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Brewers' Top 5 righty starters: McCalvy's take

@AdamMcCalvy
May 26, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, feel free to let the reporter know on Twitter.

Here is Adam McCalvy’s ranking of top 5 right-handed starting pitchers in Brewers history. Next week: left-handed starting pitchers.

Brewers' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH

1. Ben Sheets, 2001-08
Key fact: Was the Brewers’ all-time strikeout leader from 2008 -- when he broke Teddy Higuera’s club mark -- until 2014.

Sheets couldn’t hit a lick, even as a kid in little St. Amant, La., so he earned notice with his arm. The Brewers drafted him 10th overall in 1999, and Sheets gained fame the following year at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, where he authored a shutout against mighty Cuba in the gold medal game for baseball’s version of hockey’s Miracle On Ice. It was the highlight of Sheets’ meteoric rise to the Major Leagues by 2001, and it was all rather simple: Sheets threw a steady diet of power fastballs and killer, 12-to-6 curveballs.

“I don’t know what you’d change,” he said last summer in an interview for "The Milwaukee Brewers at 50," a new book marking the 50th anniversary of the team’s move to Milwaukee. “I had nothing but two pitches. Everybody’s mad because I never had a third pitch. Dude, I worked on changeups and cutters, sliders. I couldn’t throw ‘em. That’s what people don’t realize, like from the fans: ‘He needs a third pitch.’ Shoot, you don’t think we know that? Looking back, obviously I could have been better. But I was pretty successful, and I only threw two pitches.

“One time [then-Brewers pitching coach] Mike Maddux said to me, ‘I think you’d be shocked at how effective the changeup is.’ So I looked it up. They were like 7-for-9 against it at that time, with like five homers. I was like, ‘You’re right, I am shocked. I didn’t know it was that bad.’”

Instead, Sheets took some advice from longtime Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel and honed his two best pitches. The strategy worked, to the tune of four All-Star teams in eight seasons with the Brewers, starting with his rookie season in 2001, and ending with his final season in Milwaukee in 2008, when he became the first (and so far, only) pitcher to start a Midsummer Classic. Sheets’ finest season was ’04, the year he logged a 2.70 ERA and 264 strikeouts -- a franchise record that still stands.

The signature performance was May 16, 2004, when he set a club record with 18 strikeouts in a complete-game masterpiece against the Braves at Miller Park. His second-best season was ’08, when Sheets had a sub-3.00 ERA until the final week of September for a team that was closing in on the Brewers’ first postseason berth in 26 years. A 1-0 shutout against Jake Peavy and the Padres on Sept. 6 proved his last great performance; Sheets battled an injured elbow after that and missed the playoffs, then underwent surgery that fall.

“We all know about his injuries,” teammate Geoff Jenkins said, “but even when he was injured, he was on that top step. He was just an awesome competitor. But man, he was an even better person. Maybe a lot of people don’t know that backdrop about Ben.”

2. Yovani Gallardo, 2007-14
Key fact: Fifth all-time in Brewers history (min. 500 innings) with a 3.69 ERA.

There’s a common criticism of the Brewers during Doug Melvin’s era as GM, that while the club hit on many of the hitters it selected with high Draft picks, it commonly whiffed on pitchers. Melvin would counter that the Brewers could have drafted pitchers with more of those early picks, but then fans wouldn’t have had Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and the rest of those hitters. Regardless of where one falls in that debate, Gallardo was one of the Brewers’ home-grown successes, a second-round pick in 2004 from Fort Worth, Texas, who could swing the bat a bit, too.

The Brewers’ opinion of Gallardo’s talent and poise was apparent in 2008, when, with Sheets injured and CC Sabathia having just defeated the Cubs in the regular-season finale to clinch the NL Wild Card, Gallardo was tabbed to start the team’s first postseason game in a generation. It was quite an assignment for a 22-year-old who had just made his Major League debut in ’07, never mind the fact that Gallardo had missed most of ’08 with a knee injury, and had pitched only one time since May 1.

In the years that followed, he stayed healthy and was a steady contributor atop Milwaukee’s rotation, making the NL All-Star team in 2010 and topping 200 strikeouts in four straight seasons from 2009-12. In 2011, Gallardo led a starting rotation fortified by trades for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, going 17-10 with a 3.52 ERA and a career-best 207 strikeouts in the regular season before delivering a pair of stellar starts in the 2011 NL Division Series against the D-backs.

In 2014, Gallardo passed Sheets to become the Brewers’ all-time strikeout leader. He finished his Milwaukee tenure with 1,226 strikeouts before the team traded Gallardo to Texas for a group of prospects that included a future All-Star closer in Corey Knebel.

“Any time you have an established veteran who grew up in the organization and was your No. 1 starter for all those years, you miss having him around,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said the following spring. “Very steady and consistent. When you needed a big game from him, he’d go out and have a big game.”

3. Chris Bosio, 1986-92
Key fact: 3.50 FIP is best in Brewers history for a right-handed pitcher (min. 500 innings).

By the Baseball-Reference measure of wins above replacement, Bosio owns two of the top eight seasons ever for a Brewers starter. And he was one of the team’s all-time competitors.

“I remember him coming into the dugout in Toronto,” said catcher-turned TV analyst Bill Schroeder. “We didn’t all have our own bat bags then. You would bring 3-4 bats on a trip, and that’s it. The big boys would have more. But I remember him coming in and grabbing two of my bats and he just destroyed them. He’d had a bad game, so he came in and grabbed anything. He probably figured I wasn’t going to use my bats, so he might as well beat them up. He didn’t take any crap from anyone.”

Bosio pitched as a swingman in his early years with the Brewers but was a mainstay of the rotation by 1989, going 49-35 with a 3.39 ERA in 118 starts over his final four years before departing for free agency along with Paul Molitor and Dan Plesac following the ’92 season. Only Plesac and Higuera have a better FIP in a Brewers uniform (min. 500 innings), and Bosio is in the Brewers’ all-time top 10 in complete games, shutouts, ERA, innings and strikeouts.

4. Moose Haas, 1976-85
Key fact: For fans of old-school stats, Haas’ .813 winning percentage in 1983 (13-3) is third-best in club history for a pitcher with at least 10 decisions.

Bryan Edmund Haas -- “Moose” was a nickname bestowed by his father at birth -- logged the second-most starts, third-most complete games, third-most innings and fifth-most strikeouts in the Brewers’ first 50 years while pitching a decade with the team. His 14 strikeouts against the Yankees on April 12, 1978, set a franchise record that stood until Sheets broke it in 2004.

5. Pete Vuckovich, 1981-86
Key fact: Another old-school stat: Vuckovich’s .606 winning percentage for the Brewers is tops in club history (min. 50 decisions).

The statistics don’t do justice to Vuckovich, who fares poorly in advanced stats but is also the only starting pitcher in Brewers history to win the Cy Young Award and was one of the top starters on the Crew's most beloved teams in the early 1980s. He came to Milwaukee with a pair of future Hall of Famers -- Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons -- in a trade with the Cardinals at the 1980 Winter Meetings that gave the Brewers the final pieces of their first two postseason teams.

Vuckovich led the Majors with 14 victories during the strike-shortened ’81 season and finished fourth in Cy Young Award balloting, then won the honor in ’82 after going 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA in the regular season. He fought through searing shoulder pain in the postseason to help the Brewers reach the seventh game of the World Series against the Cardinals, grunting and grinding his way through every batter.

“His shoulder was blown and he still got us to the sixth inning of the seventh game,” said Simmons. “He was giving me, like, half a fastball. He knew it. And finally, the Cardinals knew it. But Peter is an extraordinary man. Peter is the kind of guy who would say, ‘Hey, everyone has got challenges.’”

Honorable mention

Jim Slaton, 1971-77, 1979-83
Key fact: Made his lone American League All-Star team in 1977.

There’s something to be said for longevity, and no one had more longevity with the Brewers than Slaton, who is the franchise’s all-time leader in starts, wins, losses and innings, and watched the team transform from essentially an expansion outfit in the early 1970s to a contender by the end of that decade and to the World Series in 1982.

Slaton even helped the Brewers in a roundabout way when GM Harry Dalton traded him to Detroit with Rich Folkers in December 1977 for outfielder Ben Oglivie, one of the pivotal moves in Milwaukee’s rise to contention. Slaton re-signed with the Brewers as a free agent the following year. Thanks to his longevity, he’s fourth on the Brewers’ all-time list with 929 strikeouts.

“He was a stalwart of our rotation for a long, long time,” Gorman Thomas said. “You could never tell if he had a great day or a not-so-good day. He was so dependable and consistent. Quiet people like him never draw attention to themselves.”

More honorable mentions

Jim Colborn logged 22 complete games in 1973 (second in Brewers history to Mike Caldwell’s 23 in 1978) and pitched 314 1/3 innings for an all-time single-season franchise record. He was an All-Star that year, in Colborn’s second of five seasons with the Brewers. Colborn ranks fourth in Brewers history (min. 500 innings) with a 3.65 ERA). ... Bill Wegman ranks in the franchise’s top five in starts and innings, and ranks third in Brewers history in bWAR. … Cal Eldred, a former first-round pick, burst on the scene in 1992 by going 11-2 with a 1.79 ERA in 14 starts before becoming a mainstay for the Brewers in the 1990s. He led the team for the decade in wins, starts, innings and strikeouts.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.