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September 29, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Strange but Memorable Brew

by Jay Jaffe

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I don't know how many times I've seen the clip. Big Pete Ladd delivers to Rod Carew, who grounds to Robin Yount, who throws over to Cecil Cooper, who clutches the ball in his glove and raises his outstretched arm as he heads towards the dogpile on the mound where the Milwaukee Brewers celebrate their 1982 pennant. That final out has stood as the pinnacle of the Brewers' success for over a quarter of a century, a moment to savor for a franchise that has enjoyed more bad times than good in 40 seasons of existence across two cities and two leagues. It defined not only the success of a pennant captured, but the failure to top that with a World Championship, and the epic, playoff-free drought that the franchise endured during 25 years of frustration and occasional humiliation.

All of that changed on Sunday. The Brewers didn't capture a pennant on the final day of the 2008 season, didn't even capture a division crown, but the pairing of their come-from-behind victory over the Cubs with a loss by the Mets earned them the NL wild-card berth. Furthermore, it guaranteed that if nothing else, the next generation of Brewers fans will have a new highlight reel to etch into their collective unconscious, one featuring Ryan Braun's towering two-run eighth-inning homer and CC Sabathia's bear hug of Jason Kendall after sealing the victory by inducing Derrek Lee to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play. A new chapter has been written in Milwaukee baseball, and it's about damn time.

I know that 1982 clip by heart, not only because I was one of many baseball fans across the country who climbed onto the bandwagon of Harvey's Wallbangers, but because I married into a family of Brewers fans, a long-suffering bunch for whom that now-ancient pennant remains a touchstone. From my first visit to Milwaukee in 2001, I became invested in the franchise's turnaround via a trip to the recently inaugurated Miller Park. My empathy and attention to the club's fate only increased as it became glaringly apparent that the latter-day Selig family's preferred style of management bordered on Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, and that the new ballpark was anything but the financial panacea that had been promised.

Things began to change with the Selig family's decision to sell the club, though to be fair, the two key hires of the rebuilding effort came prior to Mark Attanasio's purchase in September 2004. General manager Doug Melvin was hired by team president/CEO Ulice Payne in late 2002, and survived despite Payne getting it in the neck from the Wendy Selig-Prieb-led board of directors a year later. Scouting director Jack Zduriencik has been on the job since 2000, a testament to the Selig family's blind chicken-like ability to stumble over the occasional kernel of corn. Prior to Melvin's arrival, Zduriencik had already drafted such staples of the Milwaukee baseball renaissance as Corey Hart (11th round, 2000), J.J. Hardy (second round, 2001), and Prince Fielder (first round, 2002), and in the years after Melvin's arrival, they added Rickie Weeks (first round, 2003), Yovani Gallardo (second round, 2004) and Braun (first round, 2005).

The transition between the Selig and Attanasio regimes was symbolized by the evolution at first base, as the grim financial realities of Richie Sexson's departure turned into the holding pattern of the Lyle Overbay years, with the promise of Fielder's ascendance just on the horizon. I wanted nothing more for my in-laws and their fellow Brewer fans than for their team to take them back to that happy place they enjoyed in 1982. We commiserated as the team lost 388 games from 2001 to 2004, and shared in the small joys as they scraped .500 in 2005, and finally crossed that benchmark for the first time in 15 years in 2007. That last was a bittersweet consolation prize for the heartache of the team's near-miss of a playoff berth.

Heading into Sunday's game, the possibility that this season might end with yet another close-but-no-cigar resolution nearly wore a hole in my stomach, and the first six and a half innings of the game did little to change that. The Brewers had failed to get a hit through the first six frames against Ted Lilly in Saturday's loss, and following a leadoff single by Mike Cameron to start the finale, it was a similar story as the next 18 hitters went down in order. They did so against a collection of pitchers far inferior to Lilly; Cubs manager Lou Piniella chose to skip Carlos Zambrano and turn the game into a bullpen casting call, and among the parade of pitchers auditioning for his post-season roster were a few with unsightly ERAs and relatively little time in the majors this year. Angel Guzman, owner of a 7.04 ERA in just 7 2/3 innings, made the start against a lineup pressing so hard that he struck out four of the first five hitters, all of them swinging at balls outside the strike zone. Chad Gaudin (6.49 ERA since being acquired from Oakland) needed just nine pitches to induce three groundouts in the third. Neal Cotts and Kevin Hart (6.51 ERA) used just 35 pitches to work through the next three frames, notching three more strikeouts.

Still, the game was as tight as the Brewer hitters thanks to the work of CC Sabathia, making his third start in a row on three days' rest. Relying on his changeup and cut fastball more than his heater, he generated numerous swings and misses, and began racking up the strikeouts his second time through the Cubs' order. Chicago had scored the game's lone run in the second inning thanks to some less-than-tidy work by the Brewer defense. Aramis Ramirez had led off with a single, and one out later might have been erased in an inning-ending double play had Micah Hoffpauir's grounder not gone through Fielder's wickets. Ronny Cedeno legged out another potential double-play grounder, safe on a close play that could have been called the other way as Ramirez came home.

That run must have looked like 10 to the flailing Brewers offense, at least until the scoreboard showed that the Marlins had broken through for the game's first two runs against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Perhaps that took a bit of the pressure off the Brewers, and perhaps Piniella finally drew the wrong card from the deck in Sean Marshall, who allowed a leadoff double to Ray Durham that rekindled Milwaukee's hopes. Durham alertly advanced to third on a groundout that new third baseman Casey McGehee had to backhand past the bag near the foul line. Fielder drew an intentional walk, then Marshall gave way to Michael Wuertz, who had smothered the Brewers' lone rally the day before. Wuertz walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases but struck out Corey Hart on three curveballs, the last of which could have passed for a boat on Lake Michigan. Up came Craig Counsell, as powerless as a spent AAA battery but a pest nonetheless; over the previous week he'd put up a .556 OBP in 18 plate appearances, drawing walks, taking a couple HBPs, whatever it took. Here he drew a walk that forced in a run which may have saved the Brewers' season. Jason Kendall grounded out to end the threat, but they were back in business.

The rally appeared to buoy Sabathia. Not that he'd been flagging, but he came back out for the eighth inning and blew through the 100-pitch threshold by setting down the side on a tidy 13 pitches, notching two strikeouts. As if to send the message that this was his game and his game alone, manager Dale Sveum sent Sabathia up to the plate to lead off the eighth against Bobby Howry (5.35 ERA); the big fella had sent a loud foul ball down the right-field line in his previous turn and remained a threat. He struck out, but Cameron singled, and then Durham hit one a ton... but to the fat part of the ballpark in right center field. The beyond-capacity Miller Park crowd of 45,299-a mixture of Brewers and Cubs fans-groaned, but with an audible amount of cheering as well.

Those groans were drowned out entirely with the next swing of the bat. Braun, the hero of Thursday night via a walk-off grand slam, blasted a soaring drive to left-center field, and by the time it came down, ecstatic Milwaukee fans were commissioning a bronze statue to accompany the ones of Yount and Hank Aaron outside Miller Park. Such was the frenzy that nobody saw Fielder strike out with three mighty cuts.

Given the shaky state of their bullpen in recent days/weeks/months, there was no question that the ball and the Brewers' season would remain in Sabathia's hands in the ninth inning. He made the fans and his manager sweat, falling behind Alfonso Soriano 3-1 before eliciting a loud flyout to left and then yielding a single to Ryan Theriot to bring the tying run to the plate. He got ahead of Lee, however, and then generated a slick double-play ball that, while it didn't officially clinch anything, put the Brewers in a position to reach the postseason with a Mets loss. After about 20 minutes punctuated by sixteen pitching changes from Mets skipper Jerry Manuel, all of which the crowd and players watched on the stadium scoreboard screen, the Brewers had their berth.

Sunday's win vindicated Melvin's gutsy, go-for-broke move to acquire Sabathia from the Indians back in July, and the go-for-broke way they've handled him down the stretch; the complete game was the big man's seventh since his acquisition. When the campfire stories are told about the legendary pitchers who refused to give up the ball when the heat was at its hottest, he'll deserve a spot among the Bob Gibsons and Jack Morrises, at least in the eyes of Wisconsinites.

The win also vindicated the less-laudable and nearly unprecedented move to fire Ned Yost and replace him with Sveum with just 12 games remaining in a desperate attempt to right the team after they opened September with a 3-11 free fall. It's too early to get a real bead on Sveum's tactical differences from Yost given the state of his battered and tattered pitching staff, but here's an alarming stat: the last Brewer starting pitcher besides Sabathia to go beyond five innings came in Yost's penultimate game, the one where his handling of the bullpen cost him his job. Given two early exits apiece from Jeff Suppan and Ben Sheets (who at least has a note from his doctor), and bullpen starts from Yovani Gallardo and Seth McClung, it's something of a miracle that the Brewers survived to reel off a season-salvaging 6-1 sprint under those circumstances. But they did it, and that they did will remain a part of the lore of Milwaukee baseball for a good long time. Congratulations to the Brewers and to their fans, most particularly the extended Hardt family of Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Some notes from Sunday:

  • For the third year in a row, my wife was drawn out of town on business for the final weekend of the season, leaving me to a grubby, temporary bachelorhood to enjoy the season's final days. One of the first things I've done under the circumstances is to push my coffee table aside, creating a pacing zone in the living room where I'm much less likely to bang my shin in celebration or in anger; unencumbered, I can jump around like a sugared-up four-year-old if need be, and I'm not too proud to admit that I did so a few times this weekend in following the Brewers.

    I can also enjoy my own technological playpen. Sunday I had both the Brewers and Mets games recording on the HD Tivo (I've said it before and I'll say it again: any television set that does not have a Tivo attached is broken), and I had the bedroom TV and Tivo running, as well as my laptop and iPhone. Somehow I managed to stay informed regarding the "right" games-the Twins and White Sox contests, Mike Mussina's quest for his 20th victory (more on which momentarily)-and enough in the dark about the Mets and Brewers games that I could switch back and forth between recordings, inching through the innings without getting any of the dreaded "messages from the future" via highlight cut-ins. My system wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough to keep both games suspenseful right up until the final out of the Mets game, and it made my afternoon all the more fun.

  • Lou Piniella's decision to go with a bullpen game started by Guzman wasn't the only "controversial" choice as far as playoffs-impacting starting assignments yesterday. The Royals quite reasonably shut down Zack Greinke for the season's final week rather than push him beyond the 202 1/3 innings he'd already notched, and instead sent the vastly inferior Brandon "Chuck and" Duckworth to the hill against the Twins. In some quarters (including on BP's internal mailing list) there was griping when the Indians chose to scratch Cliff Lee from their finale against the White Sox in favor of Bryan Bullington, the former number-one pick who has yet to win a big-league game and who was making just his second start of the year.

    Neither the Twins nor the White Sox were entitled to bitch given their opponents' quite understandable longer-term priorities, particularly within the same division. There's simply no point in splitting hairs over the final day's matchups when any of the teams with something to play for arrived at that point with a laundry list of debatable decisions and subpar performances that prevented them from sealing things up earlier (say, starting Livan Hernandez 23 times while Francisco Liriano languished on the farm long after proving his effectiveness). In Cleveland's defense, Lee had been dealing with a stiff neck since before his previous start, had been tagged in his last three starts (5.81 ERA, 12.5 H/9), and had already set a career high in innings by 21 via a year-over-year increase of 47, including his minor league work. He was fully cooked, and there was no point in exposing him to further risk. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

  • Speaking of the Mets, in my notes from Sunday's game I have the phrase "suicide attempt" regarding Manuel's decision to intentionally walk Dan Uggla to load the bases in the sixth inning and then pull starter Oliver Perez after just 85 pitches. Yes, Perez was going on three days' rest and may have been flagging, but given the state of the Mets' bullpen-a horse we've flogged repeatedly here-he should have wanted as little to do with that unit as possible. Instead he put the season in their hands, and not surprisingly, it slipped through as though it were Marvelous Marv Throneberry himself handling a piece of birthday cake. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me six or eight times by calling the numbers of Joe Smith, Scott Schoeneweis, and Luis Ayala, shame on me.

  • Speaking of Throneberry (who, having died 14 years ago, was spared yesterday's drama), how about the Mets' decision to schedule their celebration of the final regular-season game in Shea Stadium until afterwards? For whatever mixed emotions may have existed regarding the Yankees' doomed season and the issues surrounding their old and new ballparks, Yankee Stadium got the gala sendoff it deserved. Shea Stadium can make no claim to match the history of the House That Ruth Built, but its grimy confines did contain two of baseball's most miraculous moments-the 1969 triumph and the 1986 comeback-and it deserved a proper celebration. Creating the possibility of a ceremony overshadowed by the team's potential elimination was an insult to Mets fans, and it ensured that the ballpark's final day will be remembered with all of the fondness of a scar from a rat bite.

  • Regarding the Yankees, after the real drama had passed, I was elated to catch the final outs that gave Mussina his 20th win, making him, at age 39, the oldest pitcher to reach that mark for the first time. I've argued already that Mussina has accomplished enough to merit election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but prior to this year his resume included none of the traditional accomplishments that can burnish a borderline player's case-no World Series ring, no Cy Young award, and no 20-win season-in the eyes of the electorate.

    The Moose had notched 18 or 19 wins five times coming into this year, and after a slow start this spring, he reinvented himself to great effect by taking a few more miles per hour off his off-speed stuff and going inside more often with a fastball that wouldn't get ticketed in a school zone. As the Yankees' playoff hopes crumbled, his quest to win 20 became one of the few reasons to keep checking in; he'd won his 17th game on September 2, but was knocked around in his next two starts, leaving him needing to win his final three. He did so by allowing one run over his final 17 innings and despite being hit on the right elbow by a Travis Snider line drive in his previous start.

    Win number 20 pushed his career total to 270, and may have sealed the deal, Cooperstown-wise. It may also have been Mussina's swan song. A free agent after the season, he'll certainly have suitors (starting with the Yankees), but he's spoken of his desire to go home to his family, and he sounds as though he may retire rather than sign on for a three-year quest to chase his 300th win.

  • Over the weekend, ESPN's Rob Neyer noted the supportive comments of former Orioles great Jim Palmer, who thinks Mussina is Hall-worthy. "I always said I thought he was every bit as good as I was," Palmer told the Baltimore Sun's Roch Kubatko. Neyer begged to differ: "He wasn't. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young Awards and finished with 268 wins and a 126 career ERA+. Mussina's got 269 wins, zero Cy Young Awards, and a 122 career ERA+."

    With all due respect to Neyer, he's off base here. Mussina may lack Palmer's hardware, but over the course of his career he's been more valuable than Palmer was, and not by a little. Over the course of 19 seasons, Palmer pitched 3,948 innings and was 151 Pitching Runs Above Average and 1,064 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, worth 99.6 WARP3 according to Clay Davenport's system. Mussina, in 18 seasons totaling about 400 fewer innings, was 312 runs above average-more than double Palmer, in other words-and 1,302 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, good for 132.4 WARP3. Palmer's best seven seasons (his peak, in JAWS terms) were worth 64.3 WARP3; Mussina trumps that with 66.5 WARP3. Mussina's also got a considerable edge in career VORP (860.7 to 752.9) and a slight one in SNLVAR (99.7 to 96.2). Properly adjusted for the context of a more difficult work environment, he gains the advantage.

    Jim Palmer was a great pitcher on some ballclubs that are regarded among the best of the '60s and '70s. The matinee-idol good looks, the underwear ads, and the public feuds with manager Earl Weaver make for a colorful public persona that rounds out out his Hall-worthy credentials to the point of legend. Mussina bore the burden of spending the first half of his career pitching in the shadow of that legend on ballclubs that weren't the equal of those Weaver squads, and he developed a public persona that, while thoughtful, was far more reserved than that of the outgoing Palmer. Accompanied by the evolution of the starting pitcher's role over the last three decades, those differences dramatically distort the perceptions of the two pitchers, but props to Palmer for recognizing that and for speaking up on Mussina's behalf. Even if he never throws another pitch, Mike Mussina is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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