The 1980s Brewers ballot is arguably more difficult than the entire Milwaukee Braves ballot. First and foremost, the fact that Harvey’s Wallbangers produced their glory years more recently leaves less room for emotional and critical distance while judging players. Even for a Brewers fan like myself, born after the ’82 run, an entire childhood could be built around the last remnants of those glorious teams (in many ways, knowing the 1992 Brewers leads to voting for several Wallbangers), and there is no doubt that the glory years remained on the minds of Brewers fans while enduring the turn-of-the-century rebuilding years. The Wallbangers were always the club that our current core of players were compared to; they were always the reminder, “hey, this is the last successful Brewers club prior to your current core of young stars.” In that regard, I think it’s extremely difficult to judge the Wallbangers roster without voting in just about everyone; our narrative about Brewers success in the early 1980s revolves around transactions for guys like Pete Vuckovich, Rollie Fingers, and Ted Simmons, even if some notable Brewers from the late-1980s have stronger ties to Milwaukee.
In this regard, the core of pitchers that worked in the late-1980s provides strong challenges to some of the best Wallbangers. Rollie Fingers was an iconic closer, and he is one of baseball’s closers enshrined in Cooperstown. He was highly regarded as a closer in Oakland and San Diego, and he also pitched extremely well in Milwaukee (his Cy Young and MVP campaign account for that). At the same time, the late-1980s bullpen featured Dan Plesac and Chuck Crim, two relievers that defined their careers in Milwaukee.
This is one of the most difficult questions for me while considering the Milwaukee Hall of Greatness. I have no problem judging Fingers as a great reliever, but he’s already enshrined in Cooperstown, and has those single season awards with the Brewers. In a way, his greatness in Milwaukee was short-term; part of a couple of truly competitive seasons and a remarkable World Series run (one in which some fans say, “if the Brewers had Fingers, they win the World Series”). Yet, Fingers is a great reliever even if he never pitches for Milwaukee; he might even be a Hall of Famer if he never pitches for Milwaukee.
Plesac, Fingers, Crim?
Chuck Crim and Dan Plesac began their careers in Milwaukee, and their work in the Brewers bullpen even overlapped for a few years. Both pitchers went on to work for other clubs — Plesac worked much longer than Crim did — but neither would experience success in other cities as they did in Milwaukee. Both Plesac and Crim worked on the famous “Team Streak,” a third-place 91-win club in 1987. Plesac also worked on the iconic 1992 club, although his best years in Milwaukee occurred during the 1980s. Without their respective campaigns in Milwaukee, I’m not sure what we might say about either Plesac or Crim. Neither pitcher is as great as Fingers, but yet, Fingers has that greatness even if he never works in Milwaukee; in that regard, Crim and Plesac arguably have more important stretches in Milwaukee for their own respective careers.
I could go either way on this issue, so at the moment, I will advocate for Chuck Crim as the 1980s Brewers reliever most deserving of your Hall of Greatness vote. Crim is an underrated reliever because his lack of saves do not make him stand out in any way. However, in his two best seasons — 1988 and 1989 — Crim lead the league in appearances, and worked more than 100 innings (without starting a game) in both seasons. In both ’88 and ’89, Crim was one of six American League pitchers to work 60 or more games and pitch 100 innings (without starting), and as I see it, he was the only AL pitcher to accomplish that feat in both seasons. He made up for his lack of saves in Milwaukee with his holds, which is notable given the number of inherited runners he faced. In 332 games in Milwaukee, he inherited 296 runners, and he managed to strand more than 68% of those runners. Combining his saves and holds, and judging them against his blown saves, Crim converted leads at a stronger rate than both Fingers and Plesac. Whereas Fingers converted 98 of 121 leads (81%), and Plesac converted 153 of 198 leads (77.3%), Crim converted 108 of 129 leads in Milwaukee (83.7%).
Looking at their most typical innings they entered the ballgame, one can see the development of the closer’s role by comparing Fingers and Plesac. For instance, Fingers never entered the 9th inning in more than 49% of his appearances in Milwaukee, and in his MVP season, he entered the game equally in the 8th and 9th innings. By 1988, Plesac entered the game in the 9th inning in 60% of his appearances, exhibiting the steady incline toward the specialized closer. By comparison, Crim entered the game in the 6th (1987) most frequently, 7th (1988 and 1989), and 8th (1990 and 1991). Unlike either Plesac or Fingers, he never had a season in which he entered more than 45% of his appearances in one particular inning. Crim was a type of fireman, entering the game whenever runners were on, and whenever he was needed. His time in Milwaukee exhibits a transitional time in baseball when relievers could still work boatloads of innings without a specialized role; I gather just about every current MLB club could benefit from a Chuck Crim (obviously they could also benefit from a Plesac or Fingers, but I think you get my point).
Here are the raw facts on Fingers, Plesac, and Crim. On pure value, Fingers is the best, although he did not face the flexibility of appearances or inherited runners of either Crim or Plesac. What Crim lacks in pure value from his runs allowed, he makes up with his flexibility, ability to work with inherited runners, and ultimately, his ability to convert holds and saves, ensuring the Brewers maintained their leads.
Chuck Crim (‘87-’91): 332 G, 5 GS, 529.7 IP, 3.47 ERA, 118 ERA+. 42 saves. 108 of 129 leads converted (.837). 93 of 296 inherited runners scored (.314).
1987: 57 IR, 17 IS (.298); .264 entered in 6th (.208 entered in both 7th and 8th); .453 within one-run (including starts). 17 of 22 leads converted.
1988: 68 IR, 17 IS (.250). .329 entered in 7th (.286 entered in 8th). .271 entered within one-run. 22 of 24 leads converted.
1989: 80 IR, 29 IS (.363); .316 entered in 7th (.263 entered in 8th). .487 entered within one-run. 23 of 30 leads converted.
1990: 45 IR, 15 IS (.333); .433 entered in 8th (.343 entered in 7th); .403 entered within one-run. 30 of 35 leads converted.
1991: 46 IR, 15 IS (.326); .303 entered in 8th (.273 entered in 7th); .364 entered within one-run. 16 of 18 leads converted.
Rollie Fingers (‘81-’85): 177 G, 259 IP, 2.54 ERA, 150 ERA+. 97 saves; 98 of 121 leads converted (.810). 26 of 123 inherited runners scored (.211).
1981: 38 IR, 10 IS (.263); .426 entered in 8th (tied; .426 entered in 9th); .468 within one-run. 28 of 34 leads converted.
1982: 35 IR, 8 IS (.229); .460 entered in 9th (.280 entered in 8th). .460 within one-run. 30 of 36 leads converted.
1984: 19 IR, 2 IS (.105); .485 entered in 9th (.364 entered in 8th); .424 entered within one-run. 23 of 26 leads converted.
1985: 31 IR, 6 IS (.194); .489 entered in 9th (.340 entered in 8th); .404 entered within one-run. 17 of 25 leads converted.
Dan Plesac (‘86-’92): 365 G, 14 GS, 524.3 IP, 3.21 ERA (128 ERA+). 133 SV. 153 of 198 leads converted (.773). 87 of 279 inherited runners scored (.312).
1986: 57 IR, 12 IS (.211); .392 entered in 8th (.255 entered in 7th); .529 entered within one-run; 20 of 24 leads converted.
1987: 44 IR, 16 IS (.364); .439 entered in 8th (.404 entered in 9th); 421 entered within one-run; 23 of 36 leads converted.
1988: 38 IR, 16 IS (.421). .600 entered in 9th (.320 entered in 8th).360 entered within one-run; 30 of 35 leads converted.
1989: 42 IR, 12 IS (.286). .538 entered in 9th (.423 entered in 8th) .346 entered within one-run. 33 of 40 leads converted.
1990: 48 IR, 15 IS (.313). .606 entered in 9th (.348 entered in 8th). .394 entered within one-run. 36 of 46 leads converted.
1991: 22 IR, 4 IS (.182). .333 entered in 8th (.267 entered in 9th). .400 entered within one-run (including starts). 9 of 13 leads converted.
1992: 28 IR, 12 IS (.429). .227 entered in 7th (tied; .227 entered in 8th). .341 entered within one-run (including starts). 2 of 4 leads converted.
I certainly would not blame anyone for voting for Plesac or Fingers for a Milwaukee baseball Hall of Greatness. I simply believe there is more of a case to be made for a guy like Crim than one might initially suspect.
One statement that most Brewers fans would probably agree with: Harvey’s Wallbangers were not known for their pitching. The lack of notable starting pitching performances by the core of Harvey’s Wallbangers leads to another dilemma with 1980s Brewers voting: the Brewers’ core pitchers from the late-1980s were among the best pitchers developed in franchise history.
First and foremost, there’s Teddy Higuera, a pitcher that boasts the best ERA and one of the strongest winning percentages among the Brewers hurlers that faced the most batters (as Brewers). Chris Bosio isn’t far behind, in terms of ERA. Both Moose Haas and Bill Wegman boast more wins (as Brewers) than Bosio, but Bosio still beats both in terms of ERA. Overall, the 1980s hurlers crowd the Brewers franchise records for wins:
In terms of pitching performance, the late-1980s starters have the edge on the early 1980s hurlers:
Moose Haas (‘80-’85): 68 W, .567 PCT, 172 G, 1113 IP, 3.79 ERA (101 ERA+)
Teddy Higuera (‘85-’89): 78 W, .639 PCT, 154 G, 1085 IP, 3.28 ERA (129 ERA+)
Chris Bosio (‘86-’89): 33 W, .471 PCT, 127 G, 621.3 IP, 3.93 ERA (105 ERA+)
Pete Vuckovich (‘81-’86): 40 W, .606 PCT, 85 G, 533 IP, 3.88 ERA (98 ERA+)
Juan Nieves (‘86-’88): 32 W, .561 PCT, 94 G, 490.7 IP, 4.71 ERA (93 ERA+)
Wegman might need his own category, as he split his 1980s and 1990s seasons with the Brewers as notably different pitchers:
Bill Wegman (‘85-’89): 34 W, .447 PCT, 115 G, 691 IP, 4.62 ERA (93 ERA+)
Bill Wegman (‘90-’95): 47 W, .495 PCT, 147 G, 791.7 IP, 3.75 ERA (113 ERA+)
How do we fit Haas, Bosio, and Higuera onto a ballot stuffed with some of the greatest bats to ever play in Milwaukee? I find this to be the best place to make decisions about how a player’s tenure in Milwaukee defined his career. In this regard, we can note that a pitcher like Vuckovich was important to the competitive Brewers clubs of the early 1980s, but his overall performance is not as strong as some pitchers who defined their careers as Brewers. Here, I am inclined to favor the late-1980s Brewers pitchers because we know them as Brewers — rather than players that the Brewers acquired from other clubs to compete; this leads to extremely difficult decisions about some iconic Wallbangers. Both Simmons and Vuckovich can fall back on their performances with other clubs to define their careers; both players were arguably better with St. Louis than they were in Milwaukee. On the other hand, Higuera, Bosio, and Haas started and defined their careers in Milwaukee.
Ultimately, there are multiple ways to construct a Hall of Greatness. We can note players’ overall statistics in Milwaukee, and their roles on iconic clubs; we can note how players’ respective tenures in Milwaukee helped to define their careers. On tough ballots like the 1980s Brewers ballots — PACKED to the edges with great, good, and serviceable players, we will inevitably need some form of logic or some principles to narrow the field. I hope my post doesn’t come across as judgments that some of the iconic Brewers players were not great, or were not worthy of Hall of Greatness enshrinement. Rather, this is simply meant as a thinking exercise about one way to work with difficult ballots of Milwaukee Brewers.