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.
1979 — Second-Best in the AL
Like the 1978 Brewers, the 1979 Brew Crew was the victim of one of the more brutal divisions in baseball.
Despite winning a then-franchise record 95 games — which still remains tied for second for most in team history — the ‘79 Brewers finished 8 games out of their first playoff appearance, thanks to the 102-win (and eventual AL Champion) Baltimore Orioles.
An argument could be made the Brewers were one of the three best teams in baseball. After the Orioles, only the eventual World Series champion Pittsbugh Pirates, who went 98-64 thanks to some incredible run prevention, had more wins than the Brewers that year.
Had the Brewers been in the AL West, where they played their first two seasons in Milwaukee, they would have easily ran away with the division ahead of actual division winner California, who went just 88-74 in a largely mediocre division. Meanwhile, the East that year ended up with 6 of its 7 teams posting winning records, with only the third-year Toronto Blue Jays finishing with fewer than 81 wins.
A lot of the names that powered the Brewers’ offense the year before upped their games in ‘79. Cecil Cooper became an All-Star for the first time, hitting .308/.364/.508 with a league-leading 44 doubles, 24 home runs, 106 RBI and a 133 OPS+. Cooper was one of four Brewers to receive MVP votes that year, joining Paul Molitor (20th place, hitting .322/.372/.469), Sixto Lezcano (15th place, hitting .321/.414/.573) and Gorman Thomas (7th place, hitting .244/.356/.539 with 45 home runs). Ben Oglivie didn’t get any MVP votes, but contributed in a major way by hitting .282/.343/.525 with 29 home runs and 30 doubles in 139 games.
On the mound, Mike Caldwell didn’t repeat the excellent season he had the year before in 1978, but did put together another very good year with a 127 ERA+, going 16-6 with a 3.29 ERA in 235 innings, throwing 16 complete games. The ‘79 squad did have more quality across the entire rotation than the ‘78 team did, though, with Lary Sorensen and Jim Slaton both winning 15 games while throwing more than 200 innings, and Bill Travers picking up 14 wins in 187.1 innings. All four of those starters finished the year with ERAs below 4 and ERA+ marks over 100 despite extremely low strikeout numbers — in fact, the 1979 Brewers didn’t have a single pitcher who struck out more than 100 batters, and they only struck out 580 batters in 1439.2 total innings as a team.
It was obviously a different era of baseball, but those 580 strikeouts were by far the fewest in all of baseball, with Toronto being next-worst — but with 33 more strikeouts in nearly 30 fewer innings pitched.
The extreme contact tendencies of the Brewers’ pitching staff led to more runs scoring against them than you may like from a contending team, and the pitching was certainly the difference between the Brewers and the first-place Orioles. Baltimore had the fewest runs allowed in the AL with just 582, while the Brewers ranked a respectable 5th in the AL with 722 runs allowed. That’s still significantly more runs allowed than the year before, though, when Caldwell’s near-Cy Young effort helped limit opponents to 650 total runs.
While an appearance in the playoffs wouldn’t happen for at least a couple more years, the 1978 and 1979 teams played a big role in getting the eventual AL-winning core experience in going toe-to-toe with the league’s best and put the Brewers on the national map.