Brewers and the Twelve Man Rotation

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

David Stearns is the youngest GM in baseball, and looks it. His driver’s license picture looks like his Bar Mitzvah picture, only without the acne. He’s been in long pants less time than Albert Pujols, and he’s younger than half a dozen of his players. Yet Stearns may be the most revolutionary game changer since Mother Jones. Yogi said, "If you don’t know where you’re going, you may end up somewhere else." That’s likely how Stearns, a Harvard graduate with a degree in political science, ended up in baseball. Bored with Clausewitz he picked up Bill James’ Baseball Handbook, and discovered a new statistical scholarship called Sabermetrics. Washington D.C. lost a Secretary of State. Yogi was right again.

Sabermetrics wasn’t exactly new when Stearns first read about it. Twenty years earlier another young GM had already studied the catechism. The day he was hired, Billy Beane stood on the pitching mound in an empty Oakland stadium and shouted to the heavens, "Bill James, I’ve read your book!"

Back then every schoolboy knew what BA, HR, RBI, ERA, K, and W stood for, but Sabermetrics put forth a new Latin; BABIP, dERA, PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) and a full bucket more of obscure acronyms. Like Shakespeare’s poisen’d entrails -- Eye of the Newt, Wool of the Bat -- throw them in the charmed pot and they magically reveal that player A is better than player B even though player B outhit player A by 50 points.

Billy Beane was baseball’s first Shaman. He fired his scouts, fired up his computer, and turned a bad team with a small payroll into a team that went to the playoffs six straight years. The Somme had been crossed. Beane was Einstein as Connie Mack. A movie was made about him. Not some straight to video flick but a Hollywood Oscar winner. Brad Pitt, his generation’s Errol Flynn, played Billy. It was all perfect -- except it wasn’t. The old gnarl knuckled scouts that Billy had fired smiled and spit their chew. They knew what was wrong with the picture -- Billy Beane never won a World Series. He may have changed how we look at the game, but not how we play it.

That’s where Stearns comes in. When it comes to change, Baseball moves like a slug in sand. Baseball was invented twenty years before the Battle of Bull Run and yet there’s been only one significant change in all the years since -- the DH. Everything else has been more or less the same; bases 90 feet apart, the pitching mound at 60 feet 6 inches, right handed catchers, blind umpires, peanut vendors overshooting their mark -- and starting pitchers as headliners. Pitchers are the handsome flyboys with the scarves around their necks, and like them they’re called Aces. Aces because they trump every other card in the deck. You can’t win without them. Every team has to have that one-in-fifty-million Paladin who can throw a rock 95-100 miles an hour and break a curve from the north pole to the south. A pitcher other pitchers dream about. A guy who can throw 7, 8, 9 innings of near perfect baseball and never break a sweat.

Aces are drafted in the first round of the major league draft. If they happen to be 16 years old and live on an island in the Caribbean, a teapot hill in Korea or a slum in Venezuela, they are instantly sworn into a club made up of the 1% richest people in the world. This before they’ve ever bounced a pitch in the dirt in a Major League game. Casey said it, "Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa." Casey knew what he meant. And it made perfect sense to the rest of us who thought we knew baseball. You need Aces to win.

Then last season David Stearns happened. In 2018 the young Brewer GM, with a payroll near league bottom, fielded a team that won 103 games and was a Texas Leaguer away from making it to the World Series. And he did it without a single starting pitcher drafted earlier than the 25th round. Sports announcers couldn’t even pronounce his best pitcher’s name. Chakin? Chasin? The Brewers had no Ace. The Indians, Dodgers and Astros each had four. Stearns shrugged. To this brash interloper an Ace was a dinosaur, a floppy disc. He didn’t need no stinkin’ Aces.

What the Brewers had were average Joes who could usually survive an inning or two. They weren’t even called starters, they were given the unglamorous title of "initial out getters." But here’s the rub, they were followed by a bullpen of superheroes. Whatever runs you have by the 3rd inning that’s it, that’s likely all you’re gonna get. The rest of the game you’ll see Cy Young and the two Johnson’s, Randy and Walter, followed by Koufax, Drysdale and Gibson -- although the names on the back of the uniforms will be Hader, Knebel, Jeffress, Barnes, Woodruff and Burnes.

The Brewers didn’t have a five man rotation, they didn’t have any rotation. Or they had a twelve man rotation. David Stearns realization was that there are a lot of guys who can throw a baseball as hard as Nolan Ryan, but only for an inning or two. So he loaded up on half a dozen of those guys and had a Ryan clone pitching every inning past the 3rd. It almost worked. It was damn close. It was fun.

Stearns hasn’t one upped Billy Beane yet, he and the Brewers haven’t won a World Series, but Vegas and the boys in the boiler rooms are handing out the same odds on the Brewers for 2019 as they are on the Yankees, only the Yankees have a payroll $100 million north of the Brewers

Yogi said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Stearns took it last season and the results were game changing. If the World Series trophy is filled with Milwaukee beer next season, they’ll likely make a movie about it, but don’t expect Brad Pitt to play Stearns -- the nerd who played Zuckerberg will get the part.