Willy or Will he? Week in Rebrew, May 17-23

Hey, Erik, yeah, hey, how’s it going? Dave Stearns here. Good, good, yeah, no problem. Thanks for taking my call. Listen, we need to talk. Got a sec? Cool. Thanks.

Continue reading “Willy or Will he? Week in Rebrew, May 17-23”

Collapses and Callbacks: Week in Rebrew, May 10-16

Week in Rebrew is a look back at the week that was for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sometimes. Other times, it is something quite different. Today’s version is very much that.

Friday through Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves met at American Family Field. It wasn’t very pretty baseball — the Brewers haven’t played anything close to pretty baseball in close to a month. The Braves asserted themselves in a convincing 6-3 victory Friday and a wire-to-wire 5-1 win Saturday. The Brewers salvaged Sunday’s affair, but not without nearly crapping away a comfortable eight-run lead. This wasn’t the first time the Brewers crapped away a comfortable lead.

May 30, 2007. My wife’s first trip to Miller Park. My brother had outstanding seats several rows behind the Brewers dugout and invited us along for the matinee. Tim Hudson started for the Braves. Dave Bush started for the Brewers. The home nine scratched out two runs while yielding only one to the visitors over seven innings. Manager Ned Yost went to the bullpen to deposed closer-turned-setup man Derrick Turnbow.

Turnbow, a textbook Doug Melvin scrapheap find, emerged as a hard-throwing country boy closer with a perpetually-gaped mouth and a mop of hair under his cap. His control was Ricky Vaughn-esque, pre-glasses, but he harnessed it for an amazing 2005, in which he closed 39 games, striking out 64 in just over 69 innings of work while walking 24. That 2005 turned out to be lightning in a bottle: he followed up with 24 more saves in 2006, but his WHIP jumped as he started pounding the strike zone and giving up more hits, home runs, walks and 30(!!) more earned runs over his breakout ’05.

The Brewers responded to these red flags by trading for Francisco Cordero, along with the corpses of Kevin Mench, Mench’s giant head and Laynce Nix. In exchange, they ceded Carlos Lee and Lee’s heir apparent in left field.

That heir’s name? Nelson Cruz.

*bangs head against desk repeatedly*

I digress.

Cordero had pitched the night before, locking down a 5-4 Brewers win. Turnbow had actually pitched the night before as well, but was deemed in good enough shape to return to the mound 18 hours after the fact.

Turnbow’s 2007 wasn’t awful, but he clearly lost confidence having been supplanted by Cordero and cult icon Brian Shouse. And the freefall had just begun.

Turnbow entered that 2-1 game almost 14 years ago to the day and this is how it went down.

Top 8: Turnbow faces Matt Diaz — 6-3 putout.

Turnbow faces Kelly Johnson — walk.

Turnbow faces Willie Harris — walk.

[The crowd starts to get quite restless under an unusually hot May sun.]

Edgar Renteria steps up to the plate and dribbles an infield single to short, loading the bases.

Turnbow is rattled. Yost pops out of the dugout and pulls him for Shouse. The crowd lets him have it.

Turnbow, staggered and frustrated, saunters back to the dugout. Being the jerk I was 14 years ago, I piped up: “It’s OK, Derrick. It’s not your fault yet!”

He looked up and, under the shade of the cap’s bill, you could see the whites of his eyes, enraged, glaring a death ray into my soul.

Shouse gave up a Brian McCann bases-clearing double to the LC gap and was replaced by Chris Spurling. Andruw Jones greeted him with a double of his own, Jeff Francoeur tacked on another run with a single down the line, Scott Thorman flied out to center, Pete Orr singled. Diaz drove him in with another base hit and Johnson scored Diaz with yet another single. Harris struck out and the crowd booed the Brewers off the field.

Seven runs.

(Former Brewers closer Bob Wickman finished the Brewers off an inning later.)

May 16, 2021. The Brewers have staked an eight-run lead with Freddy Peralta pitching another dominant performance through six. Perhaps that was part of the problem, not sticking with Peralta for one more inning. J.P. Feyereisen, tasked with the seventh, decidedly isn’t Derrick Turnbow, but he has been almost certainly overused, appearing in roughly every other game this season. The stage is set.

Feyereisen faces Ozzie Albies: fly out to center.

Feyereisen faces Dansby Swanson: single up the middle.

Austin Riley walks.

William Contreras walks.

Ender Inciarte drives in a run with a seeing-eye single.

Brent Suter replaces Feyereisen. Suter has not been effective with men on base this season and even shakier than that in high leverage situations.

Pablo Sandoval gets on base courtesy a failed Luis Urias fielder’s choice.

Ehire Adrianza reaches on a Urias error. The inning by all rights should be over.

Freddie Freeman launches a grand slam, making it a one-run game.

Marcell Ozuna and Albies are retired.

Seven runs.

It’s not the same, admittedly — history seldom repeats itself exactly. But there was enough of an echo Sunday afternoon to that fateful day in 2007 that I found myself reliving that Turnbow incident as Feyereisen put men on base. It’s ok, JP. It’s not your fault yet. And it wouldn’t be his fault, thanks to a backend of the pen that is markedly better than Shouse, Spurling or Matt Wise de los Salad Tongs.

And the Braves have seldom been reticent to remind those of us who care to know our local baseball history that the story of Milwaukee baseball franchises — first, the original Brewers, who became the St. Louis Browns, then the current Baltimore Orioles; then the Milwaukee Braves, who bolted for Atlanta for 1966 amidst bad faith perpetrated by all parties involved — is very, very different if certain things don’t happen in certain ways. Crap, even our beloved Milwaukee Brewers are ours because Bud Selig bought them practically on the steps of the courthouse where they declared bankruptcy.

It may not have been that a Milwaukee Braves franchise wins 15 division titles in 16 seasons or is treated to the Greg MadduxJohn SmoltzTom Glavine triumvirate. A erstwhile Milwaukee Brewers club doesn’t necessarily have the four 20-game winners in Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson in 1971 or claim six pennants in 18 seasons from 1966 to 1983, or Cal Ripken Jr.‘s streak. And we certainly don’t have a Camden Yards ushering in a new era of ballparks and controversial forms of financing.

Time may not be a flat circle, but it does closely resemble a diamond. And while there are no fates cursing the better city abutting Lake Michigan, it does make one stop to wonder why the Orioles were the Brewers’ bugaboo in their early 80s heyday or why the Braves continue to return to the Menomonee River Valley to wreak havoc one slab of beaten-up asphalt away from where Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews launched dingers and Warren Spahn locked down hitters and Bushville laid claim to being the baseball center of the universe in 1957.

Sometimes, crap happens. This is how history works; in the accumulation of misery and suffering and crap, there are genuine moments of joy. And, when one pays attention long enough to the events around them, things start to look the same. And across the void of time and several parking lot spaces, one can hear the past colliding with the present, forming what will be the future, destroying those things that might have been and will never be.

Everything else in sports comes and goes: stadiums get razed, teams move, hearts are broken only to be broken anew the next year, leads are crapped away late. We are the ones who remain, because it is our love, as misplaced or naive or foolish as it may be, that keeps us coming back and keeping score. Because it is better to root for laundry than to not root for anything at all.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Stats courtesy Baseball Reference and his own scorebook.


Fun With Numbers: Andruw Jones

I’m sorry, guys, but this ain’t it. Andruw Jones‘ case for the Hall of Fame is borderline at best. And he has no place in Cooperstown before other Braves-related unfinished business gets addressed.

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Fun With Numbers: Mark Buehrle

In the premiere submission for Fun With Numbers, Bronx to Bushville co-founder Brent Sirvio’s 2020 IBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot series, we look at a pitcher whose numbers do not adequately paint a Hall of Fame pitcher. Mark Buehrle was never one of the dominant starters of his generation, but since when did that matter?

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There are no accidents: Exploring Tommy Harper’s 1970 season

Tommy Harper’s 1970 was, in the strictest sense of the term, a career year. How did a career average hitter become the first All-Star in Milwaukee Brewers history?

Last month, the estimable Kyle Lobner — whose daily Patreon [mostly] on Milwaukee Brewers history is well worth your time and patronage — devoted a post to Tommy Harper on his 80th birthday. Lightning struck for Harper in 1970: a .296/.377/.522 traditional slash line, a 146 OPS+, 31 homers, 35 doubles, 38 steals, worthy of a sixth-place finish in MVP voting that year and earning the distinction of being the Brewers’ reluctant first-ever All-Star. His bWAR was a healthy 7.4, good for fourth in the league.

Boog Powell, powering the AL-best Baltimore Orioles, would win the hardware with 5.1. What can I say? It was a simpler time.

Aside from stealing bases, Harper would never come close to those numbers again. He enjoyed a moderately-successful career, 15 years in the bigs with mostly good health, an everyday big league journeyman with nothing to be ashamed of.

But what happened in 1970? On a dreadful inaugural Brewers club in an American League West Division of haves (Twins, Athletics, Angels) and have-nots (Royals, Brewers, White Sox), Tommy Harper was responsible for a significant portion of the Brewers total offense — hitting lead off, no less! — and immediately went back to being the guy he always was.

The answer isn’t in the home-road splits: County Stadium was a difficult place to hit home runs (which makes Henry Aaron‘s and Eddie Mathews’ careers that much more interesting) and in 1970, County Stadium’s park factor was even more tilted toward pitchers beyond its historical average.

Underscoring the point, Harper hit five more HRs (18) in six fewer at bats (299) at home than on the road. Further, Harper didn’t hit his first until April 27th, in Washington at RFK, even less of a hitter’s paradise than County Stadium. The Senators, too, were a bad team with one offensive weapon — Capital Punisher Frank Howard.

Did Harper then feast on bad teams? Not really: Harper actually posted better slash and power numbers against teams that ended up with winning records:

Harper, against winning clubs: .325/.390/.580, 24 2B, 20 HR
Harper, against losing clubs: .259/.362/.404, 11 2B, 11 HR

Was it hitting in favorable ballparks? Not really; as mentioned above, Harper did most of his damage at County Stadium, and then scattered his remaining home run production across eight other stadia. The only three parks he didn’t homer in in 1970: Anaheim Stadium, White Sox (Comiskey) Park and Yankee Stadium. One might think that Harper, who yanked most of his homers out to left, would have poked one or two into the left field bleachers in The Bronx. The dinger at RFK? That was his only homer in 28 plate appearances in the District that year.

Was it the pitching? Here’s a chronological list of the pitchers off whom Harper homered:

Joe Coleman, Casey Cox, Diego Segui, Chuck Dobson, Bill Butler, Jim Kaat (twice), Luis Tiant, Rich Hand, Bart Johnson, Phil Hennigan, Steve Dunning, Clyde Wright, Tom Murphy (twice), Ken Tatum, Bob Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Gary Wagner, Sparky Lyle, Mike Nagy, Gary Peters, Jim Hannan, Stan Bahnsen, Denny McLain, Fred Lasher, Jim Palmer, Hal Haydel, Dave LaRoche, Mel Queen, Tom Bradley.

It’s not exactly a who’s who, but Harper hit dingers off 29 different major league pitchers, including two Hall of Famers (Palmer and Catfish Hunter, though Hunter’s ‘70 was well before he entered his HoF prime), two more who should be HoFers (Kaat, Tiant) and some other really good pitchers:

  • Segui’s 1970 is a lost gem in which he led the league in both ERA and ERA+
  • Clyde Wright was an All-Star and, along with Palmer, a top-ten Cy Young Award vote-getter
  • Peters went 16-11 and probably would have been better if not for a half-run discrepancy the wrong way between FIP and ERA
  • 1970s proto-closer Sparky Lyle wasn’t his normally lights-out self (he was in 1969 and would boast an ERA+ over 118 every year until 1979

The overwhelming number of these pitchers, though, just weren’t very good, a sub-100 ERA+, elevated FIP, losing records, short careers: it would appear that the 1969 expansion, along with adjustments to the mound after Bob Gibson’s total dominance in ‘68 (amongst others, but Gibson casually turned in the greatest-ever pitching season to date) saw a commensurate uplift amongst hitters Harper’s age. They were simply in the right place at the right time.

Some saw immediate improvement and career transformation in those years after 1968: Tony Perez’ prime coincided with expansion and mound changes. Willie Stargell was already a feared hitter but burnished his Cooperstown resume from 1969 onward. Lee May became an offensive force throughout the 70s in no small part to the league’s transformation.

Then there were flashes in the pan: Jim Northrup never matched his production in ‘69. Mike Epstein, too, enjoyed a bounce in 1969 and ’70 (such as it was; regardless, he hit over half his 130 career home runs from 1969-71.) And there’s Tommy Harper right there with them. Some rode the wave all the way to immortality. For others, the wave flattened out as the league corrected itself.

If Harper’s career is instructive at all, it further underscores what we already know: in any given season and under the right circumstances, any player can catch fire, defy data and conventions alike and make fans believe in a game that gives us everyman heroes like 1970 Tommy Harper, the bright light on a crappy Brewers club.

This is precisely the stuff of which folk stories are made.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.