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The Top Five Single-Season Improvements in Brewers History

May. 22, 2017
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At this point it still remains to be seen if the Brewers can keep up one of the most unlikely starts in franchise history, but with each passing day it appears a bit more likely. Even following Sunday’s lopsided loss to the Cubs, the Crew stands at 25-19, the fifth-best record through 44 games in franchise history, and on pace to win 92 games.

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If the Brewers keep up that pace they’d finish 19 games better than they did a year ago, when they also exceeded most expectations by winning 73 games in a rebuilding season. Even if they can’t quite keep up this hot start, the 2017 Brewers have a pretty good shot to crack this list of the top five single-season improvements in franchise history:

5. 2002 to 2003: 12 wins

After you hit rock bottom, the only option is to go back up. The 2002 Brewers were the worst team in franchise history by a wide margin, finishing with a 56-106 record that was eight games worse than even the expansion 1969 Seattle Pilots, the organization’s previous low-water mark at 64-98.

Ben Sheets and Richie Sexson were the most notable constants between the two teams and both put up solid numbers, but the 2003 team got much more from its outfielders:

·       Scott Podsednik was the NL’s Rookie of the Year runner-up after batting .314 with a .379 on-base percentage and .443 slugging while stealing 43 bases in 53 attempts in center field.

·       Geoff Jenkins, limited to 67 games and a rather pedestrian batting line by his standards in 2002, bounced back with his only All Star season and career-bests in on-base percentage (.375) and slugging (.538) in 2003.

·       John Vander Wal, whose previous decade in the majors had mostly been spent as a pinch hitter, started over 80 games in the outfield corners and had one of his best offensive seasons at 37 years old in his final full MLB campaign.

T3. 1986 to 1987: 14 wins

Of course, every Brewers fan is familiar with “Team Streak,” the 1987 crew whose 13-0 start included the famed Easter Sunday game and the only no-hitter in franchise history. By April 27 of that year, when the Brewers improved to 17-1, they were already 10 games better than the 1986 team’s pace.

The 1987 season is also remembered for Paul Molitor’s hitting streak. He led the American League in runs scored (despite the fact that George Bell, who came in second, batted 135 more times) and doubles that season, raised his OPS (on-base plus slugging) by 238 points and won his first Silver Slugger Award. Combine that with continued production from Robin Yount and Teddy Higuera and the Brewers had a recipe for increased success.

T3. 2004 to 2005: 14 wins

The deep hole the Brewers dug themselves in the early 2000’s continued to pay dividends in 2005, as the first pieces started to come together for a few seasons of contention later in the decade. Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder made their first significant MLB appearances in this window (Weeks had received a cup of coffee in the majors after being drafted in 2003), and hit their first MLB home runs in the same game.

On the pitching side, Chris Capuano made up for Ben Sheets’ ailing health a bit by leading the National League with 35 starts and posting a 3.99 ERA. This season also featured the emergence of closer Derrick Turnbow, who posted a 1.74 ERA and 39 saves in his first full MLB season.

2: 2010 to 2011: 19 wins

The Brewers went from “likely rebuilders” to “going for it” in a pretty brief period of time in November and December of 2010, and were rewarded with the most successful regular season in franchise history and their first (and to-date only) NL Central division championship.

Over one winter the Brewers improved their team ERA from 4.58 in 2010 (14th in the National League) to 3.63 (seventh) by adding Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke to their rotation and getting a surprise breakout from Marco Estrada, who showed the first flashes of what would make him a longtime successful MLB pitcher despite not even having been invited to major league spring training. Meanwhile, the bullpen benefitted from John Axford’s first full season closing (his franchise-record streak of 49 consecutive saves started this year) and the trade deadline acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez, who posted a 1.86 ERA while setting Axford up down the stretch.

1: 1977 to 1978: 26 wins

Head and shoulders above all others stands the 1978 team, which won 93 games despite the fact that no other team in the organization’s nine-year franchise history had ever won more than 76 and the 1977 team had won just 67.

This was the year where manager George Bamberger cemented his place in Brewers history. His first tenure in Milwaukee lasted just two and a half years but his teams went 235-180 over that time after going 614-836 in the prior nine seasons. Bamberger had some help, of course:

·       Pitcher Mike Caldwell, acquired the year before for two minor leaguers who never reached the majors, pitched 293 1/3 innings and posted a 2.36 ERA in a season that saw him finish as the runner-up in AL Cy Young voting.

·       Free agent addition Larry Hisle hit a career-high 34 home runs, posted a .374 OBP and tied his career-best with .533 slugging.

·       Gorman Thomas, who had hit just .193 with a .280 OBP and .355 slugging in 296 prior MLB games, hit 32 home runs after never hitting more than 10 in a season previously.

·       Paul Molitor made his MLB debut, played in 125 games and finished second in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year.

To put 1978 in perspective: To complete a turnaround of that magnitude the 2017 Brewers would need to win 99 games.

Of course, the 2017 Brewers have a lot of work to do to even win 90 games, much less 99. With that said, the fact that they’ve overcome low expectations to put themselves in this conversation is pretty impressive.

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