Milwaukee's best: Top Crew debut seasons

February 1st, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Who made the biggest splashes in Brewers blue? Here’s who:

1) , 1981
333 ERA+, 0.87 WHIP, 7 K/9

The statistically correct answer for “best debut season with the Brewers” is almost certainly Christian Yelich in 2018, but when first examined this topic in May, Yelich had been dominating our lists. So we diverted down a more sentimental path for another deserving candidate in Hall of Fame closer Fingers, who was so electric during a strike-shortened 1981 after coming to Milwaukee in a blockbuster trade with the Cardinals that he won the American League Cy Young Award and became the Brewers’ first league MVP Award winner. Beyond the stellar stats -- 1.04 ERA, 0.87 WHIP -- Fingers represented something bigger for a city that had not tasted postseason baseball since the Milwaukee Braves fell to the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1958 World Series. In that trade for Fingers, Pete Vuckovich and Ted Simmons at the '80 Winter Meetings, the Brewers acquired the final pieces they needed to make the playoffs for the first time in '81 before winning their first division title a year later and making it to their only World Series to date.

2) , 2018
.326/.402/.598, 166 wRC+, 7.7 fWAR

No matter how many times you look, the second-half numbers are just as absurd. Yelich finished with 36 home runs and collected 110 RBIs in his first season in a Brewers uniform, leaving him two homers and one RBI shy of what would have been the Nattional League's first Triple Crown since St. Louis' Joe Medwick in 1937. Yelich led the NL in average -- making him the first batting champion in franchise history -- as well as slugging, OPS, wRC+, wOBA and OPS+ while leading NL hitters in every version of WAR. Entering his prime at age 26 and playing in a ballpark particularly friendly to left-handed hitters, Yelich made the most of the move from the Marlins, becoming the first player to win a league MVP Award the season after he was traded since the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson in 2015. It had happened to only one NL player: Braves third baseman Bob Elliott in 1947.

It didn't take advanced stats to see Yelich pull away from the pack after he tweaked his batting stance to stand more upright in the box. Yelich hit more home runs in the second half (25) than he had in any of his five seasons with Miami. His .770 slugging percentage after the All-Star break was baseball's best second-half mark in 14 years, since Barry Bonds' .832 in 2004, and was 145 points better than the next-best finisher that year. Yelich did so much damage when it mattered most, slashing .370/.508/.804 from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1 while the Brewers closed a 5 1/2-game gap against the Cubs to win the NL Central.

3) , 2008
255 ERA+ as a Brewer, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9

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 Ben 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.

4) , 1978
.290/.374/.533, 156 wRC+, 5.0 fWAR

Sal Bando was the Brewers’ first notable free-agent acquisition, but Hisle might have been the best, at least in terms of immediate impact. After establishing himself as a power threat in nine seasons with the Phillies and Twins from 1968-77, Hisle inked a six-year, $3.155 million pact with the Brewers that shocked the baseball world in November '77 -- 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 '81, when Fingers won the award. Hisle hit 34 home runs with 115 RBIs and a career-best .906 OPS, representing the best season in franchise history to that point.

With Hisle hitting cleanup and the arrivals of outfielder Ben Oglivie and rookie infielder Paul Molitor, the return of Gorman Thomas after a season in Triple-A and general manager Harry Dalton and manager George Bamberger in place, the Brewers won 26 more games than the year before, beginning a five-year run during which only the powerhouse Orioles won more often. Unfortunately, injuries prevented Hisle from ever topping 100 at-bats after his sensational debut season in Milwaukee.

"He transformed that team into a winner, no doubt about it," said Mario Ziino, a former member of the Brewers' front office and unofficial club historian.

"People have forgotten how good he was," former Brewers owner Bud Selig said.

5) , 2007
.324/.370/.634, 155 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR

Braun doubled in his Major League debut at San Diego on May 25, 2007, and never stopped hitting. He homered the next day and went on to establish Brewers rookie records across the board, including his 34 home runs and 97 RBIs, while leading the NL in slugging percentage. Braun became the second Brewers player to win his league’s Rookie of the Year Award -- Pat Listash won in 1992 when the Brewers were in the AL -- in a neck-and-neck battle with the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki. Braun edged Tulo in first-place votes (17-15) and in total points (128-126). Braun had superior offensive numbers but committed 26 errors at third base; he moved to left field the following season.

It wasn’t the first time they were neck-and-neck. Brewers scouts were torn between Braun and Tulowitzki in the run-up to the 2005 MLB Draft. Since both were advanced college hitters likely to advance quickly to the big leagues, position was a factor, no matter what teams always say about “best player available.” Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who already liked his young incumbent shortstop, J.J. Hardy, called Tulowitzki’s advisor and asked whether the player would consider moving to third. The answer was that Tulowitzki wanted to stay at short.

“In the back of my mind, I was thinking we had first base taken care of [with Prince Fielder], second base [Rickie Weeks], we had shortstop [Hardy], and now we could have Braun at third. I thought of the Dodgers when they had that home-grown infield in the ‘70s, with Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey.

“So, in the end, we went Braun. Tulowitzki went two picks later. Braun could hit, he could run, he could throw. The question was could he be a third baseman? I think he could have been in time. But the bat came so quick. We had to get him to the big leagues.”

Honorable mentions
Bill Parsons, 1972
Tom Murphy, 1974
Cecil Cooper, 1977
Ben Oglivie, 1978
Teddy Higuera, 1985
Rob Deer and Dan Plesac, 1986
Dave Parker, 1990
Willie Randolph, 1991
Pat Listach, 1992
Ben McDonald, 1996
Scott Podsednik, 2003
Carlos Lee and Derrick Turnbow, 2005
Trevor Hoffman, 2009
Zack Greinke, 2011
Aramis Ramirez, 2012
Chris Carter, 2016
Travis Shaw and Eric Thames, 2017
Yasmani Grandal, 2018