This week, SB Nation wanted to know which teams were the best to never win a championship across every sport. We’ve been asked to dive into that topic and share the best Brewers teams that fit that mold, but since there have been precious few Brewers teams to even fit that description (1982, 2011 and 2018, there, done), we thought we’d take a different tact.
We’ll expand it a bit further and look at the best Brewers teams to never make the playoffs. After all, there’s plenty of near-misses in the local nine’s history, especially during those long years between playoff appearances in 1982 and 2008. So here’s a closer look at some of those teams who just missed out on a chance to compete for a title.
1978 — First Taste of Success
Thanks to the constant reminders of the 1982 team, a lot of younger fans may not realize that it wasn’t the organization’s first extremely good team.
That title belongs to a group that came together less than 10 years after the franchise was born. The 1978 Brewers not only brought a winning team to Milwaukee for the first time since the Braves’ final year in 1965, but also brought the first 90-win season in 20 years.
The ‘78 Brewers finished the year 93-69, by far the best season to that point in their short history. Unfortunately, it came in a top-heavy American League East, which saw the Yankees beat the Red Sox in a Game 163 you may have heard about to finish at 100-63, while Boston finished 99-64.
That Brewers squad combined a potent offense with one of the best pitchers in baseball that year. Mike Caldwell nearly won a Cy Young award in his first full year in Milwaukee, going 22-9 with a 2.36 ERA (2.94 FIP) with 23 complete games — and one save for good measure. That season was good for 8.2 bWAR, but New York’s Ron Guidry unanimously won the Cy Young that year after going 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, 208 ERA+ and 9.6 bWAR while striking out 248 batters (compared to Caldwell’s 131) and throwing 9 complete game shutouts.
Caldwell was one of two Brewers to get MVP votes in 1978, with Larry Hisle being the other. Hisle signed with the Brewers as a free agent prior to the 1978 season after leading the American League in RBI with the Twins the year prior, driving in 119 while hitting .302/.369/.533 with 28 home runs. He followed that up with the best season of his career in ‘78, powering his new team by hitting .290/.374/.533 with 34 home runs, driving in 115 while putting up an OPS+ of 153. That was enough to earn him a 3rd-place finish in the AL MVP voting that year (behind Guidry and winner Jim Rice, who put up 7.6 bWAR with 213 hits, 46 home runs and a .970 OPS).
Hisle and Sal Bando (who hit .285/.371/.439 for an .810 OPS as a 34-year-old) provided some veteran presence (and more importantly, very good OBP skills) to a lineup that was otherwise filled with blooming offensive studs.
A 28-year-old Cecil Cooper really started to come into his own that season, hitting .312/.359/.474 in 107 games. A 27-year-old Gorman Thomas returned after missing 1977 to hit 32 home runs, the first 30-homer season of his career. A 24-year-old Sixto Lezcano was already in his fourth full season and continued to blossom into a young star, hitting .292/.377/.459. Robin Yount put together a strong 127 games as a 22-year-old, hitting .293/.323/.428. Oh, and a rookie named Paul Molitor made his debut, racking up 142 hits (including 26 doubles, 4 triples and 6 home runs) in 125 games while hitting .273/.301/.372 as a 21-year-old.
A testament to that lineup’s depth — we haven’t even mentioned Don Money (who hit .293/.361/.440 with 30 doubles and 14 home runs in 137 games) or Ben Oglivie (who hit .303/.370/.497 with 29 doubles and 18 home runs in 128 games) yet.
While the Yankees and Red Sox were loaded with veteran star power, the Brewers became the group of young upstarts threatening to change the old guard in the East. As young teams tend to do, though, the 1978 Brewers were ultimately undone by their struggles away from home — they were just 39-42 on the road — and their 5-10 record against the second-place Red Sox (although they did go 10-5 against the eventual champion Yankees, outscoring them 73-52).
While they ended up coming up short, the ‘78 Brewers ended up setting the table for the greatest stretch in franchise history — including the next season, which ended up being one of the best “forgotten” years in baseball history (and one we’ll cover in a separate post).