The 5 best seasons by Brewers pitchers

December 1st, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Who put together the best seasons for a pitcher in Brewers history? To start a list, we averaged players’ WAR from Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Stats Inc.

After the top four, it seemed time to deviate. Do you agree with these selections for the top five seasons for a Brewers hurler?

1) , 2004
162 ERA+, 0.98 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 7.6 composite WAR

Sheets made the National League All-Star team as a rookie in 2001 and topped 200 innings in both ’02 and ’03 while keeping defenders on their toes with one of baseball’s quickest paces. In '04, he delivered the finest season of what would be a 10-year big league career. The highlight was a sunny Sunday afternoon against Atlanta on May 16 at Miller Park, where the stadium shadows and Sheets’ killer curveball made for a tough day for the Braves.

Sheets struck out a career-high and Brewers-record 18 batters, including six of the final seven men he faced, to beat Moose Haas’ record of 14 strikeouts on April 12, 1978, against the Yankees. It was the start of a long week for the Braves, who struck out 13 more times in Randy Johnson’s perfect game two days later in Atlanta.

“Maybe it was just a good matchup,” Sheets said. “They’ll tell you about the shadows, and I won’t argue that. But it was also a good matchup.”

Sheets’ 264 strikeouts that year remains the franchise record.

2) , 2021
176 ERA+, 0.94 WHIP, 12.6 K/9, 7.0 composite WAR

Burnes became the first league ERA champion in franchise history -- he led the Majors with a 2.34 ERA -- and set club records for qualifying pitchers in strikeout rate (35.6, eighth-best all-time for a qualifying pitcher), opponents’ on-base percentage (.248), slugging percentage (.273) and percentage of swings that miss (37.3 percent). He became the third pitcher in franchise history to win a Cy Young Award. But he pitched 167 innings as the Brewers employed a six-man rotation coming off the shortened 2020 season, which helps to explain how Burnes came in just behind Sheets in the average of his WAR scores. When Burnes did pitch, he was almost always dominant, leading MLB in ERA (2.43), expected ERA (2.01), strikeout rate, K/BB ratio (6.88), FIP (1.63), home runs per nine innings (0.38) and barrel rate (2.9%). Only Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, in 1999, had posted a lower FIP in the divisional era (since 1969).

And yet of the three systems we used, only Stats, Inc. had Burnes’ season as the top WAR in franchise history. FanGraphs gives that title to Sheets, and Baseball-Reference to 1986 Teddy Higuera, with ’04 Sheets fourth and ’21 Burnes seventh. So just like this year's close Cy Young Award race between Burnes and Phillies workhorse Zack Wheeler, this one comes down to how heavily one values innings on a pitcher’s resume.

3) Mike Caldwell, 1978
160 ERA+, 1.06 WHIP, 4.0 K/9, 6.87 composite WAR

Also known as “Mr. Warmth” for his icy demeanor, or “Battery Acid” as dubbed by Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons, Caldwell was well-traveled by the time he got to Milwaukee in 1977. Then-Brewers general manager Harry Dalton acquired Caldwell from Cincinnati midway through the '77 season as one of a series of deft moves that transformed Milwaukee from an expansion team to a contender by ’78, when the team made a remarkable 26-win improvement from the year before. Caldwell led the way with franchise records for ERA for a qualifier (2.36), complete games (23), victories (22) and shutouts (six) -- marks that still stand today. His 293 1/3 innings are second in franchise history.

For the next six-plus years, Caldwell was a mainstay of Milwaukee’s rotation, including the World Series season in 1982. While Sheets and Teddy Higuera induced a heavy dose of swing and miss, Caldwell pitched with guile, using a heavy sinker to induce a parade of ground balls.

“It was like hitting a bowling ball,” Simmons said. “As a hitter, you couldn’t lift it. That’s where his savvy was.”

4) Teddy Higuera, 1987
119 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 6.67 composite WAR

No pitcher in Brewers history delivered a string of seasons as good as Higuera’s from 1985-88. The challenge is choosing his best season. By traditional stats, it’s ‘86, when he went 20-11 with a 2.79 ERA, became the first pitcher in Crew history to top 200 strikeouts, made the American League All-Star team and finished second to Roger Clemens in AL Cy Young Award balloting. By adjusted ERA, it’s ‘88, when Higuera went 16-9 with a 2.45 ERA and a .207 opponents’ average that stood as a Brewers record until Brandon Woodruff broke it in 2020. But WAR says Higuera’s most valuable season was 1987, and that’s certainly the most memorable year for Brewers fans. Higuera was 18-10 with a 3.85 ERA and a then-club-record 240 strikeouts for a team that matched the Major League record with a 13-0 start, then finished with a pair of individual streaks. First was Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak, which ended in a 10-inning, 1-0 win against the Indians on Aug. 26 with Molitor on deck. Another streak was beginning for Higuera, who won the first of three consecutive shutouts that night and went on to deliver a club-record 32 straight scoreless innings.

5) , 2008
255 ERA+ as a Brewer, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.67 composite WAR

Sabathia was so dominant in his half-season in a Brewers uniform that he garnered a first-place vote in NL Cy Young Award balloting. He led the NL in complete games (seven), tied teammate Sheets for the NL lead in shutouts (three) and nearly pitched a no-hitter on Aug. 31 -- Milwaukee disputes Andy LaRoche’s infield single in Pittsburgh to this day -- despite making one fewer start in the NL (17) than he did in the AL with Cleveland. Sabathia basically lifted the Crew onto his broad shoulders and carried them into the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 130 2/3 regular-season innings in a Brewers uniform. He cleared at least seven innings in five of his six September starts -- the final three on three days’ rest to drive his agent crazy, because Sabathia had free agency looming. He insists it was his decision to take that risk, and it paid off when Sabathia delivered a complete game in the season finale against the Cubs and Ryan Braun hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning to help clinch the NL Wild Card.

"Doing what he did in a free-agent year will probably go down in history as one of the most unselfish things an athlete has ever done," GM Doug Melvin said amid the Brewers’ first champagne celebration in a generation. "Football, basketball, baseball. It's one of the most unselfish things in all of sports, what he has done."

Honorable mentions
was the Brewers’ first 20-game winner in 1973, when he went 20-12 with a 3.18 ERA and pitched 314 1/3 innings for a franchise record that still stands. His 22 complete games that year are second only to Caldwell in club history.

Lary Sorensen was a good pitching prospect drafted by the Brewers in 1976 who was in the Majors by ‘77 and an All-Star in ‘78, when he went 18-12 with a 3.21 ERA in 280 2/3 innings, fourth-most in franchise history.

' 1981 season was fifth on this list before Burnes bumped him off. The Brewers made their first postseason appearance that year by winning the second half -- and the right to face the Yankees in baseball’s first Division Series -- in no small part because of Fingers. Of the team’s 31 victories in the second half, Fingers pitched in 24 of them, with 16 saves and five victories. He finished with a 1.04 ERA and a Major League-leading 28 saves in 78 innings on the way to becoming the first relief pitcher to win his league’s Cy Young Award and MVP Award in the same year.

logged a 2.95 ERA in 234 2/3 innings in 1989, the third-most valuable season by average WAR in Brewers history at the time.

is the only pitcher in Brewers history with four seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, including 207 whiffs to go with a 3.52 ERA in 2011.

Other notable reliever seasons
Dan Plesac, 1987
John Axford, 2011
Josh Hader, 2018, 2019 and 2021
Devin Williams, 2020