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2020 Milwaukee Brewers season in review: Mediocrity personified still leads to a playoff berth

Awful offensive production, but elite pitching performances characterized the 2020 Brewers

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Syndication: Journal Sentinel Rick Wood via Imagn Content Services, LLC

2019-2020 Offseason - Replacing Huge Holes with Players with Uncertainty

Coming into the 2020 season, the Milwaukee Brewers had a number of very important players that were likely to be around. There was hope that the Brewers’ front office would sign one, maybe even two, of the players that were set to depart. Alas it was not to be, and Milwaukee turned over a substantial portion of their team.

Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, Travic Shaw, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Junior Guerra, Trent Grisham, Drew Pomeranz, Jordan Lyles, Gio Gonzalez, Hernan Perez, Jeremy Jeffress, Matt Albers, Jay Jackson, Tyler Saladino, and even Jimmy Nelson all played significant roles to one degree or another last season. Not to mention players like Jesus Aguilar, Joules Chacin, and Mauricio Dubon were traded prior to the 2019 trade deadline. This team would look vastly different in 2020.

To compensate for the above losses, the Brewers’ front office focused on:

  • Building around their core stars who, in theory, should be enough to keep them in contention.

The biggest Brewers’ star, Christian Yelich, was signed to the largest contract extension in Brewers’ history. Lorenzo Cain was coming back from an injury plagued 2019 and would likely play more like 2018. Brandon Woodruff was set to take the mantle of ace of the staff. Josh Hader was set to continue as the most dominant reliever in the game. Keston Hiura was looking to build off of a strong rookie campaign.

  • Give younger players a chance to take the next step.

The Brewers also signed one of the youngsters to a long term contract; Freddy Peralta, and he looked amazing coming out of winter ball. Corbin Burnes hoped to put 2019 behind him and focus on a new philosophy. Obviously give Keston Hiura the reigns at second base. Give other young players an opportunity to emerge, such as Devin Williams.

  • Try to find free agent talent that might be undervalued in the marketplace in someway who might be in line to put up big numbers for the Brew Crew.

Avisail Garcia is the free agent Milwaukee brought in that played relatively well in 2019 (112 wRC+ with Rays in 2019) and could be thought of as having another level to attain. Most of the other free agent signings were not sexy by any stretch, but the hope was that a few of the signings would work out. Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison, Ryon Healy, Jedd Gyorko, and David Phelps all had enjoyed success at the major league level. Each were coming off years that did not meet with their previous performance norms. David Stearns and Company were counting on some of these players to return to those norms.

The signings of Eric Sogard and Brock Holt also solidified the versatility/utility role that Craig Counsell values. Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom were brought in to solidify a young rotation, while Eric Yardley was claimed to build depth in the bullpen.

  • Make trades that eliminates money off the books while bringing in controllable young talent.

Omar Narvaez, Luis Urias, Eric Lauer, and Chad Spanberger came to the Brewers’ organization in trades. The Brewers sent Zach Davies, Trent Grisham, Chase Anderson, and Adam Hill (with a draft pick) to the the Padres, Blue Jays, and Mariners respectively.

There was a great deal of optimism around Narvaez, because he seemed to be the best candidate on the market that could replace Yasmani Grandal’s offensive production at catcher. Bringing in Luis Urias put pressure on Orlando Arcia to perform better at the shortstop position, while giving the Brewers another player who could play in Milwaukee for a long time. Eric Lauer was in the same boat, but with an eye on the long term of the pitching staff.

Spring Training - Optimism Abounds in Young Players and Veterans Acquisitions Come on Board

Pitchers and catchers reported followed by position players in February. The first Spring Training game occurred against the Rangers on February 22. The talk coming into camp was Freddy Peralta. Coming into 2019, Peralta brought added velocity. This year, he brought a devastating slider that left opposing hitters in winter ball as well as Spring Training befuddled.

Others were having strong Spring Training performances as well. Logan Morrison was letting everyone know he was a star when healthy, and he looked like he might be in Spring Training. Most of all, Orlando Arcia was hitting like Mike Trout during the Spring, leading the Cactus League in home runs with 5.

With Arcia playing so well and Peralta pitching lights out, things were looking rosy for the Brew Crew. Then everything went on lock down.

March 12 - June 30 - COVID-19 Everything Down

The first reported case of COVID-19 hit the U.S. on January 20. Twenty-one days later, pitchers and catchers were reporting. By March 13, Spring Training camps were suspended and Opening Day was pushed back two weeks from March 26. Players, coaches, and personnel from multiple teams tested positive. The Commissioner’s Office later revises previous statements indicated that middle of May as a best case scenario for the beginning of baseball. As we know, players did not return to the field to train until July 1 and not to real games until July 23.

The Milwaukee Brewers went on lock down just like everyone else. Luis Urias and Angel Perdomo would eventually test positive.

July 1 - July 23 - Getting Ready for a Shortened Season

On July 1, Brewers’ players began arriving for training to get ready for the 60-game season to come. The culmination was the Blue and Gold Series, where Ben Gamel resembled Christian Yelich in both stance and performance. Who did not look like Christian Yelich was, well, Christian Yelich. He struggled mightily.

Just prior to the season beginning, the Brewers beat the Chicago White Sox 5-3 to end Summer Camp.

July 24 - July 29 - (3-3) Play Ball

Finally baseball began for the Milwaukee Brewers on July 24. Opening up against the Chicago Cubs in a three game series, the Brewers dropped two of three. They followed that series by taking two of three from Pittsburgh. Brandon Woodruff got the Opening Day start, and pitched well; just not well enough. Kyle Hendricks shut out the Brew Crew to start the season. The good news however is that the curse of the Opening Day starter in Milwaukee looks as been vanquished. In Woodruff’s next start on July 29, he participated in shutting out the Pirates going 6.1 innings while striking out 10.

Lorenzo Cain played really well in each series. Over the six games, he put up an OBP of .429 while playing his normal outstanding defense in centerfield. He also ran the base really well in the five games he played. Things looked promising for LoCain returning to form in 2020.

July 31 - August 2 - Not So Fast

Milwaukee welcomed the St. Louis Cardinals to town on July 31. Some of the Cardinals’ players brought coronavirus with them resulting in the cancellation of the series. With St. Louis being the second team during the regular season to have players test positive for coronavirus, Lorenzo Cain made the decision to opt out for the rest of the season. That would prove to be a huge loss for the Brewers.

August 3 - August 31 - Poor offense and Good Pitching (13-14)

The start and go that affected the Brewers with the cancellation of games with St. Louis set Milwaukee behind the proverbial 8-ball as they faced a very good Chicago White Sox team in the next series. The Brewers dropped the first two of the four game series against the White Sox, but rallied to take the final two games of the series.

They lost the next series with the Reds and split a four game series with Minnesota. After dropping the first of a four game series with the Cubs, the Brewers went on to take the next three games. After such a strong performance against the Cubs in Chicago, Milwaukee befuddled its fanbase by dropping 5 of the next 6 games with Minnesota and Pittsburgh. In fact the Brewers were swept by the team that would earn the first pick in the 2021 draft in four games. Milwaukee finished the month by going 3-2 against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Interestingly much was made about the struggles of Christian Yelich. In the month of July, Yelich slashed .037/.071/.148 with a -51 wRC+. He actually played hit pretty well in August slashing .244/.382/.556 with a wRC+ of 146. Jedd Gyorko was also playing big in August putting up a 159 wRC+. Keston Hiura, on the other hand, had a wRC+ of 88 in August and was striking out 35% of the time. Couple that with every “dangerous” hitter in the lineup putting up a wRC+ between 53 (Ryan Braun and Omar Narvaez) and 75 (Justin Smoak) during August, it might have been fortunate the Brewers were 13-14 for the month.

For the most part, the Brewers best pitchers were keeping Milwaukee in contention. Brandon Woodruff did struggle a bit. Others stepped up. Corbin Burnes was striking out 13 per 9 and delivering a 2.79 ERA for the month. Josh Hader appeared in nine games and was scored upon in just one of them. Of course Devin Williams was emerging. In August, Williams produced a 0.00 ERA and a -0.18 FIP while striking out more than 20 per nine.

September 1 - September 27 - (13-14) - Backing into the Playoffs

The Milwaukee Brewers were essentially a mediocre team in 2020. The strong pitching continued in the form of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Josh Hader, Brent Suter, Brett Anderson, and Devin Williams. Yet the offense continued to be anemic except for a couple of big run producing games.

The Brewers began September by splitting two with the Detroit Tigers. They would split in another two game series the next week. In between, Cleveland took two of three from Milwaukee. In the middle of the month was an 11-game home stand that included series with the Cubs (Cubs took two of three), the Cardinals (Brewers won three of five), and the Royals (Brewers sweep).

Could things be turning around headed into the final September stretch? The Brewers lost their next two series with the Reds and Cardinals, resulting in the fact that Milwaukee never spent a day of 2020 over .500. Yet they still somehow got into the playoffs.

September 30 - October 1 (0-2) - Slim Playoff Dreams Dashed

Milwaukee did achieve getting into the playoffs for the third consecutive year. That was something that had never happened previously in the franchise’s history. Unfortunately, Milwaukee drew the top seed Los Angeles Dodgers, and they showed the Brewers what a World Championship team is all about.

Coming into the series, Milwaukee was without Corbin Burnes, Brett Anderson, and Devin Williams. In the best of three series, Craig Counsell sent Brent Suter to the mound. Uncharacteristically he was wild and the Brewers were behind by the second inning by three. The Brewers would never see the lead in the game nor the series, because L.A. took the second game 3-0 behind the stellar pitching of Clayton Kershaw. Milwaukee sent Brandon Woodruff to the mound, but he was unable to match the future Hall of Famer.

Someone not likely to make the Hall of Fame, but will always be a part of Brewers lore just might have played his last game in this series. Ryan Braun had an option that was unlikely to be picked up by the Brewers coming out of this series. That has become the hard truth just recently. 2020 just may have been Braun’s final season. If it is, the 14 year veteran ended 2020 with a .488 slugging percentage and a 99 wRC+.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs