There has been a lot of talk this winter about the “financial constraints” that the Milwaukee Brewers face this winter. Coming off a 96-win season and the deepest playoff run in more than a generation, David Stearns and his front office will be looking to bolster the team even further to get over the hump and into the World Series in 2019. But in terms of MLB player payroll, the prevailing notion is that the club doesn’t have much money to spend.
MLB’s luxury tax threshold has, in essence, become the sort of salary cap the the Players’ Union has long fought against. The taxes incurred by teams who spend over the threshold (which was around $206 mil last season) has large market teams like the Cubs, Yankees, and Dodgers suddenly crying poor when presented with the opportunities to upgrade their rosters via the free agent market. Meanwhile, teams like the Brewers can hardly dream of spending even half that amount of money on personnel while continuing to make profits for their ownership groups.
According to Cot’s Contracts, the Brewers have never started a season with a payroll higher than $104 mil, and have never concluded one at greater than $110 mil. After the recent acquisition of Alex Claudio, the team is already projected for more than $98 mil in Opening Day payroll for 2019. And that’s before addressing their stated need at second base, improving behind the plate, or supplementing their starting pitching staff.
A confluence of factors limits how much money Mark Attanasio and his ownership group can sink into player payroll while still reaping major profits. The Brewers are indeed limited by their market size; there simply aren’t as many people locally to become fans of the team as there are in cities like Los Angeles or New York. Historically, our beloved Menomonee Valley Nine has been one of the weaker franchises in terms of on-field success since debuting as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. The team doesn’t have a storied past and isn’t very well-known nationally. That limits the value of the television contracts that the organization has been able to negotiate and the amount of merchandise they are able to peddle. Even with revenue sharing in place, teams like the Brewers are at a disadvantage so long as owners value profitability and solvency over on-field success.
But while the Brewers haven’t and won’t spend on MLB payroll like their larger-market contemporaries, there are areas that the team can “punch above their weight,” as Attanasio is fond of saying. That is in the front office, on analysts, research, and player development.
According to a study published recently by Eno Sarris of the Athletic, the Brewers employ 11 data analysts in their research and development department. Only two teams in the National League, and five teams in all of baseball, have more analysts on staff. Sarris also details how the Brewers, already considered to be on the cutting edge of analytical development, are charging towards the forefront in terms of the technology they deploy, citing the 4,000+ square foot Sports Science Lab that is being built as a part of the renovations at their Spring Training Complex, Maryvale Baseball Park. Along with the usage of digital cameras and recording devices, wearable technology, and portable tracking systems, the Brewers will be able to collect and analyze biomechanical and performance data as the players practice and play in games.
Milwaukee’s emphasis on analytical data has seeped into the hiring of coaches, as well. Craig Counsell is considered to be perhaps the most forward-thinking manager in the game, working in tandem with David Stearns over the past three years to develop the run prevention system that Milwaukee successfully deployed during their playoff run in 2018. Included in this is Milwaukee’s aggressive shifting strategy, which saw them deploy the most shifts in the National League last year and allow the second-lowest wOBA (.281) against the shift. In what is perhaps a related matter, Counsell has been named as Sporting News’ NL Manager of the Year, as voted on by his MLB managerial peers, in each of the last two seasons (sharing the honor with Brian Snitker in 2018).
The analytical backgrounds of new hitting coach Andy Haines and new pitching coach Chris Hook also played significant roles in their hirings, as detailed by Robert Murray in two separate articles at The Athletic. Both Haines and Hook are not only quite comfortable interpreting the data that the front office analysts generate for them, but they thrive on creating individually-tailored development plans to highlight the specific strengths that a hitter or pitcher may possess. It could be an adjustment to setup or swing-path, or perhaps a mechanical tweak to a delivery, adding a new pitch, and determining where to attack the strike zone in order to best tunnel one’s pitches. The analysts can determine what the focus should be on to help a given player take that ‘next step,’ but it is up to the coaches to get the players to buy into these suggestions and help them make the necessary adjustments.
This approach has aided Milwaukee in turning undervalued players like Junior Guerra, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, Jeremy Jeffress, Travis Shaw, Josh Hader, Jesus Aguilar, and others, into the best versions of themselves. It has even helped stars like Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich take the next step and develop into MVP-level contributors. Milwaukee’s disciplined and open-minded method to finding undervalued and atypical players - older players, buy-low and second- or third-chance players, versatile players, players with unorthodox pitching profiles, in trades, the draft, free agency, and on the waiver wire - then identifying and highlighting their strengths, limiting the exposure to their weaknesses, and putting them in the best positions to succeed, helped the team earn the best record in the National League last season despite ranking in the bottom-third of the league in player payroll.
For some, the prevalence of analytics in baseball can be hard to balance. These types of statistical analyses are inherently anti-labor. Milwaukee’s goal is to field the best team possible by identifying players who are undervalued by the rest of the league, highlighting a specific skill, and coaxing out a level of production that is far greater than what their salary would imply. The Brewers can spend $60 mil on the renovations and technological upgrades in Arizona, $30 mil on purchasing a minor league affiliate in Carolina, and pay each of their 11 analysts six-figures (which they almost surely don’t), and it’s still not even close to the amount of money that the Nationals just guaranteed one pitcher in Patrick Corbin.
For all their investments, the Brewers will be hoping to continue to identify churn out guys like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Hader, Shaw, Aguilar, and Guerra, who they can pay well below-market salaries to for a few years while maximizing their surplus value, then turn around and trade before they hit free agency, securing a new batch of players that they can use to continue the process.
Is this exploitation? It’s hard to fathom when it comes to men who are paid hefty sums to play a game and provide entertainment to us fans. As capitalism permeates within every aspect of our lives, so to does its cold, heartless grip tighten around the sports that we love. For the Milwaukee Brewers, the goal is and will remain to put the best product on the field as possible, while spending as little money as possible to get there.
So far, it’s working as well as the front office and ownership group could reasonably hope for.