You’ll have to forgive me for the enigmatic title to this article, but I couldn’t resist. This is supposed to be a recap of the Brewers’ 2020 season. However, after they made the playoffs without spending a single day above .500, you really have to wonder how it actually happened.
If we thought last year’s incredible run to the postseason and the 20-7 record in September without injured MVP-candidate Christian Yelich was improbable, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
The Brewers celebrated their 50th year in Milwaukee this season and made the playoffs for the third year in a row for the first time in franchise history. This year’s team, though, is the anomaly.
The playoff teams of the past were all buoyed by prolific offenses and stellar pitching staffs or sparked by savvy offseason and trade deadline moves. The 2020 Brewers exhibited very little of those traits.
Of course, the most obvious—and perhaps only—explanation for why the Brewers made the postseason is that MLB expanded its playoff roster to 16 teams due to the shortened, 60-game schedule. But that left 14 teams on the outside looking in. The Brewers aren’t one of those teams.
They have a shot just like any of the remaining 15.
So how did they get here?
The biggest obstacle the Brewers had to overcome was their complete lack of consistency at the plate. If it weren’t for their 19- and 18-run outbursts against the Tigers and Cardinals, respectively, they very well may have owned the worst run-differential of any playoff team. (Fortunately, the Marlins own that distinction.)
Of the 16 teams remaining, the Brewers were third-worst in team OPS, team batting average, and runs scored. They also struck out more often than all other teams except the AL East Champion Rays.
The season even began sluggish, as the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks tossed a complete game shutout on Opening Day. The Brewers were also victims of a no-hitter this year, thrown by Hendricks’ Cub teammate Alec Mills.
Who’s to say circumstances would be different otherwise, but it certainly did not help the Brewers when Lorenzo Cain opted out after just five games. Cain had been batting .333 with an .817 OPS at the time.
At the forefront of the anemic offense was Christian Yelich, who inexplicably never renewed his MVP-caliber form of the last two years. Was it simply a matter of readjusting to major league pitching after his season-ending injury last year? We may never know.
He seemed off balance all season, right until the regular season finale. Pitchers continued to taunt him with breaking balls down and in, and he obliged by repeatedly whiffing. One would think that after 247 plate appearances, a hitter of Yelich’s stature would’ve made the necessary corrections.
After two straight batting titles, Yelich was rewarded a handsome new contract last offseason that made him the richest Brewer ever. But he responded by hitting .205 on the season and had a strikeout percentage (30.8%) nine points higher than his career average (21.2%).
He did, however, manage to hit 12 homers, one behind Keston Hiura for the team lead.
And speaking of the Brewers’ 2nd baseman, Hiura experienced the sophomore slump to end all sophomore slumps. After bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2019, Hiura regressed tremendously.
His averaged dropped from .303 to .212 and his OPS crashed from .938 to .707. He led the NL in strikeouts (85) and was only good enough for a 0.1 offensive WAR according to Baseball Reference.
His fielding continued to plague him as well, though he managed to raise his fielding percentage from last year.
Prior to the season, there was a lot of speculation that this could be Braun’s last season, and not just in Milwaukee. With the installment of the universal DH, some of that speculation faded, as many thought Braun could extend his career.
However, in the final days of the season, it became increasingly more apparent that Braun does indeed have intentions of moving on from Milwaukee. The Brewers themselves seemingly confirmed any suspicions with this tweet before Sunday’s finale:
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) September 27, 2020
Unfortunately, his performance in 2020 may add some weight to his decision. Braun posted career lows in BA and OPS and still encountered issues with the injury bug, playing in only 39 of 60 games.
Swings and Misses
Along with the strikeout numbers on the field, GM David Stearns uncharacteristically whiffed on more than a couple of his moves this year.
He famously (infamously?) passed on resigning Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Eric Thames, and Travis Shaw. Instead, Stearns acquired Omar Narváez from Seattle and signed Avisaíl García, Jedd Gyorko, Justin Smoak, and Logan Morrison in free agency.
Smoak and Morrison were both released halfway through the season after putrid starts. Narváez and García similarly struggled, batting .176 and .238, respectively, but were retained for the entirety of the year.
Gyorko turned out to be the best of the offseason moves. He hit nine homers in just 42 games after hitting just two in 62 games last season, and 11 dingers in 125 games in 2018. He hit for a .248 average, posted a career best .838 OPS, and provided excellent defense splitting time between first and third base.
Upon Smoak’s release, Stearns snatched Daniel Vogelbach off waivers from the Blue Jays, which may have proven to be the savviest of Stearns’ 2020 moves.
Vogelbach, an All-Star for the Mariners last season, was awful in 20 games for the Mariners and Blue Jays this year, batting just .088 (5-for-57). But he provided an almost immediate lift for the stagnant Brewers offense.
Vogelbach batted .328 for the Crew, hit four homers, and drove in 12 runs in just 19 games. An argument can be made that the Brewers do not make the playoffs without his contributions.
If we ignore the expanded playoff format, it’s easy to identify the pitching as the biggest factor to the Crew’s playoff run.
The numbers don’t exactly jump off the page as particularly exceptional. Brewers’ starters ranked 7th in the NL with a 4.18 ERA, while the bullpen ranked 4th with a nearly identical 4.17 ERA.
The one-two punch of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes (more on them in a bit) and a steady campaign from Brett Anderson were more than enough to counter the rest of the rotation’s struggles.
Adrian Houser took a step back in 2020 (1-6, 5.30 ERA), and didn’t win a start after August 5. Josh Lindblom, who was signed after several stellar seasons in the KBO, failed to impress as a starter, going 2-4 with a 5.40 ERA, though his strikeout rate (10.4 K/9) was among the league’s best.
Burnes was a clear candidate for breakout contender of the year after his performance in the Brewers’ summer camp, but it’s possible nobody saw this season coming.
Burnes suffered through an atrocious 2019 season, going 1-5 with an 8.82 ERA in 32 games.
However, the development of a devastating cutter turned things around, and though he struggled with command and pitch count in his first few appearances in 2020, Burnes found his stride in late August. By the time he took the mound for his last start of the year, his name was circulating as a possible Cy Young Award candidate.
But an oblique injury sidelined him early in that final start, likely derailing his chances at the hardware (by most accounts, Trevor Bauer is the overwhelming favorite for the award).
Still, Burnes finished the year with a 4-1 record and a 2.11 ERA, ranking 9th in the NL in strikeouts (88) and cementing himself in the rotation moving forward.
The Brewers’ Opening Day starter was about as steady as they come in 2020, but he was also the victim of some serious bad luck.
Woodruff posted a career-best 3.05 ERA. Unfortunately, the offense sputtered nearly every time he took the mound, giving him just 2.80 runs per game of support. Woodruff finished in the NL’s top 10 in just about every major pitching statistic, including innings (73.7), strikeouts (91), and WHIP (0.99), but was also saddled with a disappointing 3-5 record.
It’s telling that in perhaps his best start of the season, a seven-inning, one-hit outing against the Cubs in which he struck out 12, he received a no decision.
In a pivotal, must-win game against the Cardinals this past Saturday, Woodruff dominated, sustaining the Brewers’ hopes for a playoff berth. He pitched a season-high eight innings, limiting St. Louis to no runs on two hits while striking out 10.
Maybe the story of the year for the Brewers was the revelation of reliever Devin Williams. His 0.33 ERA was the best in baseball, and his changeup is in the discussion for the best in baseball as well.
Williams utilized the filthy pitch to post video game-like numbers, including that ridiculous ERA. He struck out 53 of the 100 batters he faced for a 17.7 K/9 ratio.
Not only will he likely be the recipient of the NL’s Reliever of the Year Award, he’s also in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. Should he win Reliever of the Year, he would join Josh Hader as the only non-closers to win the award. Hader won it as primarily a setup man in 2018 before winning again as the closer last year.
Williams and Hader obviously garner the most attention. However, the glut of talent in the Brewers’ bullpen should not be overlooked. In addition, it appears to only be getting better.
Eric Yardley, a sidewinder who was claimed by the Brewers off waivers last November, appeared in 24 games and finished with a 1.54 ERA.
Brent Suter had himself another strong season, going 2-0 with a 3.13 ERA in 31.2 IP. Suter earned a few spot starts in the late stages of the season. He could be in line to start Game One against the Dodgers.
Freddy Peralta, after struggling through his only start of the season in the opening series against the Cubs, impressed in 14 appearances out of the bullpen.
Corey Knebel, in his return from Tommy John surgery, seemed to have returned to form in his last few appearances.
Without question, the bullpen is among the league’s best.
The well-documented offensive woes of the 2020 Brewers have made it abundantly clear that the reason they are in the playoffs is their pitching (and maybe some luck as well).
Burnes’ oblique injury and Anderson’s blister issues have put this team in a tough spot going into the rematch of the 2018 NLCS.
This is a Dodger team that went 43-17, the best record in the league. But with the shortened schedule, these teams didn’t get a chance to face each other. Therefore, nobody really knows what to expect.
As of now, Craig Counsell has not announced any starters for the series. It’s likely Game One will go to a spot starter and Game Two will go to Woodruff. The key to winning is the same as it has been all season: hope your offense can give the bullpen a lead.
That may be easier said than done with this Brewers team. But in this season especially, anything seems possible.
So, really, who cares how they got here. All that matters is that they are here.