The Brewers come into today, August 24th, with a record of 78-53, a .595 winning percentage and the franchise’s first ever double-digit lead. Nine years ago, on this very same date, the Brewers were 40 games below .500, at 44-84, 27.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals with 34 to play. Keep hope alive, boys.
Rewind another 10 years, and we come upon the 1992 team, the last team before the 2007 should-have-been playoff team and 2008 actual playoff team to win more games than it lost. Somehow, nobody in Milwaukee seems to talk about this team, but at 92-70 it was within two games of winning the AL East and it owned the best Pythagorean record in the entire major leagues. It was the last Brewers team led by Paul Molitor, and perhaps the great Paulie’s exit can explain how this proud team fell so far so fast. Molitor would go on to win a World Series with Toronto in 1993, and just like that the Brewers were losing 93 games instead of winning 92. By the turn of the millennium, any finish above third place was unfathomable.
2002 was rock bottom. Inertia was beyond reversal by August 24th, and the Brewers finished an equally poor 12-22 down the stretch, ending at 56-106 — worse than last year’s historically bad Pittsburgh Pirates team. Despite coming one away from Bobby Bonds’s MLB strikeout record of 189, Jose Hernandez had a decent year, hitting .288/.356/.478 as the team’s shortstop, and Richie Sexson * was decent at first base, with a .279/.363/.504 showing. Ben Sheets was good in his first year as a Brewer, throwing 216 innings with a 4.15 ERA (remember, this is the steroids era in full force). But he wasn’t yet Ben Sheets, the pitcher whose inability to last long enough to pitch in a playoff game as a Brewer I will lament as long as I have a keyboard and an internet connection. Also, let’s be real — the Brewers best player was one away from setting the MLB strikeout record. That should say enough.
*Richie Sexson was, by far, my favorite player of that Brewers mini-era. I wore 11 in little league to honor him. I went to one game in 2002. My dad and I went on a trip to Green Bay to watch Packers training camp and then swung down to Milwaukee to catch a Brewers game. First, we saw Terry Glenn get carried off the practice field with a hurt ankle. I thought that would be the worst of it. Then we get to Miller Park and see Sexson is sitting. “Oh, well at least I’ll get to see Mike Piazza,” says naive 12-year-old me. Nope. I found the box score on Baseball-Reference. Vance Wilson started for Mike Piazza. And some guy named Israel Alcantara started at first base for Milwaukee. Familiar with this guy, the greatest fight-starter in baseball history? Yeah. Man, if only I appreciated irony as much when I was 12 years old as I do now. We were just over a year removed from my favorite drop kick in history (a highly subjective honor as it is).
After that — you know, the guy who almost set the strikeout record — things turn ugly in a hurry. We could talk about your regular old bad players. There’s Nick Neugebauer and his 55 replacement-level innings, Lenny Harris in a role other than perma-pinch-hitter, Mark Loretta earning $5 million dollars for a 89 OPS+ (I got his autograph in 2002, I think. Jerry Royster’s in that book too, and Paul Bako. Context clues!), or Nelson Figueroa‘s 11 starts (the Pirates signed him to their Triple-A club yesterday). All excellent choices.
But no, to truly understand the 2002 Milwaukee Brewers, we need to talk about the true anchors. The ones that make Jeff Suppan and Bill Hall of 2008 look like utterly fantastic players. We need to talk about Jim Rushford and Ronnie Belliard, and we need to talk about Jose Cabrera and Ruben Quevedo.
Quevedo and Belliard were that truly magical type of awful player which manages to compile tons of playing time for absolutely no reason. Quevedo will forever be best known for showing up to Spring Training too fat to finish a single mile run, and his fitness showed in his pitching. In 25 starts, Quevedo gave up a stunning 28 home runs and 100 total runs, good for a 5.76 ERA and rather robust -1.8 WAR. Solid work, no doubt. But Belliard’s season was even worse. Ronnie took 317 plate appearances as a Brewers infielder, managing to slash a mere .211/.257/.287. Mr. Belliard cares not for your steroid era, baseball — that mark comes out as a 45 OPS+. For reference, Craig Counsell has a 36 OPS+ this season. Unsurprisingly, the rather rotund Belliard wasn’t a great fielder either, and overall his season grades out as a harsh -2.4 WAR. Naturally, he would go on to play for eight more MLB seasons.
Rushford and Cabrera are different stories in themselves, equally fascinating and perhaps evenmore depressing. Rushford never saw the field in the majors after 2002, and he can at least say he has 11 more MLB hits than I do. But his line could have been truly historically bad with more plate appearances — he compiled a .143/.213/.208 line in 84 plate appearances, good for -1.5 WAR. Over 600 plate appearances, roughly a full season, Rushford’s line would be worth -10.7 WAR by itself. Even the 2003 Tigers are weeping at such a thought.
Cabrera, however, sets the standard for futility on the 2002 Brewers. Over 103 innings, roughly evenly split between starting and relieving, Cabrera allowed 84 runs, good for a 6.79 ERA. Hitters socked 23 home runs, or 2.0 every nine innings. To put it in perspective, the lines of a) batters facing Cabrera in 2002 and b) Ryan Braun in 2011:
a) .314/.378/.573, 23 HR, 31 2B, 152 OPS+
b) .326/.395/.581, 25 HR, 29 2B, 163 OPS+
Cabrera racked up a stunning -2.5 bWAR in those 100 innings. It was probably the worst single-season pitching performance ever for the Milwaukee Brewers — at least Manny Parra (-3.0 bWAR) had decent peripherals in 2009.
Just for one last point of just how bad the 2002 Brewers team was, observe the graph of their game results (via Baseball-Reference) next to that of the 2011 team.
Click to embiggen
The top is full of red. The bottom is full of green. Green is good; red is bad. Just let it sink in. It’s only been nine years since Rubie Q and that Rushford guy and just losing in general were simply what baseball in Milwaukee was all about. And if you just happen to be getting into the Brewers recently (whether it was 2007 or 2008 or even this season), welcome. We as fans are glad to have you on board. But just know, it was seasons like this one that drive our complete excitement and immersion in the magic that is 2011 — we know what rock bottom is, and that makes the victories of 2011 even sweeter.