- In a talented National League Central division, the Brewers weren't expected to hang with the Cubs, let alone lead them for months of the season. A surprise run at the playoffs gave Milwaukee fans a season worth remembering.
So that’s the end of the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers, huh? Saturday’s loss in St. Louis consigns them to a final mark of no more than 86 wins, and considering the Colorado Rockies already have 87 heading into their night game against the Dodgers … well, all the playoff match-ups are set now, and none of them will include the Brewers. But this bunch, who were the biggest positive surprise of the season, will be dearly missed.
For all the oddities this campaign has brought us—the highest home run rate the game has ever seen; Aaron Judge; sign-stealing by way of smartwatches—the playoff structure took shape in a drearily predictable fashion. Five of the six teams that won their divisions last year won their divisions this year. (2016 saw the Rangers win the AL West; this year it was the Astros.) The Cubs were somewhat worse than they were in ’16, the Dodgers were somewhat better, and the Indians had that streak. Aside from all that, this phase of the pennant race was about as suspenseful as an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
As for the wild-card teams: Yes, all four missed the postseason in 2016. But none of them had an especially inexplicable 2017. Arizona was supposed to be good last year. Colorado’s rotation had shown promise in 2016. The Yankees were an 84-win team last year that in 2017 got breakout seasons from Aaron Judge and Luis Severino. As for the Twins: While their year-to-year turnaround deserves high praise, they occupy the second wild card because someone has to. (Would you believe only five teams in the American League will finish above .500?) And as with the Yankees, their success can be credited to the ahead-of-schedule flourishing of some top prospects. Minnesota’s farm teams had graduated a load of elite talent in recent years.
The Brewers, though, were a different story. A gander in March at this team’s roster would have given any reasonably informed baseball observer the willies—where was the upside? The team went 73-89 in 2016 and added… Eric Thames, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, and Eric Sogard. Neftali Feliz was brought in to close. Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson, who both had 2016 FIPs above 5.00, kept their rotation spots. The team would be playing precisely one top prospect, shortstop Orlando Arcia. Every other position was filled by a misfit toy; contention, especially considering the talent in Chicago and Pittsburgh, seemed years away.
But Milwaukee entered the All-Star break 50-41 and with a five-and-a-half-game lead on the defending-champion Cubs. It was stunning, and even now, with the two teams flipped as they have been since late July, doesn’t seem all that much less so. (I will have you know that all the other division leaders at the break were the same teams that have since clinched those divisions. Yes, what an absolutely gripping pennant race this has been.)
Thames, fresh from Korea, set the game ablaze in April. As he faded, Shaw picked up the slack. He wound up with a four-win season after Boston had essentially given up on him in the offseason. 30-year-old Quad-A catcher Manny Pina held his own. So too did 24-year-old non-prospect right fielder Domingo Santana. Even Sogard, who missed all of 2016, gave them two wins. On the mound, Corey Knebel (who?) dazzled when he took the closer’s role from Feliz. Hitters managed a .180/.291/.277 line against him, and he struck out essentially 15 men per nine innings. Nelson and Anderson combined for 320 innings of 3.12 ERA ball, and Zach Davies won 17 games.
Out of essentially nothing, manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson charmed 85 wins. General manager David Stearns built a winner without squandering any piece of his future. Even without a playoff spot, their collective feat ranks as perhaps the most impressive of the year.
It always feels somewhat cornball, praising a team that finishes out of the money. Indeed, while this has been a fun season in Milwaukee, it hasn’t been a fun week-plus. Had they done better than losing three of four to the Cubs at home last weekend, perhaps there would be an even more triumphant story to tell. Surely the season doesn’t seem like much of a triumph right now.
But take it from this Mets fan: While there are plenty of seasons where your team falls short of expectations, and plenty more where it plays down to them, there are scant few in which, for no reason at all, your team outperforms all the forecasts and hangs around until September’s final days. Watch enough championship-starved baseball and you learn to treasure seasons like these as among the most pleasant of them all.