To paraphrase David Stearns, the Brewers experienced a wildly disappointing end to a wildly successful 2021 season.
This is the first of two posts that revisits the Brewers' 2021. The forthcoming second post will look at what went wrong for the Crew. This one explores what went right.
After all of their success in 2021, it’s strange to recall that while Brewers starters projected favorably at the beginning of the season, they still had a lot to prove.
This is even true of the Brewers’ Big Three. While Brandon Woodruff started the season a full-fledged ace, Corbin Burnes was one shortened and 180-degree breakout season removed from an abysmal 2019. Freddy Peralta had only recently introduced a slider that could complement his fastball. He started only one game in 2020
The Brewers’ Big Three surpassed expectations. They combined for a 2.60 ERA, .958 WHIP, and 2.57 FIP and amassed 16.2 fWAR between them. Corbin Burnes was obviously the group's standout, throwing the team’s first no-hitter since 1987 and earning Cy Young hardware. To get it, he had to lead the league in ERA (2.43), FIP (1.63), home runs per nine innings (0.4), strikeouts per nine innings (12.6), and strikeout-to-walk-ration (6.88).
What’s more, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer broke out, solidifying their future in the Brewers’ starting rotation. Since the All-Star Break, Lauer had the same ERA as the Big Three averaged during the entire season (2.60) while Houser matched Corbin Burnes’ Cy Young ERA (2.43). In the same timeframe, the two combined for a .190 batting average against.
All told, Milwaukee’s starters were second in all of MLB in terms of ERA (3.13), WHIP (1.09), average against (.213), and third in MLB in strikeouts (906) during the regular season.
The Brewers scuffled offensively to begin the season, so much so that they were below .500 on May 21 when they traded two very promising closers (Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen) for RHP Trevor Richards and Tampa Bay shortstop Willy Adames. Adames, struggling to see the ball at Tropicana Park, had been cold offensively himself. Adames was slashing .197/.254/.371 with an OPS+ of 76 when he moved from Tampa Bay to Milwaukee before igniting the Brewers’ offense. After coming to Milwaukee, Adames surged, and Milwaukee surged along with his contagious enthusiasm and kinetic energy.
Adames slashed .285/.366/.521 with an OPS+ of 135 after joining Milwaukee. On the season, he amassed 4.2 bWAR, 3.5 of which came from his time with the Brewers. The Crew went 21-23 before Adames entered the clubhouse and 74-44 afterward. The Brewers had a collective OPS of .640 in May. In June, their collective OPS went above .750 and wouldn’t dip below .750 until September when Adames happened to exit with a lingering quadriceps injury. At that point, it fell below .700 and stayed there for the remainder of the season. More on that when we talk about what went wrong for the Brewers in 2021. The good news for Brewers fans is that Adames is under club control through the 2024 season.
Rowdy Tellez also struggled with another team in 2021 before finding a better fit with the Brewers. He was slashing just .209/.272/.338 over 151 plate appearances when the Blue Jays traded him to the Brewers for RHPs Trevor Richards and Bowden Francis.
Filling in for an injured Daniel Vogelbach, Rowdy had an opportunity for everyday at-bats with Milwaukee, and he took advantage of it, slashing .272/.333/.481 (.814 OPS) on the remainder of the season. He became a fan favorite, coming up with his share of clutch hits and clobbering mammoth home runs. Tellez is also under club control through 2024.
The Brewers acquired Hunter Strickland to add needed depth to their bullpen after the Willy Adames trade. At that point in the season, Strickland had some success in Tampa. He got it fine-tuning an improved slider, enhanced command, and a reduced-velocity fastball into an effective pitch mix. He was then traded to the Angels, where he offered a regrettable 6.1 innings. This made way for his trade to Milwaukee. Los Angeles’ loss was Milwaukee’s gain as Strickland shut down inning after inning with inherited runners on. He ended the season with a 1.73 ERA across 36.1 innings with Milwaukee.
Eduardo Escobar was the Brewers’ best trade deadline acquisition. He offered the defensive flexibility and pop the club needed down an injury-addled final stretch. During September/October, when the Brewers scuffled offensively, Escobar logged a .349 wOBA and 117 WRC+. This was an improvement on his overall .786 OPS and 107 wRC+ performance with the Crew since the trade deadline.
High Leverage Relief Inning Denizens
The Closer Rule is nothing new, and the Brewers had been building towards it with Josh Hader before sticking to it religiously in 2020 and expanding it in 2021.
Hader pitched 19 innings in 21 games in 2020 and, in 2021, 58.2 innings in 60 games. This is after working 75 2/3 innings over 61 games in 2019 and 81 1/3 innings in 55 games in 2018. In 2021, the Brewers expanded their application of the Closer Rule to seventh and eighth innings, giving high-leverage seventh and eighth innings Brad Boxberger and Devin Williams, respectively.
That’s just one reason we can always count the managing of the perennially-snubbed and unofficial manager of the year Craig Counsell as something that works well for the Crew.
With few exceptions, Brad Boxberger was a reliable bridge into the late innings for the Crew. If the game was close, Boxberger was a sound choice to take the ball in the seventh. He ended the season with a 3.34 ERA, 3.65 FIP, and 1.067 WHIP. Across 64.2 innings, Boxberger prevented hard contact and logged an impressive 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings, good for a 31.2 strikeout rate. Box was a critical piece of extending the one high-leverage late-inning per reliever rule. He’s also a free agent the Brewers should prioritize resigning in the offseason.
After a costly lapse in judgment took Devin Williams out of the postseason, it might be a little soon for some fans to acknowledge his role in the Brewers’ 2021 success. Conversely, some fans might be equally eager to misconnect the Brewers’ postseason collapse to the mound generally and Williams specifically.
While Williams was not primarily responsible for the Brewers’ success or failures, he was a critical component of their late-inning strategy. He struggled to return to action after his RoY^2 (Reliever of the Year and Rookie of the Year) season ended in injury. This was particularly true at the beginning of the year.
In May, for example, Williams was striking out batters at only 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings with a 4.75 FIP. His FIP, in fact, only dipped below 4 in July and August when Williams resembled himself, or at least the sky-high expectations set by his otherworldly 2020.
He did have regular flashes of brilliance, though. In June, I saw the Brewers play the Rockies at Coors Field. Williams’ eighth inning left the Rockies fan next to me wondering aloud, “Who is that pitcher?”
Most of 2021 left Brewers fans wondering the same thing, alternately proclaiming that Williams was “back” and lamenting that he wasn’t himself. That doesn’t mean that Williams wasn’t a valuable reliever for the Brewers in 2021. He repeatedly got out of jams, and much more often than not, reliably held down the high-leverage eighth inning. For his struggles, he ended the season with impressive numbers - 2.50 ERA, 2.82 FIP, and 14.5 strikeouts per nine.
The final key component of the Brewers’ one high-leverage inning per reliever strategy is obviously Josh Hader, who logged 34 saves this year on a 1.23 ERA and 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He also effectively closed out the Corbin Burnes’ no-hit bid.
As has often been said (not speak of the obvious and recent painful exception), if Hader has the ball and the Brewers have a narrow lead, the game is basically over. 2021 was a new level of success for Hader, who collected his third Reliever of the Year award.
For all his success, Hader is arbitration-eligible in 2022, and trading him could be a way to help the salary-conscious and commitment-addled Brewers to cut costs and improve their offense.
Yes, Luis Urías’ burgeoning power and overall success earn him his own category here. Still, you can draw a fairly direct line between Urías’ success in 2021 and the Willy Adames acquisition.
When the Brewers signed Adames, Urías was struggling mightily in his role as an everyday shortstop after the trade that brought Orlando Arcia to Atlanta. When Adames took over as the primary shortstop, Urías thrived in more of a super-utility role. In May, Urías logged 84 WRC+ and .299 wOBA and struggled with a bad case of the yips. In June, Urías turned that to 133 WRC+ and .375 wOBA. He also calmed down in the field, moving from the occasional multi-error game to ending the season with a positive defensive WAR (0.5). He ended the season with 3.1 bWAR and unleashed power that exceeded expectations and produced twenty-three home runs.
After a down year in 2020, Avisaíl García had a major comeback year in 2021. Even when few Brewers were producing offensively at the beginning of the season, Avi was. He maintained that production until the end of the season, when he was finally slowed by the wear and tear of 162 games. He logged .820 OPS, 115 wRC+, and .346 wOBA in 2021.
Omar Narváez was another consistent offensive contributor at the beginning of the season, logging 133 WRC+ and .865 OPS before an All-Star Break in which he earned a roster spot. Offensively speaking, he faltered after the Mid-summer Classic, though, logging just 57 WRC+ and .320. The good news is that whether he’s offensively on or off, Narváez is now an effective defender and pitch manager. One additional accolade for Narváez was catching the combined no-hitter. He ended the season with 2.8 fWAR and a fairly average .743 OPS and 99 WRC+. For a defensively solid catcher, those numbers will play.
Kolten Wong experienced a lot of success in the leadoff position in 2021, and the Brewers experienced success with him in the leadoff position too. In addition to his typical Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base, Kolten slashed .272/.335/.447. He was above average in terms of WRC+ (109). He also hit thirteen home runs (seven in the leadoff spot) and notched 3.3 bWAR in only 116 games. 116 games was the downside for the frequently-injured Wong, who you really want leading off and at second base every day.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs