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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Milwaukee Brewers

Following the departure of the Braves in 1965, Milwaukee managed to draw in the Seattle Pilots a year after the latter were a part of the second round of 1960s expansion, renaming them the Brewers. Since then, the Brewers have become both the smallest market with a team and a huge local draw. How does the future look like it will play out for this little team that could?


Notes on the Numbers

Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.


The Already Retired Numbers
The Brewers have retired four numbers so far. The first one was a bit of a special case; in 1976, only the Brewer’s seventh season in Milwaukee, they retired 44 for Hank Aaron. Aaron was only with the Brewers franchise for two seasons (1975-6), a time totaling less than 1 WAR (by both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs). However, he played for the Braves for almost the entirety of their time in Milwaukee (from 1954, one year after their move from Boston, to 1965, their final year in Wisconsin). That time, for what it’s worth, is valued at 87.8 bWAR and 83.2 fWAR.

The first “true Brewer” number (so to speak) retired was 34, in honor of Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers. Fingers won a Cy Young Award and an MVP in his first year in Milwaukee and served as the team’s closer in the pennant-winning follow-up. However, he still only pitched with the Brewers for four seasons (1981 to 1985, with a year off for injury smack dab in the middle). That, combined with his limited innings as a closer, meant he was worth only 7.9 bWAR and 4.6 fWAR. As a side note (more something that I didn’t realize), while he managed 97 saves with the Brewers, he actually pitched more games not only with the Athletics, but also with the Padres. Fingers was honored by the team in 1992 (as another side note, Fingers is the only Brewer who was elected to the Hall of Fame before getting his number retired).

Robin Yount is arguably Mr. Brewer (I say arguable because that’s not his official nickname; I’m not sure anyone would dispute it), and he got his number retired in 1994, the year after he retired. Number 19 spent two decades in Milwaukee, from 1974 to 1993, winning two MVP Awards along the way. That time saw him put up 77.1 bWAR and 66.8 fWAR, both no-doubt Hall numbers.

The final retired Brewers number is number 4, retired in 1999 for Paul Molitor. The 3000-hit club member spent a decade and a half in blue and gold, managing not just 2281 of his hits but also 59.7 bWAR and 56.4 fWAR. Those figures put him behind only Yount on the team leader board. For his total twenty-season career, he was worth 75.5 bWAR and 67.8 fWAR.


Compared to the League
There are three different variables I can look at to compare franchises: I can compare versions of WAR, I can compare career value versus value just with the team, and I can compare the average WAR of the players versus the median (to account for outliers).

Career value categories are much kinder to the Brewers; regardless or average versus median or bWAR versus fWAR, the Brewers rate in the top quartile of teams. Fingers is a little low compared to most players, but Aaron is so far above the average retiree that it helps. Most of the “value with team” categories place them at the low end of the bottom third, though. It’s worth noting that, if you count Aaron’s time in Milwaukee as “with the team”, then the Brewers jump back into the top quartile in all of those as well.

As far as straight amount of numbers retired, their four honored numbers tie them with the Nationals/Expos for twenty-first overall. Among expansion teams, though, Milwaukee ranks fourth behind the Astros (9) and the Angels and Padres (5).


So Who’s Next?
The best place to look for future retired number candidates would obviously be among the franchise’s most valuable players. Unsurprisingly, the leaders among positions players (in both WARs) are Yount and Molitor, in that order. After that, Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference unanimously name Ryan Braun as the next most valuable player. Since his 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign, Braun has amassed 35.5 bWAR and 32.5 fWAR, including an MVP and two other top-three finishes. He’s signed through 2021 as well, meaning he’ll have plenty of time to make his assault on the top two spots. Another two or three seasons like he’s been having will put him right on the brink.

Braun took over third place just last season from former first baseman Cecil Cooper. A member of the team for eleven seasons (1977 to 1987), Cooper was well-decorated in his time in Milwaukee, earning five All-Star appearances, three top-five MVP finishes, and the Brewers’ only pennant. That time also yielded 30.6 bWAR and 29.8 fWAR for Cooper. There may be something of an exhaustion at play, though; Cooper’s time is overlapped almost entirely by both Yount and Molitor, both of whom were clearly better. There’s no hard and fast limit on the number of numbers a team can honor from a specific span, but at the same time, it makes it harder to stand out. Add in that Cooper is the only non-Hall of Famer of the three and you can see why he’s being left out. Unless there’s a change in the status quo, it’s difficult to see Cooper’s 15 being retired any time soon.

Longtime teammate Don Money (1973 to 1983) follows him, again with both lists agreeing. His eleven seasons only saw him play 1196 games (less than 110 per season), but the third baseman still managed 28.3 bWAR and 26.2 fWAR. Again, though, retiring Money’s number doesn’t really cover any new ground. If the Brewers really wanted to retire another 1970s/1980s number, Cooper’s would almost certainly come first.

On both lists, the next player finally represents a different era. Jeff Cirillo, third baseman of the ‘90s (1994 to 1999, 2005 to 2006) had his best seasons in Milwaukee, totaling 26.1 bWAR and fWAR. Although it’s not a huge total, he did manage it in just 951 games. Cirillo was a little underrated, and that, combined with the shortness of his career, means a retired number is unlikely.

Most of the other players towards the top of the franchise list are either from that late ‘70s/early ‘80s era or didn’t spend much time with the team (sometimes both). Geoff Jenkins and Jim Gantner are the exceptions to that. In reverse order: Gantner was a career (1976 to 1992) Brewer (and before that, a Wisconsin native), and trails only Yount and Molitor in games played with the team. That time saw him post 22.3 bWAR and 19.8 fWAR. If he were a little better, maybe he would earn it on longevity. Or maybe if the two players ahead of him weren’t both Hall of Famers-being second in games played sounds like a much more compelling case. Gantner’s an interesting outside shot, but I don’t think it’s that likely.

Geoff Jenkins’s career was short compared to that, only lasting eleven seasons (with 1998 to 2007 coming in Milwaukee). He was solid, with 21.9 bWAR and 24.3 fWAR. However, his biggest plus comes from the fact that he wouldn’t be competing with Yount/Molitor/Cooper/etc. for fame in his era. He was solid, and probably the face of the late ’90s/early 2000s Brewers, but I’m not sure that in and of itself is enough.

With that, it’s probably time to move on to the pitchers. There are more or less three pitching candidates in the running. The top two are remarkably similar, too. Ben Sheets and Teddy Higuera were both promising young pitchers hit hard by injuries. Both versions of WAR like them more than any other Brewers pitchers, with the two flip-flopping in the top two spots. Fangraphs has Sheets first, while B-R gives Higuera the lead, although the margin of error between the two is miniscule.

From 2001 to 2008, Sheets put up 26.1 bWAR and 29.7 fWAR in 1428 innings. Meanwhile, Higuera had an “extra” season (1985 to 1994 with 1992 off for injury), but threw fewer innings than Sheets (1380). He managed a still respectable 30.6 bWAR and 28.1 fWAR. I don’t think either one is terribly likely to see their number retired-the injuries did cut severely into their playing time, after all. I can see either happening as a sort of “franchise ace” award, but I don’t think either is particularly likely right now. I would say Sheets is probably the more likely of the two, though, due to being the more recent pitcher and his greater recognition (four All-Star games to Higuera’s one).

Chris Bosio is third on both versions of WAR, but he’s far enough behind that I don’t think he’ll factor in to the conversation. The only pitcher that I think is worth bringing up is Jim Slaton. Slaton is the franchise leader in both wins (117) and innings (2025.1). Despite that, he wasn’t nearly as good as Sheets or Higuera-he still had a losing record (both overall and as a Brewer), and only managed 15.5 bWAR and 13.8 fWAR in his twelve seasons as a Brewer (1971 to 1983, minus 1978). While Slaton has the counting numbers, I can’t imagine him getting honored before either of those other two.

With the franchise leaders more or less exhausted, we can move on. First, I would like to cover Prince Fielder and Corey Hart. Fielder had a nice run with the team before moving on as a free agent, while Hart is injured for the year, a free agent after this season, and likely to move on. They’ve both been decent, although their lack of playing time (neither played over 1000 games with the Brewers) hinders their value. Fielder had 20.7 fWAR and 17.0 bWAR with the team, while Hart is sitting at 16.0 bWAR and 15.2 fWAR. Both played major roles in Milwaukee history, thanks to the team’s recent playoff appearances, but goodwill is probably where that relation will end.

Next, I would like to examine the “Hank Aaron Clause", so to speak-were there any Milwaukee Braves worth honoring? Actually, Aaron didn’t lead the Milwaukee Braves in WAR. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference place Eddie Mathews ahead of him, with 88.6 fWAR and 89.1 bWAR. Unlike Aaron, Mathews’s post-Braves wanderings didn’t lead him back to Milwaukee, meaning he’s never played with the Brewers. Honoring Mathews would definitely be reasonable and within precedent, but since the team hasn’t done it yet (and they’ve had over four decades), I’m doubtful it will happen. On top of that, Mathews and Aaron are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Milwaukee Braves (next on the list are the solid-but-unspectacular Johnny Logan and Del Crandall); I can’t imagine the team getting past them on the list.

The active roster has a few interesting names. I’ve already covered Ryan Braun. Yovani Gallardo has potential, but has seen his level of play drop off of late, and trade rumors are already swirling with a year-and-a-half left on his contract. Rickie Weeks has spent a decade with the team so far and had a few good years, but hasn’t really built off them. He sits at 17.8 fWAR and 12.8 bWAR, with a contract that can run up through 2015.

Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez have been around the Brewers for a few years, but are having great seasons this year as 27-year-olds. Both are signed to be around for a while, so we’ll see shortly if they’re one-year wonders or if they’ve truly turned a corner. I’m not sure that either of them is what you would call likely, but I like to bet on upside. We have a pretty good idea of what the team thinks of Higuera and Sheets and Cooper, but the sky is the limit with Gomez and Lucroy. I wouldn’t call either favorites right now, but I would say Braun is the only one more likely at this time.

Speaking of upside, that brings us to the non-Braun favorite, 23-year-old shortstop and All-Star Jean Segura. As a young star, he’s under team control through 2018, and his first full season has been impressive thus far. He may well go on to join with Braun and form a powerful long-term core for Milwaukee, with their 8 and 9 eventually hanging with Yount and Molitor’s numbers.


So, In Closing...
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Milwaukee Brewers in the future are, in order:

Ryan Braun-8
Jean Segura-9
Carlos Gomez-27
Jonathan Lucroy-20
Eddie Mathews-41
Cecil Cooper-15
Ben Sheets-15
Teddy Higuera-49
Prince Fielder-28
Jim Gantner-17
Jim Slaton-41
Jeff Cirillo-7
Geoff Jenkins-5
Rickie Weeks-23
Corey Hart-1
Yovani Gallardo-49
Don Money-7

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