The 2017 regular season may have been full of pleasant surprises but for the Milwaukee Brewers, the best is yet to come in 2018.
There will be no more nail biting. No more fireworks. No Game 163. No playoff play-in. And while there may be no new flag to hang on the upper rim of Miller Park, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthy of celebration for the Milwaukee Brewers after their 2017 season. They did, after all, transcend expectations by a long shot, finishing ten games above .500 at 86-76 when all the self-assured prognosticators had them pegged ten games below .500, at best.
But that’s just the beginning.
If there’s one thing that may provide nearly as much value as wins themselves, it’s clarity, and the Brewers have done a thorough job testing just about every facet of how they approach the game to achieve as much as possible before season’s end, including their thresholds, boundaries, depth, flexibility, and most prominently, their mettle — taking the season to the final series was a powerful testament to that.
So while some lessons are harder to learn than others and every loss feels like a ‘what if’ in retrospect, especially only a game or two from postseason contention, both prove one crucial point: If riding a wave to shore while still standing is the goal, the view from the crest will be the motive and the map.
Here is the first reason why:
The rotation is on its way up
If there was any aspect of the roster that seemed wholly undefined coming into the season it was the starting rotation. And, as baseball goes, nearly every assumption was turned on its head, some for the worse, but most for the better.
For the Worse
The Brewers lost their 2016 ace, Junior Guerra, on Opening Day. When he returned nearly two months later, he floundered significantly, posting a 4.91 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 39 walks (plus 15 home runs) in 58.2 innings, failing to go more than five innings in seven of his 12 subsequent starts before being sent back to the minors. He did eventually resurface in September but even then, the results weren’t too promising — five of eight appearances were scoreless but he still gave up six earned runs in 8.2 innings.
It took only eight starts before Wily Peralta the stater became Wily Peralta the reliever and only 11 more appearances to finish as the Wily that was and may never be again.
Matt Garza’s pre-season injury may have been one of the best things to happen to the Brewers as it helped to open the door for Chase Anderson, who may never have made the rotation without it. Garza did, for a time, provide the team some value, as he was quality-start caliber in at least half of his starts. Unfortunately, in the other half, his stat line looks like the bad end of basic mathematics: 8 H + 2 BB + 4 HR = 8 ER.
For the Better
But even with failings that might have sent any other team to the bottom of the barrel, the Brewers pitching staff still performed admirably overall and finished in the top five of the National League with a 4.10 ERA.
Chase Anderson was easily one of the top contributors. After a wholly forgettable 2016 season in which he pitched to career-worsts in ERA (4.39), FIP (5.09), walks per nine (3.1) and home runs per nine (1.7) and finished with the first losing season of his young career (9-11), Anderson bounced back in a huge way in 2017. Not only did he post career bests in ERA (2.74), FIP (3.58), WHIP (1.09), hits (7.2/9) and home runs (0.9/9) but also went 12-4 and became the team’s most reliable starter (barring injury).
If there was any contender to this triumph, it was Jimmy Nelson, who finally harnessed the potential that scouts, team brass and fans alike had been waiting for. Like Anderson, Nelson suffered a considerable downswing in 2016 that left him with new career worsts in just about every measurable category, including losses, walks and hits batsmen, in which he lead the league. But hitting those new lows also made room for a more impressive rebound in which he set career bests in wins (12), ERA (3.49), FIP (3.05), WHIP (1.249), home runs (0.8/9) and maybe most impressively, walks (2.5/9) and strikeouts (10.2/9, a full 2.5/9 better than any other season).
The team will be without Nelson for a significant chunk–the preferred term of apparently everyone–of 2018 due to a bad slide back in first that wrecked his shoulder on September 8, but even that does little to compromise Nelson’s impending rise in both ability and status.
Zach Davies struggled in early goings but was easily one of the team’s best pitchers in the second half. After collecting a 5.08 ERA over his first 19 starts, he tamped it down in the final 14 showings with a 2.54. Although the wins didn’t come as easily in the latter part of the year, Davies still lead the team (and nearly the league) in wins with 17 and showed his reliability by ending the year tied for most games started in the National League (33).
Most any team would be thrilled to have three starting pitchers beginning to hit their stride but for the Brewers, it doesn’t stop there.
Brent Suter was easily one of the most effective swingmen the team could have asked for, jumping back and forth between the rotation and bullpen and finding similar success in both places (3.45 ERA and 3.18 ERA respectively).
Brandon Woodruff, one of the team’s top pitching prospects, dazzled in his first foray in the majors, posting a sparkling 1.52 ERA with 20 strikeouts in first 23.2 innings (4 GS) including an impressive seven-inning, eight-strikeout affair of one-run ball against the Washington Nationals. His second four didn’t go nearly as well as indicated by his 8.84 ERA but given that his success waned as soon as he pushed past his historical minor league barrier in September, chances are fatigue was the primary factor, leaving Woodruff still atop his game in terms of potential.
Aaron Wilkerson, another top pitching prospect, found himself on the roster late in the year and despite having a rough go in his second relief appearance, showed big promise in his first major league start, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. He eventually went a total of seven while striking out five and giving up no walks, two hits and only one run.
And of course, who could forget Josh Hader, who has undoubtedly been one of the team’s most effective weapons this season. Although he spent the entirety of his major league stint in the bullpen, there’s still a chance that the team attempts to turn him back into a starter come spring. The problem is, he’s been so good (2.08 ERA, 0.986 WHIP, 4.7 H/9, 12.8 K/9) it might be difficult to figure out where his value is greatest — a problem any team would be happy to have. Some have likened him to an evolutionary Andrew Miller, while others maintain he should be in a rotation as an electric, power-hurling southpaw.
Even with the Garza’s likely departure and Guerra’s murky outlook, that still leaves seven viable options for the starting rotation next year.
But that’s not even counting:
Luis Ortiz (Double A): 4.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 79 K, 37 BB, 94.1 IP
Freddy Peralta (Advanced A, Double A): 2.63 ERA, 1.158 WHIP, 169 K, 62 BB, 120 IP
Cody Ponce (Advanced A, Double A): 3.14 ERA, 1.235 WHIP, 103 K, 30 BB, 137.2 IP
Corbin Burnes (Advanced A, Double A): 1.67 ERA, 0.954 WHIP, 140 K, 36 BB, 145.2 IP
Minor League Pitcher of the Year after starting in rookie ball just last year
So what does it all mean? Well, simply put, the Brewers are in a position to harness youth and talent, build on tenure and make significant improvement after a year of unexpected development, all with the amount of depth that could have them on an upswing for years to come.
More than all else, this is just the first reason the Milwaukee Brewers have a lot to look forward to in 2018. Stay tuned for the other four.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.