It’s not exactly easy, being a fan of Wisconsin sports teams, is it? Sure, our Packers are one of the most storied franchises in all of pro sports. Yet, we’ve only two championships to show from 30 years of Hall of Famers behind center. Our Bucks are on the verge of a 50-year title drought. Our two major men’s collegiate teams in Madison have only one national championship combined, and that was almost 80 years ago. And then there are our Brewers.
Over 50 years in and still struggling to reach the top. They’ve come close a few times, but for the most part, the franchise’s history is a glut of poor, sometimes embarrassingly bad, baseball. Only two playoff appearances manifested from the franchise’s first 39 years.
Surviving the Bad Years
Though the overall attendance numbers dropped substantially, the losing never stopped us from showing up. Going to games as a child was a family experience. Seas of shirtless dad-bods and kids with terrible haircuts packing the County Stadium lots to tailgate on warm, Wisconsin summer days. We would’ve grilled brats in our backyards regardless, we just added the element of watching professional baseball.
I was already in my 20s when the Brewers finally made the playoffs again in 2008. My first true experience being aware of the excitement surrounding a competitive team came during the 1992 season.
In the subsequent seasons, we watched Molitor leave and Yount retire. We watched the best prospect in team history—Gary Sheffield—throw tantrum after tantrum to force his way out of town. One day the “Vaughn’s Valley” sign above the bleachers was there, the next it wasn’t.
Not until 2005 did the Brewers even manage to finish another season at the .500 mark.
I’ve developed a profound appreciation for the last 12 seasons for having persevered through the 90s. Likewise, I’ve grown to appreciate the losing seasons because it’s provided some perspective.
It’s important to keep that perspective, now that we have seen consistent success and have a front office committed to winning. (Yes, despite what you may think about the occasional penny pinching, this front office is doing a good job to ensure sustained success.)
But this isn’t to say it was all bad. The Brewers may have lacked true transcendent talent through the years, but there wasn’t exactly a dearth of good baseball, either. In some ways, we witnessed a peculiar amalgamation of the two. We cheered teams comprised of one or two All-Stars surrounded by a host of other players who may have been triple-A lifers in other organizations.
Diamonds in the Rough
Each week, alongside my co-host Josie Mars, I release a podcast titled Sampler Pack. At the end of each episode, we “fill” a sampler six-pack with our favorite items that fall under a Wisconsin-themed topic. This last week, we explored this very subject: “Good Brewers’ players on bad Brewers’ teams.”
Throughout the course of our discussion, I was lifted into nostalgic nirvana. Sometimes, as a fan, we can find ourselves selectively remembering only the good years and unfairly ignoring the bright spots during the dark times. However, exploring the poor seasons is often more befitting of the Brewers’ melancholic history.
It’s in that context where the spirit of this article lies. If the bad teams mean just as much to this organization’s history as the good teams, let’s appreciate them for what they were.
What do I consider a bad baseball team? Fairly simple: Any team that finished below 80 wins in a full season. I did qualify the 2020 team. I think we can objectively conclude they were a bad team and their playoff appearance was entirely thanks to MLB’s decision to expand the field to 16 teams.
That’s it. The rest is up for debate. So without delaying this any further, here’s the list:
15. Scott Podsednik, 2003
Podsednik might not have been the muscle that Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins were in 2003, but the argument can be made that he certainly aided in bloating their numbers.
The Brewers claimed Podsednik off waivers from Seattle following the 2002 season and inserted him into the lineup as their starting center fielder. The 27-year-old rookie responded by leading the team in batting average (.314), hits (175), runs (100), and stolen bases (43).
His 3.6 wins above replacement eventually accounted for over half of his career total. He was named Rookie of the Year by nearly every independent baseball publication but finished second to Dontrelle Willis for the official ROY award.
Even with “Scotty Po” sparking the offense, the Brewers managed just a 68-94 record under Ned Yost, which—credit where credit is due—was still a 12-win improvement over the previous season.
14. José Hernández, 2002
If there’s a more appropriate anecdote for the atrocious, 56-win 2002 season than holding the team’s All-Star shortstop out of the lineup in order to prevent him from breaking the major league single-season strikeout record, I haven’t heard it. That was the reality for José Hernández, however.
Hernández spent just three seasons in Milwaukee and broke the team’s single-season strikeout record twice. Even so, he was also one of the Brewers’ biggest offensive weapons.
In 2002, he led the team in WAR (4.5) and made the only All-Star appearance of his 15-year career. He finished the year batting .288 with 24 homers and 73 RBIs.
13. Jeromy Burnitz, 1999
Burnitz certainly wasn’t the only hitter from the 1999 team that could’ve made this list. In fact, Josie chose the two other candidates, Jeff Cirillo and Geoff Jenkins, for her Sampler Pack (spoiler alert).
Though Cirillo and Jenkins finished the year with higher WAR marks (4.8 and 4.6, respectively), Burnitz was arguable the star. He became the first Brewer to start an All-Star Game since Paul Molitor in 1988. His 1st half was titanic and helped keep a Brewers team void of quality pitching near the .500 plateau.
In the first 85 games, “Burnie” crushed 26 homers and drove in 73 RBIs with a monstrous 1.010 OPS. But three games into the 2nd half, he broke his hand, missed 30 games, and wasn’t quite the same when he returned.
He finished the year with a .270 average and a .963 OPS with 33 HRs and 103 RBIs as the Brewers stumbled to a 74-87 record under Phil Garner and Jim Lefebvre.
12. Bill Hall, 2006
Generations were converging in Milwaukee in the mid-2000s. A wave of prospects unlike anything the team had seen before was ready to invigorate the woeful franchise. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and JJ Hardy were already starters in 2006 with Corey Hart close behind. But it was utility man Bill Hall who stole the spotlight.
Hall’s Mother’s Day, pink-bat-powered walk-off home run quickly became an indelible moment of Brewers’ history. A week later, Hall was inserted into the starting shortstop position after an ankle injury sidelined Hardy.
He seized his opportunity and eventually led the team in WAR (5.8), OPS (.899), homers (35), doubles (39), RBIs (85), walks (63), and runs (101). However, the team finished just 75-87 under Ned Yost.
Hall parlayed his monster season into a four-year, $24 million contract but never lived up to it and was traded to the Mariners three years later.
11. Geoff Jenkins, 2000
This list wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from maybe the player who exemplifies this topic the best. Jenkins spent 10 years in Milwaukee. During that time, the Brewers only reached .500 twice and averaged just under 72 wins.
Jenkins may not have always been the best player on the team, but his consistency was unmatched during that era. He still ranks among the franchise’s leaders in most offensive categories.
Though he made his only All-Star appearance in 2003, his 2000 campaign arguably ranks as his best.
He batted .303 and finished with career highs in OPS (.948), homers (34), RBIs (94), and runs (100). Still, the Brewers went 73-89 under Davey Lopes.
10. Greg Vaughn, 1993
The Brewers faced a lot of uncertainty entering the ’93 season. They had just finished one of their most successful seasons in team history, winning 90 games and missed out on the playoffs by four games. But Paul Molitor had just left via free agency to the defending champion Blue Jays. Robin Yount was entering what would become his final season.
What ensued was the single largest drop in wins in team history. The Crew plummeted to a 69-93 record under Phil Garner.
But Vaughn stood out above all others. His 6.7 WAR paced the team by a country mile. He hit just .267 on the season, but contributed team-highs in homers (30), RBIs (97), OPS (.850), walks (89), and runs (97).
He was an obvious choice as the Brewers’ lone All-Star representative that year.
9. Ryan Braun, 2010
In spite of the team’s recent success, there were still enough duds to go around. Historically, the franchise has not been known for its stellar pitching, and 2010 was no different. Ultimately, an ineffective starting rotation and an uncharacteristically shaky Trevor Hoffman doomed the Crew to a 77-85 year under Ken Macha, who was let go at the end of the year.
But Braun stood out. He led the team in WAR (5.7), doubles (45), and hits (188). He also finished with 25 homers, 103 RBIs, 101 runs scored, and an .866 OPS. He made his 3rd straight All-Star appearance and won his 3rd straight Silver Slugger.
8. Jeff Cirillo, 1998
Cirillo, like Jenkins, was a victim of bad timing with the Brewers. During his 1st stint with the team, from 1994-99, the Crew never finished above .500. Yet he still should be considered one of the best to ever wear a Brewer uniform.
He is the franchise’s all-time leader in batting average (.307) and ranks 2nd in on-base percentage (.383) and 6th in WAR among position players.
His ’98 and ’99 seasons were darn near identical in terms of offensive numbers, so this standing is a bit interchangeable. I’m giving ’98 the nod due to his stellar fielding and versatility, as he accounted for 40 runs above average compared to 31 in ’99.
He finished the ’98 season with 5.9 WAR, a .321 average, an .847 OPS, 194 hits, and 97 runs scored.
Ironically, his two All-Star appearances came in 1997 and 2000.
7. Devin Williams, 2020
You knew there had to be a reason I qualified 2020 as a “bad” year, right? Yes, the Brewers made the playoffs. However, they would not have had it not been for MLB’s decision to expand the playoffs to 16 teams in the truncated season.
Williams is the first pitcher to make this list and for good reason. In an entire year where the Beermakers’ offense essentially went belly-up, he and the rest of the pitching staff kept the team afloat.
His individual performance is the stuff of legends. And while we certainly shouldn’t ignore the contributions of Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, Williams takes the honor here.
The 25-year-old rookie was quite literally lights out, allowing only one earned run all season. His “Airbender” changeup fooled hitter after hitter as he racked up a ridiculous 53% strikeout rate and earned Rookie of the Year and NL Reliever of the Year honors.
6. George Scott, 1973
Scott may be better known for his nine seasons with the Red Sox than his five in Milwaukee, but his numbers with the fledgling Brewers in the early ‘70s were far superior. His 1973 season is an easy pick for his best.
He batted .306 with an .370 OBP, .858 OPS, and 185 hits—all career highs. He also hit 24 homers, drove in 107 runs, added a Gold Glove, and accounted for 6.7 wins above replacement.
Scott helped the Brewers to the franchise’s best record to date, but they still finished 14 games below .500 under Del Crandall.
5. Robin Yount, 1984
Yount is undoubtedly the greatest Brewer ever. He spent 20 years donning the blue and yellow. It’s perhaps because of that fact that I have his ’84 campaign ranked so high.
Yount had made the All-Star Game in three of the previous four seasons. The Brewers themselves had just made their only World Series appearance two years earlier.
In 1984, the Brewers dropped to 67 wins in Rene Lacheman’s only season as manager, but Yount kept plugging away. He hit for a .298 average and an .803 OPS with 16 homers, 80 RBIs, 186 hits, 105 runs, and 67 walks, all team highs.
Yount’s performance serves as a reminder that even our greatest players weren’t impervious to the tough times.
4. Tommy Harper, 1970
The Brewers–more specifically, the Pilots–drafted Harper with the 3rd pick in the team’s expansion draft. He made the inaugural at bat in both Pilots’ and Brewers’ history and became a star in the club’s infancy.
In 1970, he had a 7.8 WAR and hit .296 with an .899 OPS. He became the 5th player in MLB history to reach 30 homers (31) and 30 stolen bases (38) in the same season. No Brewer would accomplish that feat again until Ryan Braun in his 2011 MVP year.
Harper finished 6th in MVP voting in 1970, even though the team went just 65-97 under Dave Bristol.
3. Carlos Gómez, 2013
The 2013 season became an infamous one when Braun was suspended following his admission to PED use. The suspension effectively derailed the Brewers’ season, but Gómez did his best to keep the team competitive.
He set career-highs in average (.284), OPS (.843), homers (24), RBIs (73), triples (10) and stolen bases (40). He also accumulated an otherworldly 3.6 defensive WAR and became the first Brewer to win a Gold Glove since Yount in 1982.
Gómez also made the first of back-to-back All-Star Games. In a season that sapped a lot of energy around the team, Gómez’s ascent came at a perfect time.
2. Ben Sheets, 2004
With the exception of Devin Williams, I’ve left pitchers off this list up to this point. Perhaps that’s unfair, but bad pitching is generally a common denominator on bad baseball teams.
That being said, it’s impossible to ignore the All-Star year Sheets had in 2004. It’s arguably one of the greatest individual efforts by a Brewers’ pitcher in any year.
He finished with just a 12-14 record but cruised to a 2.70 ERA. He struck out a franchise record 264 hitters, including a single game record 18 against the Braves. He also tossed a one-hit shutout against the Angels just a few weeks later.
He finished 2nd in the NL to only Randy Johnson in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, and WAR for pitchers. Still, Cy Young voters remained dazzled by win/loss records, and Sheets was nearly shutout of the final voting. (Somehow, Johnson lost out to Roger Clemens.)
As evidenced by Sheets’ win/loss record, the team as a whole was dreadful, winning just 67 games under Ned Yost.
1. Teddy Higuera, 1986
Higuera’s time in Milwaukee was brief. The Brewers purchased his contract from the Mexican League when he was already 25. Then injuries began to take a toll by the time he was 30. But from 1985-88, Higuera went 69-38 with a 3.25 ERA, averaging 192 strikeouts, and was one of the best in baseball.
His 1986 campaign is arguably his masterpiece and arguably the greatest season by any Brewers’ pitcher ever. His 20 wins marked the last time a Brewer pitcher reached that milestone. He recorded 15 complete games and four shutouts with a sparkling 2.79 ERA and 207 strikeouts. Higuera’s 9.4 WAR remains the highest among pitchers in team history.
He appeared in his only All-Star Game and finished 2nd in Cy Young voting to (who else?) Roger Clemens.
The team, however, one year away from putting it together, finished 77-84 under George Bamberger and Tom Trebelhorn.
- Jim Colburn, 1973
- Don Money, 1977
- Ben McDonald, 1996
- Richie Sexson, 2003
- Lyle Overbay, 2004
- Ryan Braun, 2016
Here’s to hoping I don’t have to revise this list any time soon.
And don’t forget to check out Sampler Pack: A (Mostly) Wisconsin Sports Podcast!