To say the Milwaukee Brewers would have wanted their 2020 season back would be an obvious understatement.
On the surface, this would seem like a relatively drastic conclusion, given the fact that Milwaukee did in fact make the postseason last year, only to get swept out entirely in two games against the eventual 2020 World Series Champions in the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While Milwaukee definitely had a shot at making a run for last year’s Commissioner’s Trophy, it was practically by default, if many pundits were being honest with themselves. Answering the question as to why this was would not be difficult to explain – a lackadaisical offense, coupled with inconsistencies and an unfortunate COVID-19 opt-out here and there, inevitably caved any chance of Milwaukee brewing together a legitimate title run.
With 2021 rolling past 2020 and Spring Training well underway for the Brew Crew, going back in time is now fruitless. For the Brewers, though, it makes no difference, as they will still look for a significant rebound season that could pay dividends in what is a wide-open National League Central.
Luckily for Milwaukee, they have the team to make noise in a loud way.
How Milwaukee can be good this season can only be discussed if it is mentioned how the cards were against them last season, especially in regard to offense. After collectively maintaining an on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .755 (12th in all of MLB) over the course of their three previous seasons heading into 2020 (2017-19), the Brewers plummeted to a .702 OPS over the duration of the shortened 2020 campaign, which ranked 24th in all of MLB.
A significant reason for the significant decline? Christian Yelich. Despite taking Milwaukee by storm through his .327/.415/.631/1.046 slash over the first two years of his current stint there, the 29-year-old star outfielder slashed .205/.356/.430/.786 in 58 games played in 2020. A career-high 30.8 strikeout percentage (K%) definitely made matters pretty sour for the hitter, but so did a career-low .259 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). While Yelich’s low average could definitely be attributed to pulling the ball more (his 38.7 pull percentage last year was the second highest of his career), his average exit velocity of 94.0 (a career-high since the statistic began to be tracked during the 2015 season) suggests that Yelich, despite hitting the ball extremely hard, ran into a case of bad luck with where the balls landed.
Regardless of whether this uncanny production was a case of bad luck, injuries or COVID-19 shaking up the very fabric of the baseball season itself (training and practice included), the fact of the matter remained. Milwaukee, without Yelich hitting at an MVP level, had significantly less firepower at their disposal. Yelich’s .786 OPS ranked second on the team (Jedd Gyorko had a .838 OPS). After Yelich, the OPS numbers really dropped off – the three next highest OPS numbers came from Ryan Braun (.769), Orlando Arcia (.734) and Ben Gamel (.718). Sprinkle in outfielder Lorenzo Cain opting out, and you had a lineup at the top with diminished capabilities, which in turn trickled all the way down the batting order.
There certainly are signs of optimism the offense can be better heading into the 2021 regular season. Perhaps not elite, but better. Milwaukee’s team BABIP of .278 (which ranked 22nd among all MLB teams) surely should be higher with a little luck sprinkled with their team walk percentage (BB%) of 10.1, which ranked 11th.
Even with a rebound, the offense, again, is not perfect – their 26.6 team strikeout percentage (K%) last season was the third highest in the entire majors, and even with a redemption year from Yelich potentially in the works, strikeouts are still the name of the game for practically every team, Milwaukee included.
This is where Milwaukee’s strength last season comes into play to save the day.
A collective 4.18 team ERA (11th in all of MLB) over the course of the 2020 season would certainly tell part of the story, but even this would scratch the surface. When looking into Milwaukee’s collective Fielding Independent Pitching (which calculates the “expected” ERA when taking strikeouts, home runs and defense into account), their 3.80 FIP suggests that Milwaukee’s pitching prowess was better than what 2020 showed in actuality.
Neither the starting nor relief corps could have been effective without a dynamic duo in each camp to steer the wheel toward positive production. On the starting side, there was Corbin Burnes (who possessed a 2.11 ERA and 2.04 FIP in 59.2 innings last season) and Brandon Woodruff (who had a 3.05 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 73.2 innings). Burnes, in fact, found himself in decent company with the career season, as the 26-year-old is one of only six Milwaukee Brewers/Seattle Pilots pitchers to maintain a strikeout per nine innings pitched (K/9) of at least 11.00 (13.27), pitch at least 50 innings and keep an ERA under 2.50. The other five pitchers to do it, however, were all relievers (John Axford in 2010, Zach Duke in 2014, Tyler Thornburg in 2016, Corey Knebel in 2017 and Josh Hader in 2018).
Then, of course, there was the two-headed relief monster in Hader and Devin Williams, who combined to strike out 84 batters in 46.0 innings pitched. The latter’s 0.33 ERA in 27.0 innings pitched and 17.67 K/9 was also historic. Williams is the only pitcher in Brewers/Pilots history to pitch at least 25.0 innings, maintain a sub-1.00 ERA and strike out more than 17 batters per nine innings pitched. Oh, wait, even that does not do him justice. No, Williams is the only pitcher to ever put up those numbers and match that criteria. Shortened COVID-19 season or not, the filth is there, and it showed.
A couple late-to-the-train offseason acquisitions in Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr., in addition to the return of Cain, only adds to the potential Milwaukee can put together this season, especially in regard to their slick glovework. While the performances must be maintained and rebounds must occur, a parity-laden NL Central pits Milwaukee in a bright spot to poach away a division title from the likes of the St. Louis Cardinals, who notably brought Platinum Glover Nolan Arenado into the fold over the winter.
While some would scoff at the lost season that was 2020, the Brewers see it as a benchmark.
A benchmark to rebound.
A benchmark to put behind previous struggles.
A benchmark to be the team they know they can be.
While Milwaukee might have had a shot at a World Series in 2020, it was all for naught. This season, they want to go for it, and should their stars and supporting staff perform the way they have in previous seasons, their potency will brew back to dangerous levels.