The best debut seasons in Brewers history

May 18th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Just like a week ago when fans chimed in with their favorite villains, our story about the best debut season in each club’s history sparked some solid feedback from Brewers nation.

So, let’s give our pick for the original story -- Rollie Fingers in 1981 -- some company, based on the nominees we originally considered, plus a dose of fan feedback. In chronological order, here are more sensational Brewers debuts.

Tommy Harper (1970)
We’re cheating, right off the top. The 1970 season was not Harper’s debut with the franchise (he went from the Indians to the Seattle Pilots in the 1968 expansion Draft), but ’70 was the franchise’s debut season in Milwaukee. So, we’re including Harper by virtue of a 7.4 Baseball-Reference WAR, the fourth-highest single-season mark in franchise history (just ahead of Christian Yelich’s 7.3 bWAR in 2018). After leading the Majors with 73 stolen bases in a Pilots uniform in ’69, Harper hit 31 home runs and collected 38 stolen bases in ‘70 to become the fifth member of the 30-30 club in baseball history.

Tom Murphy (1974)
Murphy, acquired in a trade with the Cardinals in December 1973, didn’t make a single start in ’74, yet he went 10-10 with a 1.90 ERA in 70 appearances spanning 123 innings and garnered a vote in American League MVP Award voting. It’s one of the most underrated performances in club history.

Larry Hisle (1978)
Sal Bando was the Brewers’ first notable free-agent acquisition, but Larry Hisle may have been the best, at least in terms of immediate impact. Hisle, who’d established himself as a power threat in nine seasons with the Phillies and Twins from 1968-77, inked a six-year, $3.155 million pact with the Brewers that shocked the baseball world in November 1977 -- the largest contract for any free agent that offseason. It paid quick dividends when Hisle made the AL All-Star team and finished third in AL MVP Award balloting in ‘78, the highest finish for a Brewers player until 1981, when Fingers won the award.

Teddy Higuera (1985)
The Brewers signed Higuera out of the Mexican League and earned immediate dividends, as the 27-year-old lefty delivered 212 1/3 innings and a 3.90 ERA in 1985. It was a tune-up for ’86, when Higuera became the third 20-game winner in franchise history and posted a 2.79 ERA with 207 strikeouts.

Dave Parker (1990) and Willie Randolph (1991)
Two of the greatest one-year-and-done players in franchise history happened to play in Milwaukee in back-to-back seasons. Parker, the longtime Pirates, Reds and A’s star, probably looked a bit strange to some baseball fans when he wore a Brewers uniform to the All-Star Game in 1990, the year the Cobra slashed .289/.330/.451 with 21 home runs. A year later, Randolph slashed .327/.424/.374 as the Brewers’ primary second baseman.

Pat Listach (1992)
At the end of the 1991 season, Listach was buried on the Brewers' depth chart behind Gary Sheffield and Bill Spiers, but when opportunity knocked, Listach was ready to answer. It started with his fortuitous decision to further his conversion to switch-hitting by getting at-bats over the winter in Mexico. After his team fell short of the playoffs, Listach was picked up by Hermosillo -- managed by former Brewers shortstop Tim Johnson -- and went all the way to the Caribbean Series.

As a result, Listash played competitively into February and reported to Spring Training not only in great physical shape, but in midseason baseball form. That led to a great spring, which put Listach in the perfect position for what came next. The Brewers traded a disgruntled Sheffield to San Diego on March 26, 1992, and lost Spiers to a back injury at the end of camp. Scott Fletcher was the Opening Day shortstop, but Listach would soon take over the job. He hit .290 with a .352 on-base percentage and 54 stolen bases and became the first player in franchise history to win a Rookie of the Year Award.

“Nobody knew who the hell he was,” said then-closer Dan Plesac. “He ended up being the catalyst for that team. That’s the crazy thing and the amazing thing about the game of baseball. Even on our own team, we were like, ‘Who the hell is Pat Listach?’”

Ben McDonald (1996)
Some might consider McDonald a bust because of a shoulder injury in 1997 that effectively ended his career, but in ’96, he delivered a 3.90 ERA in 35 starts and 221 1/3 innings that look better and better thanks to advanced stats. McDonald’s 5.4 bWAR is the sixth-highest single-season total in Brewers history, and his 133 ERA+ is in the top 10 for qualified pitchers.

Derrick Turnbow (2005)
Turnbow burned bright and then flamed out, but in 2005, he was a fan favorite while logging 39 saves with a 1.74 ERA in 67 1/3 innings for a Brewers team that went 81-81 for the franchise’s first non-losing season in 13 years. Turnbow started hot in ’06, made the National League All-Star team and was celebrated with a bobblehead with “real” hair (though he took a loss that day), but a brutal July cost him the closer’s job and he never enjoyed the same success.

Ryan Braun (2007)
The Brewers’ first NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, Braun learned two things in 2007: He wasn’t meant to man third base, but he could certainly hit big league pitching. Braun hit 34 home runs with 97 RBIs and an NL-best .634 slugging percentage in only 113 games. He edged the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki in one of the closest ballots ever.

CC Sabathia (2008)
Fingers was our pick in the original version of this exercise, but it could easily have been Sabathia, who came to the Brewers from the Indians in one of the most impactful midseason trades in baseball history. He made 17 Brewers starts, tossing seven complete games, including three shutouts, and going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in the regular season. Sabathia finished his Brewers tenure by making five consecutive starts on short rest, including a complete-game win over the Cubs in the regular-season finale that clinched the NL Wild Card, giving Milwaukee its first postseason appearance in 26 years.

“It was ridiculous,” said Corey Hart, a longtime Brewers outfielder. “He was one of the best pitchers in baseball at that point, and for him to do what he did, knowing what he had at stake after that season, to care and to put everything out there for us, that was huge.”

Trevor Hoffman (2009)
Hoffman, a free agent in the 2008-09 offseason following 16 glorious seasons with the Padres, could have signed just up the road in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, but he instead chose a Brewers team coming off a postseason appearance and seeking more stability at closer after Eric Gagne didn’t pan out the year before. Hoffman notched 37 saves and made the NL All-Star team in a fabulous debut season in Milwaukee, a seemingly seamless transition. The 2010 season was far more tumultuous, but in ’09, Hoffman was still as good as they get.

Aramis Ramirez (2012)
The Brewers needed some thump in the wake of Prince Fielder’s departure and found it in Ramirez, who led the NL with 50 doubles while hitting .300/.360/.540 in 2012. It’s a top-30 season in franchise history by bWAR and began a four-year tenure that was steady and productive.

Christian Yelich (2018)
Here’s another top contender for the best debut season in Brewers history. Yelich rode a record-setting second half to the NL MVP Award and, with fellow January 2018 addition Lorenzo Cain, lifted Milwaukee back to the postseason for the first time in seven years. Yelich became the first league batting champion in Brewers history by hitting .326, and he also led the NL with a .598 slugging percentage, a 1.000 OPS, a 164 OPS+ and 343 total bases.