The historical oxymoron that is “Brewers pitching”

On Wednesday, the Brewers traded center fielder Carlos Gomez to the New York Mets for pitcher Zack Wheeler and infielder Wilmer Flores … for about one hour.

In one of the more bizarre moments of social media-era baseball, the trade was reported as a done deal, and then it became undone because of, depending on whom you ask, concern about (1) Gomez’s hip or (2) Wheeler’s recovery from Tommy John surgery or (3) the Brewers’ disinterest in adding money to the deal.

I got into a discussion on Facebook over the merits of this trade, including getting a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery, getting a .250 hitter, and the Brewers’ historically poor pitching. This was before the trade was canceled because of concerns with either Gomez’s hip or Wheeler’s recovery. I preferred a different Mets pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, though reportedly the Mets aren’t trading him. (Of course, this trade “reportedly” was taking place before it didn’t.)

I have stated here before that the Brewers pitching is bad far more often than good. In 46 years of existence, the Brewers have, remember, exactly four playoff seasons — 1981, 1982, 2008 and 2011. They have had 12 seasons beyond those four with winning records, plus two .500 seasons. Those winning seasons, by the way, are the only seasons where the Brewers scored more runs than they gave up.

Admittedly, runs vs. runs given up is about all aspects of the game. So consider the Brewers’ earned run average and the team’s rank in its league. The Brewers have led their league once — 1992 — in ERA. The Brewers have finished second in their league in ERA twice, 1988 (a winning but non-playoff year) and 2008 (the wild card year). The Brewers have never finished third in their league in ERA, and they’ve finished fourth in ERA three times, all non-playoff years. I don’t know how you get in the playoffs with the 12th (1981), sixth (1982) or seventh (2011) best ERA in the league, but somehow the Brewers did.

In contrast, the Brewers have been 10th or worse in their league in ERA 20 times. (This year so far, they’re 12th; they were 10th last year.) The Brewers have led their league in one stat — games pitched, which combines appearances by starters and relievers — 27 times.

Admittedly, ERA is an imperfect measure of pitching. In WHIP — walks plus hits per inning — the Brewers have led their league twice, 1988 and 1992. The Brewers’ pitching is a historical failure in most seasons by any measure you care to use.

Who were the best Brewers pitchers? In the span from Jim Abbott to Jamey Wright:

  • Wins: Jim Slaton, 117. (He’s also the leader in games pitched, innings pitched, and believe it or not, shutouts.)
  • Win-loss record: C.C. Sabathia, who was 11-2 in his half-season in 2008. Zach Greinke was 25-9 in his two seasons, 2011 and 2012. Not surprisingly, only 111 of the Brewers’ 413 pitchers have winning career records. (Slaton does not.) The Brewers have more pitchers who never won a game than pitchers who won more than they lost.
  • ERA: Sabathia had a 1.65 ERA. Rollie Fingers had a 2.54 ERA. (Pitchers with 0.00 ERAs included Terry Francona, Jim Gantner, Mark Loretta, Martin Maldonado and Lyle Overbay, none of whom were actually pitchers.)
  • Saves: Dan Plesac, with 133.

Pitching is the most important part of baseball. So the Brewers’ chronic inability to develop pitching, or trade for pitchers who perform more than a year or two, means the Brewers are doing something wrong, and have been doing something wrong for a long, long time.

Pitching is a challenge for other franchises too. (Look about an hour and a half south of Milwaukee for other sad examples.) On the other hand, the Dodgers have been able to develop pitchers for decades. The Orioles once had four 20-game winners on the same team. In the 1990s, the Braves had Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz (acquired as a minor leaguer) and Greg Maddux (free agent signing) for their starting rotation, and dominated the ’90s. The Mets now have the best young starting rotation in baseball, which is why they can try to upgrade their weak offense and apparently poor defense. The Cardinals never lack for starting or relief pitching.

It is rather unbelievable that Brewers general managers dating all the way back to Marvin Milkes couldn’t generate much home-grown pitching of any quality. The Brewers have had more success importing pitchers (Mike Caldwell from Cincinnati, Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers from St. Louis, Don Sutton from Houston, Ted Higuera from the Mexican League, Sabathia from Cleveland, Shaun Marcum from Toronto) than they have developing their own guys long-term. That approach is more expensive, and lasts less time. (Off that list, only Caldwell lasted as long as eight seasons.)

Particularly in this free agent era with baseball’s bad economics, in a small market you have to get it right much more often than those markets where you can throw good money after bad. Whatever the Brewers have been doing to develop pitching, it isn’t working.

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