Sunday, November 29, 2009

BEST SEASON EVER

In his discussion last week about his own personal National League MVP ballot, Tom Haudricourt proclaimed of Prince Fielder's 2009 season, "You could make a case that it was the best across-the-board season in franchise history."  Really?

When I read things like this my immediate inclination is to start crunching numbers and see if he's right.  When you do that it's hard to deny that Fielder's season should be very near if not at the top of the list.  He shattered the team record with 141 RBI, and his 46 home runs were topped only by his own lofty 50 in 2007.  In scrolling down the Baseball Reference leader board, he set franchise records for OPS, Games Played (tie), Walks, Runs Created, Adjusted OPS+, Adjusted Batting Runs, and Adjusted Batting Wins.  Thank God for statisticians - or stats adjusters; I don't know which.

But this time I'm going to use a different tool.  I have the fortune of my own personal memory.  A few days before my 9th birthday, the Seattle Pilots were declared bankrupt, and a few days after that the Milwaukee Brewers played their first game in County Stadium. losing to the California Angels 12-0.  My favorite players that year were Tommy Harper, Mike Hegan, Danny Walton and Phil Roof.  If I can remember Phil Roof, surely I ought to be able to put together a list of the best individual seasons ever by a Brewer.  So here goes...

10.  Cecil Cooper, 1980

It's hard to pick out Cecil Cooper's best season but I had to put him on this list because he was my favorite Brewer ever to watch.  1980 was probably his best when he hit .352 and drove in 122.  He would have won a batting title that year were it not the year George Brett flirted with .400.  In his career, Cooper was a 5-time All Star.  He received MVP votes in five different seasons.  He won three Silver Slugger Awards, two Gold Gloves, and won the Roberto Clemente Award.  Yet in 1992, when he was eligible for the Hall of Fame voting for the first time, he didn't get a single vote.  Not one.  I have always considered that a travesty and often wondered if there was ever another Major League player so decorated for whom the same thing was true.

9.  Mike Caldwell, 1978

23 complete games.  Think about that.  Six of them shutouts.  The entire Brewers team hasn't had 23 complete games in the past four years combined.  The stat is somewhat a reflection of the times, but in 1978, when Iron Mike took the mound, the bullpen typically got the day off.  Caldwell finished 22-9 with a 2.36 ERA, propelling the Brewers to their first ever winning season.  He shut out the AL East rival New York Yankees three times.  His 293 innings is an unheard of total by today's standards.  Only one other pitcher has 20+ complete games and 20+ wins in a season since Caldwell did it in 1978 - Phil Niekro in '79.

8.  Gorman Thomas, 1979

The original Bambi's Bomber.  In 1979, Gorman Thomas hit 6 home runs in 7 games in late April and went on to obliterated George Scott's team record 36 homers by blasting 45, giving the Brewers their second ever league home run champ.  He also obliterated his own team record of 133 strikeouts, whiffing 175 times. His blue-collar style of play resonated with Brewers fans like no player had before.

7. Robin Yount, 1989

You can't leave an MVP season off of a list like this, can you?  Yount won his second MVP in 1989 by default in a split decision.  Four other players received at least three first place votes each.  1989 was the last season that Yount hit 20 home runs.  The last he had 100 RBI.  The last he batted .300.  Three years later he got his 3,000th hit.  A year after that he was gone.

6.  Ryan Braun, 2007

Clearly the best rookie season ever by a Brewer.  His .634 slugging percentage is a team record.  Projected out to a full season, he would have hit 49 home runs.  Braun started 112 games at third base for the Brewers in 2007.  I suspect that will wind up being his career total.

5. Don Sutton, 1982 and CC Sabathia, 2008

OK, this is cheating a little.  This is really CC's spot in the order.  But Don Sutton showed old Brewers fans that trading for Sabathia in 2008 could be a very good thing.  Sutton was traded to the Brewers on August 30 and was 4-1 in his seven starts.  He got the ball on the final day of the season needing a win to clinch the division and held the potent Baltimore Orioles to just two runs.  Sabathia joined the team in early July and was 9-0 before finally losing on September 16th.  Asked to pitch 7 complete games in their playoff chase, the Brewers used Sabathia like a rented mule.  It turns out he was.  Sadly, Sabathia got shelled in his only playoff appearance for The Crew and they never had a prayer against the dominant Phillies.

4.  Prince Fielder, 2009

Based on statistics alone, Haudricourt is right - Prince Fielder's 2009 season was the best ever by a Brewer. Only a few of things keep this season from ranking higher - the success of the team or lack thereof, the fact that there is (arguably) a better first baseman in his same league, and the knowledge that Fielder's 2009 season may not be the best he's got.  This is a special player. We all sense that there may be better seasons to come.  He'll get another shot at this list.  I'll never forget that home run celebration against the Giants.  I've always said that the single most memorable moment in Brewers history was Cecil Cooper's base hit in Game 5 of the 1982 playoffs driving in Jimmy Gantner and Charlie Moore with the eventual winning runs.  Prince's 12th-inning, game winning blast on September 6th may be number two.

3. Rollie Fingers, 1981

Oddly, Rollie Fingers never saved 30 games in a season for the Brewers.  But had a strike not stolen two months of the 1981 baseball season, he would easily have topped 40.  With apologies to "The Bulldog" and "Skeeter", Fingers was the first dominant closer the Brewers ever had.  He won both the Cy Young and MVP Awards in 1981 becoming the first relief pitcher to ever do so.  Fingers struck out Lou Whitaker for the final out of the Brewers first playoff clinching game and embraced Ted Simmons in front of the mound.  It was the first time Brewers fans had witnessed such jubilation by players from our home team.

2.  Paul Molitor, 1987

Nothing captivates the imagination of a baseball fan like a streak.  The Brewers started the 1987 season 13-0.  On July 16th, his first day back off the DL, Molitor doubled in the bottom of the second inning and began what stands as the fifth-longest hitting streak in modern baseball history at 39-games and the longest since Pete Rose's 44-game streak in 1978.  On August 26, when Rick Manning hit a game winning single in the bottom of the 12th inning with Molitor on deck, ending the streak, I had never heard the home fans boo a player who had just won a game.  I doubt I ever will again.  Molitor finished the season with a .353 batting average - a team record that still stands.

1.  Robin Yount, 1982

In 1982, we all "grew up" as baseball fans in Milwaukee.  We had tasted the playoffs for the first time a year earlier and came into the season as a favorite to win the pennant.  Our wives and girlfriends knew all of the players' names, our grandparents stopped calling the Brewers "the Braves", and "The Kid" was no longer a kid - he was a superstar; the first Milwaukee Brewer to win an MVP.  In a land of rainbows and unicorns, Yount would have hit one more home run in that division clinching 10-2 drubbing of the Orioles on the last day of the season, to finish with 30 instead of 29.  With his one extra hit he would have won the AL batting title instead of Willie Wilson.  And the Brewers would have won the World Series instead of the Cardinals.  But this isn't Utopia.  It's Milwaukee.  But I like it all the same and remember these players and these seasons as the best I've ever seen.

2 comments:

sussemilch said...

#2 - Paul Molitor

I have an extra set of memories from that streak. My dad worked for IBM at the time and they had one of their outings as a 'Brewer luncheon' and Molitor was there to meet people and my dad had his picture taken with Molly just before he went out to start the streak. My dad didn't care about sports, but he knew I did and he gave me the photo. It was a pretty damn cool dad thing to do.

The streak started quietly but got attention as it went along, and when I was at camp that summer we'd all huddle around the radio when it was available to find if Molitor pushed it an extra day.

infield fly said...

As to your most memorable Brewer hits, I'd add:

*Braunie's eighth inning tie-breaking game 162 home run against the Cubs to get into the playoffs after a 26 year drought.

AND

*Sveum's Easter Sunday homer...not as important but is actually more etched in my memory than Coop's hit.

 
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