The Milwaukee Brewers are in the midst of the most unprecedented run of success in the clubs history – 4 consecutive trips to the post-season (1st time in franchise history).
In addition, the Brewers have routinely been amongst the bottom third of the MLB in payroll. Simply put, the Brewers have found a way to defy the odds and create a sustainable contender on an uneven playing field. But how did they do it?
This answer is a conglomerate of things with one common denominator, David Stearns. Stearns was named the 9th GM in club history back in 2015 at just 30 years old. The Harvard graduate had spent the previous three seasons with the Houston Astros as assistant GM where he focused on analytics, player development, and scouting.
His method of building a contender in small market Milwaukee was simple: acquire, develop, and retain cheap controllable talent across the entirety of the system by any means necessary. Whether it be through the draft or via trade, he was going to put a premium on acquiring players the team could afford and build with to give the team the longest window of winning possible.
Beyond that, Stearns has proved to be flexible with his strategy. He’s showed time and time again that he’s willing to pivot should value present itself in a place that he didn’t expect it to. It’s more important that he get the most bang for his buck and improve the club by any means necessary.
The results have been impossible to argue with:
Under Stearns guidance, leadership, and willingness to deal – the club improved their win total in each of the first three seasons. But to call this a one man job would be dismissing the plethora of individuals that have played a vital role in the clubs success.
Finding the right manager
Stearns had a clear vision for the future of the club, so it was going to be of the utmost importance to have an open line of communication with the team’s manager – allowing them to both get on the same page. Stearns was going to need to have a manager that would be willing to embody this unconventional approach – and the one he inherited, Craig Counsell, would prove to be the perfect man for the job.
Counsell took a lot of heat early in his career for the way he deployed pitchers and played match-ups. He viewed the game as a 27 out chess match rather than a conventional 9 inning game. Counsell is also willing to play position players anywhere on the diamond, even out of their natural defensive position to give his offense the best chance to produce runs.
His methods of deployment aren’t one size fits all, but instead tailors it to the individuals in the clubhouse. Craig Counsell has created a culture in the clubhouse that both players and fans alike can appreciate – which has led to a career managerial record of 525-474 (.526 W-L%). Counsell is knocking on the door of the most wins in franchise history, and will ultimately become the Brewers winningest manager in due time. David Stearns and Craig Counsell have complemented each other well.
The Brewers unconventional development process
So with limited financial resources, how have the Brewers continued to put themselves in position to contend four straight seasons?
The front office has been forced to find value in players that other franchises don’t. By uncovering players that excelled in specific areas, then they can build upon those strengths and help them become the best version of who they naturally are as a player. To make it this far in their career, players have to have lots of natural talent. By letting them be who they truly are instead of trying to force them into being something they aren’t, the players are happier and have performed better.
This strategy has proved worthwhile and to be very cost effective for the small market Brewers.
The Brewers are a club that is heavily data/analytically driven – so much so that the development and feedback doesn’t just take place during the offseason. The players and coaches are focused on continued in-season development using all of the data they collect in season. Through gathered information and predictive metrics, the Brewers are able to obtain the results that they expect to get from their investment.
Essentially the Brewers have had to pivot from coveting the same things as other clubs and focus on what they’ve perceived to be the “right things” that are more in their price range. Some players aren’t intended to be everyday players – but instead are highly valuable role players used for specific match-ups. The Brewers are essentially orchestrating a more modern day spin on the “Moneyball” method.
The Brewers have taken this unconventional approach to the game and treat baseball more like a game of chess, and to treat their chess pieces like the unique individuals they are. Without the money of big market teams, the Brewers developed their own unique method of player development that focuses more on what a player can do – and what they can do to improve those traits than to focus on what they can’t do. Thus finding value in some of the most unlikely places.
As long as David Stearns is at the helm, Milwaukee is in good hands.