on fire, he held his own (.225/.288/437), and provided depth in the outfield so veterans could get a day off here and there.
The big hole in the lineup, however, was Yasmani Grandal. He slashed .209/.379/.319, still getting his walks, but not hitting or slugging. One had to have the sense that the Brewers would need Yaz in September if they were going to remain in contention. In August, the catcher was not performing at the plate.
For the first time in the season, the bullpen was starting to shape into a formidable weapon. Josh Hader really struggled in August. Recognizing that, Craig Counsell only pitched him 9.1 innings. In fact after blowing another save on August 17, Counsell did not pitch him again until August 25. From that point until the end of the season, Hader was almost automatic. They also shut down Freddy Peralta only pitching him four innings during August. Matt Albers was in process of becoming a low leverage reliever at this point.
The rest of the roles began to take shape around the reboots of Peralta and Hader. The aforementioned Drew Pomeranz arrival was another big part of it. He was exceptional in August. He pitched to a 2.77 ERA and had a K/9 of 13.8. Junior Guerra found his form pitching to a 2.25 ERA. Alex Claudio and Jay Jackson were effective. Newcomers either via trade or call up from the minors provided important relieve innings as well. Devin Williams came up and impressed with his repertoire of stuff. Ray Black’s 100 plus mph fastball generated excitement, and while Jake Faria was not effective, he did show promise.
The stage was certainly set. The Brewers had allowed their NL Central lead vanish with mediocre play during much of the summer. Fortunately the Chicago Cubs had not played any better, but the St. Louis Cardinals surged in August and the race for the NL Central was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, many were writing Milwaukee off at this point. They of course would be wrong.
September (20-7) – Craigtember Festivities May Commence
If the Brewers continue to play baseball in September at the level they have over the past three seasons, maybe, just maybe the baseball world will realize that Craig Counsell is a special manager. On August 31, the Brewers were 69-66, and they were 6.5 games behind St. Louis for the NL Central lead. Ten days into the month, the Brewers would lose their most dangerous hitter and the National League’s top player. Braun and Cain were ailing as well. Early in September, things looked bleakest.
Yet Craig Counsell somehow just cannot comprehend that you are supposed to just fade away when so much adversity occurs to your team. As Brewer Nation is increasingly becoming spoiled to, Counsell’s refusal to yield to circumstances permeates the team and for the second straight season resulted in one of the great September runs in baseball history. The Brewers did it by effectively, for the first time all year, combining good starting pitching, strong offensive performance, and an outstanding bullpen.
The starting rotation was in flux for the entire season. Jordan Lyles took the mantle of ace for the Brewers in August and continued into September where he pitched to a 2.39 ERA. While Adrian Houser was not as effective as he was in August, he did keep the Brewers in most games he pitched in September. Zach Davies (2.31 ERA) and Chase Anderson (2.35 ERA) both pitched effectively. Gio Gonzalez was exceptional (1.17 ERA) as a starter and as a piggyback reliever to Brandon Woodruff who dominated in two short outings as he came back from his oblique injury. For the first time all season, the starting rotation pitched like a force to be reckoned with.
Christian Yelich seemed poised to carry the Brewers in September and with luck into October. In the nine games he played in September, Yelich hit .345/.513/.724, and many of his hits were coming in huge moments. But after his injury, others had to step up. While Mike Moustakas stuggled for much of the month, he provided a spark to the team immediately after Yelich’s injury. Moustakas hit two home runs in the next day’s game, which just happened to be on his birthday.
There were other spark plug moments often coming from unexpected players. Cory Spangenberg’s suicide squeeze helped the Brewers beat the Cubs on September 7. Tyler Austin’s three-run homer off Jon Lester carried the Brewers to victory on September 8. Those big moments propelled Milwaukee as they marched from one victory to the next.
After Yelich’s injury, four hitters provided most of the offense for Milwaukee: Grandal, Cain, Braun, and Hiura. After slumping for two plus months, Yasmani Grandal got his slug back while getting on base at an amazing clip (.236/.398/.528). Lorenzo Cain found his bat in September (.320/.363/.493) maybe seeing the light at the end of his pain tunnel. Ryan Braun remained a force in the lineup (.271/.353/.559), and Keston Hiura hit like his pedigree suggests he should (.313/.358/.563). Even with Yelich out, the Brewers were putting out a formidable lineup.
Quite possibly the biggest reason for the Craigtember run was the bullpen. As we all know, Craig Counsell uses the expansion of rosters as well as anyone, and 2019 was no exception. Three names come to the forefront as dominant in September however. The most obvious was Josh Hader. With the exception of an appearance in St. Louis and the last regular season game in Colorado, Hader shut down the competition. Drew Pomeranz may have been the most dominant reliever in baseball, at least until the Colorado trip at the end of the season. In September he pitched to a 2.03 ERA while posting a K/9 of 16.9. Most surprisingly, the “Raptor,” Brent Suter, came back after a long stint on the IL after Tommy John. In his first appearance back, he gave up a home run to Yordan Alvarez. He would not give up another run for the rest of the season. Suter was arguably the Brewers’ best reliever down the stretch as he took on the role that Hader had in 2018.
The September run ended a bit anti-climatically as the Brewers dropped their final three games in Colorado. The last two games were unfortunately lost late, and making it even more difficult was the fact that taking just one of those games would have forced a one-game playoff with St. Louis for the NL Central crown. Instead the Brewers settled for second place after going 20-7 in September and a spot in the NL Wild Card game against the Washington Nationals in Washington D.C.
October (0-1) – The Eighth Inning
The September run got the Brewers to the playoffs. Unfortunately the playoff game was a ‘one-and-done’ affair. Milwaukee looked as if they would be the team to move on and play the Los Angeles Dodgers after jumping out to an early lead on the Nationals. Yasmani Grandal launched 2-run home run and Eric Thames hit a solo shot against Max Scherzer. Going into the eighth inning, the Brewers were up 3-1 with Josh Hader on the mound.
Hader supposedly hit Michael Taylor with a pitch that looked like it hit his choked up bat. He was awarded first. Ryan Zimmerman got a broken bat hit, and Anthony Rendon drew a walk to load the bases. Next Juan Soto hit a single to right field that would tie the game. Unfortunately, the ball got past Trent Grisham, which allowed the game winning run to score. Just like that the Brewers’ season was over in the most disappointing and shocking way possible.
The Milwaukee Brewers ended the season with 89 wins. They got to the playoffs for consecutive seasons for only the second time in franchise history. They made one of the great September runs in the history of baseball. Yet the season ended on the most disappointing of notes. While the 2019 season was frustrating and painful, it was certainly a successful season. Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser, Zach Davies, Brent Suter, Josh Hader, and Trent Grisham will all likely be back. There are decisions to be made on others, and I would expect David Stearns and Company to be aggressive in the offseason. While 2019 ended on a sour note, 2020 should come with a similar level of expectation as the beginning of this season did did. Look for this Brewers team to learn from their run this year and continue their winning ways in 2020.