Milwaukee Brewers: Stearns, Sabermetrics and the New Brew Crew
By Curt Hanke
It took less than three years for General Manager David Stearns to transform the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s not just a new team. It’s an entirely new approach for the organization.
"“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it.” — Hall of Fame Pitcher Goose Gossage"
When it comes to red-hot opposition to sabermetrics, Goose isn’t alone. Just say the words “data” and “baseball” in the same sentence and you’re liable to get a stick of pine tar tossed at your head.
Today, there are a dozen MLB general managers who have never played baseball in college, the minors or the show, so it’s safe to say that a more statistically-driven, business-minded approach is doubtless here to stay. Fun fact: In 2017, GMs without baseball experience delivered a lukewarm .514 win average. However, this same cohort did include both the Astros and Dodgers.
Sabermetrics is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, Bill James coined the term all the way back in 1980. (Curious about the etymology of the word “sabermetrics”? SABR is short for the “Society for American Baseball Research.” Yes, far from intuitive.)
In sum, what was born from “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” has led to a polarizing influence on how modern-day baseball teams are hired, fired and managed. And with the arrival of David Stearns, sabermetrics has found its way to 1 Brewers Way.
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Bench
After becoming the ninth general manager in Milwaukee Brewers team history in October 2015, Stearns stripped the Crew all the way down to its studs. In fact, just nine of the players on the current 40-man roster were on the same in 2015.
Everything that Stearns has done, where to spend capital, how much to invest in and utilize the farm system, the duration of contracts (both term and amount), is guided by a ruthless devotion to employing best practices across every function of baseball operations, including data and analytics. Even just the phrase “best practices” in the context of a baseball team makes eyes roll among many purists. The national pastime polluted with management principles and business jargon? For shame.
From a roster perspective, this has meant a bias against big names for the Brewers, and for wringing as much talent as possible from each individual dollar. In other words, Stearns’ approach has been to speak softly and carry a big bench.
This penchant for data has flowed all the way down to the Miller Park scoreboard, where batting averages were replaced with “OPS”. This sabermetric baseball statistic combines on-base percentage and slugging average. While OPS is admittedly a mathematical MacGyver if ever there was one, it has not only gained momentum among the Numerati, but actually correlates better with run production than most other batting statistics.
From More Data…to More Capital
A devotion to a more rational approach to decision-making, and a philosophical bent toward depth and diversity, doesn’t mean that Stearns is allergic to making big deals. To the contrary, if the numbers add up (see: Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain), with the right terms, he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. (Baseball Prospectus 2018: Yelich’s projected WARP, or Wins Above Replacement Player: 2018: 2.2, 2019: 3.2. Cain’s: 2018: 4.3, 2019: 3.0.)
To be clear, these recent deals aren’t a direct output of Sabermetrics per se; rather, they’re also predicated on a changing (or more accurately, lessened) constraint for the team payroll. Back in 2017, 17 Brewers made minimum salary or thereabouts; in fact, when last year’s season began, the Brewers had an actual payroll of less than $60 million. That is the lowest among the 30 clubs, depending on the reading of San Diego contract non-roster commitments. According to Sportrac, current 2018 payroll is slated at $84 million in total adjusted salary — with suggestions of more deals yet to come by owner Mark Attanasio.
Starting with the End in Mind
Stearns’ approach has without a doubt been grounded in good business practice. Namely, starting with the end in mind. For some baseball owners, “the end” isn’t always necessarily just about wins. Managing costs, increasing attendance and catering to other organizational or personal interests can certainly come into play. Thankfully for Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers, Attanasio has made it clear that not only are wins the ultimate measuring stick for the organization, but that a win in 2018 matters just as much as a win in 2020.
This is far from a new revelation for the Crew. When Attanasio was initially defining the criteria for a new GM, winning was at the top of the list. In fact, as he assessed 44 potential GM candidates over a wide range of data points, Attanasio’s number one criterion was “the vision, intelligence and strategic mindset to build the alignment necessary for consistent postseason play.”
Bottom line, the Brewers want to win — not just sell more tickets, hot dogs or jerseys. That’s good news for Brewers fans. Now it’s on to whether or not the approach, and investment, pays off.
Wins All Count the Same
You’ve read the press. The Milwaukee Brewers need a quality starting pitcher in order to compete in the National League Central. Do they? Because when you step back and consider Stearns’ philosophy, what we’re seeing in terms of a “wait and see approach” to additional pitching staff, as well as the smaller moves he has made for players like Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley, makes eminent sense.
To wit: there are 22 days until opening day. And beyond that, 148 days until the non-waiver trade deadline. When you look at it from a cold, calculated perspective, along with the lens of optimizing performance given admittedly scarce resources versus the rest of the league, why not play things out before making another transaction (and particularly a costly one)? After all, all wins count the same.
Further, why not see what deals might remain up to and through the start of the season? The price is likely to sweeten as free-agent players feel a heightened sense of urgency. So, why not gather more data on what the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers really look like with some days on the field? Seeing how some of Stearns’ smaller pitching “bets” pay off can only help. In sum, gather more intelligence before making a move to see what the team really needs. From a business perspective, what’s the rush if a win in August counts as much as a win in April?
Next: Could Jeff Bandy Start At Catcher?
The Only Data that Matters…Wins
It’s an exciting time to be a Milwaukee Brewers fan. But it’s a different kind of excitement, to be sure. One with a more patient and even stoic temperament. A penchant for numbers. And a willingness to squeeze out wins in a wider variety of fashions than ever before. So, will Stearns’ approach help usher the Brewers from the valley of darkness into the golden rays of the postseason? Only time (and more data) will tell.