New team, same vision: How Counsell can be difference-maker

November 13th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- The Cubs were coming off one of the great World Series triumphs in baseball history, fielding a lineup full of stars and primed for a stroll back to the October stage. What they did not expect in the summer of 2017 was for an unheralded Brewers group to keep pushing for the division deep into the season.

The Cubs held the Brewers off in the end, but a statement had been made by Chicago’s rivals up north.

“That team had no right to be there,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer told reporters at the GM Meetings last week. “They made us play [until] the last week of the season, and from a talent standpoint, it just wasn’t close. That was probably the time we were like, ‘What are they doing?’”

Hoyer pointed to that year as the moment when Craig Counsell really started to put himself on the radar as a difference-making manager. In a smaller market in Milwaukee, the Brewers pulled out of multiple years of rebuilding and grew into a consistent threat in the National League Central under Counsell’s direction.

In 2018, the Brewers chased down the Cubs in the final weeks of the season, forcing a must-win Game 163 that resulted in Milwaukee capturing the division. Chicago was then knocked out by Colorado in the NL Wild Card Game. The Brewers continued to be a thorn in the Cubs’ side in the years that followed.

The Brewers’ ability to annually be in the postseason mix -- they won three division titles and had five playoff appearances in the past six years -- played a role in Hoyer’s decision to pursue Counsell for the Cubs’ managerial seat. Maybe Counsell could get even more out of a Chicago roster that looks to be on the rise again.

Asked about Counsell’s skills as a manager, Hoyer reached back to a quote from former football coach Bum Phillips about Bear Bryant.

“He said, ‘[Bryant can] take his and beat yours and take yours and beat his,’” Hoyer said. “That's kind of how I felt sometimes watching [Counsell] -- that he was getting the most out of his teams over and over and over.”

For a bit of evidence to back that up, take a look at the Brewers’ Pythagorean record (based on run differential) in comparison to Milwaukee’s actual win total each year. Here is a yearly breakdown of the Brewers’ difference in actual wins compared to their Pythag over the past seven seasons:

2023: +2
2022: +1
2021: +2
2020: +1
2019: +8
2018: +5
2017: +1

That’s a +20 difference between wins on the field and the theoretical win total based on runs scored and runs allowed. Yes, it is a broad-strokes assessment that cuts out nuance. But it is nonetheless a glimpse into how Counsell was able to squeeze a little more out of his roster on a consistent basis.

Former Cubs manager David Ross had a +5 difference in wins compared to the Pythagorean total across 2020-22, winning a division title in his first year before overseeing a two-year rebuilding process. This past season, though, the Cubs’ 83-win campaign fell seven wins under the Pythagorean win total (90 wins).

Hoyer said he felt the Cubs “left wins on the table” last season, adding that the hope would be that Counsell could help shore some things up given his experience over the years in Milwaukee.

“Year after year after year, they've outperformed expectations, which is really impressive,” Hoyer said. “And, listen, it's not a one-man show up there. They've had two really capable people running baseball operations up there. They've done a really good job in Milwaukee. They're a very worthy rival [with] all the things that they've done.

“So I think making this like Craig Counsell was the whole reason -- no, of course not. But I do think consistently, they've outperformed expectations. And that's borne out both with your eyes and when you look at the data.”