It remains to be seen if the Brewers’ 2019 starting rotation will be good, but they’ll certainly be young.
After passing or missing out on several veteran alternatives this winter, the Brewers opened the season with just one starting pitcher that has already experienced his 27th birthday: Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin, who turned 31 in January.
Chacin is far and away the elder statesman in a group where even the other veteran is still relatively young. Zach Davies just turned 26 in February. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta round out the group and are in their age 26, 24, and 23 seasons, respectively. Using age data collected by Baseball Reference, which assigns players to age groups based on their age on June 30 each year, the Brewers’ Opening Day rotation had an average age of exactly 26 years old.
This is a big swing from last year, when the Brewers’ most frequently used starters had an average age of 30.4 years. Four of the team’s five most often used “initial out getters” during their NL Central championship run were 30 or older. The lone exception, Brent Suter, was 28.
If the Brewers stick with this group and experience success, they’ll be bucking a notable trend across franchise history. Over five decades of baseball in Milwaukee, the youngest rotations (as defined by taking the team’s top five in games started) have almost universally been associated with rough seasons:
The 2010s: 2016 season, 27.2 years old
Showing a bit how times have changed, the youngest rotation of the 2010s and the oldest rotation of the 1970s were the same age. This group coincided with the “bottoming out” of the most recent rebuild, a season where the team went 73-89 and traded off many of their veterans.
The elder statesman of the group was also one of the pitchers with the least big league experience: Junior Guerra was 31 years old, but in his rookie MLB season. Still, he posted a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts, paving the way for him to start on Opening Day in 2017. Zach Davies was 23 years old this season and was joined in the rotation by Jimmy Nelson (27), Wily Peralta (27) and Chase Anderson (28).
It’s worth noting that this group was over a year older, on average, than the current 2019 rotation.
The 2000s: 2002 season, 24.2 years old
The youngest Brewers rotation in over 25 years was also one of its least successful. Three pitchers in their age 23 season or younger were among the team leaders in starts:
Ben Sheets (23) continued to show flashes of potential stardom, following up his All-Star rookie year by working 216 ⅔ innings to lead the team. Ruben Quevedo (also 23) made 25 starts in his first—and last—full Major League season, posting a 5.76 ERA that continues to rank among the worst in franchise history. Nick Neugebauer (21) opened the season in the starting rotation, ranked as the #17 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, and made just 12 appearances before suffering a career-ending rotator cuff injury.
Combined with 27-year-olds Glendon Rusch and Jamey Wright, the Brewers’ pitching staff ranked worst or second-worst in the National League in walks, hits, and runs allowed. The team went 56-106, the worst record in franchise history by a wide margin.
The 1990s: 1996 season, 25.4 years old
Somewhere out in some alternate universe, 1996 is the season where 20-year-old phenom Jeff “Big Daddy” D’Amico burst onto the scene with a Rookie Of The Year campaign and ushered in a new era of Brewers baseball.
Instead, D’Amico made 17 starts and mostly fit right in on a Brewers team that posted a 5.14 ERA, which was somehow only the seventh-worst in the American League at the height of an offensive explosion. After making 40 MLB starts before his 22nd birthday, D’Amico missed the entire 1998 season due to injury and never reached star status. In 1996, D’Amico was joined by lefty Scott Karl (24), Ricky Bones (27), Ben McDonald (28), and knuckleballer Steve Sparks (30) in a starting rotation that may have seemed promising at the time, but comes across as pretty forgettable now.
The 1980s: 1986 season, 25.8 years old
Fueled by 30-somethings like Mike Caldwell, Pete Vuckovich, and Don Sutton, the Brewers had some of the oldest rotations in franchise history in the early 1980s before the pendulum swung back the other way in 1986. The youngest member of this staff was Juan Nieves, who worked 184 ⅔ innings in his age 21 season in a textbook example of the usage pattern teams try to avoid with young pitchers today. Two years later, injuries ended his career at age 23. There were some promising performances among the others, however:
Bill Wegman, who was 23 years old and in his first full MLB season, made 35 appearances with some ups and downs, but generally set the tone for a productive if unspectacular career. Teddy Higuera (28) had his best season, working 248 ⅓ innings with a 2.79 ERA, making an All Star appearance and finishing second in the American League Cy Young voting. This Brewers team also featured a strong bullpen that was led by Mark Clear and Dan Plesac. They finished fifth in the American League with a 4.01 team ERA. They’re pretty clearly the best outcome of any staff on this list.
The 1970s: 1977 season, 23.4 years old
The Brewers’ pitching staffs were pretty young across most of the organization’s first decade, averaging 27 years old or younger every season from 1971 to 1979. In what’s likely a related note, that stretch largely overlaps with a span of nine years with seven 90-loss seasons.
All but one of the 13 pitchers that appeared in a game for the 1977 team were 28 or younger, including two 21-year-olds in the rotation—Moose Haas and Lary Sorensen, each in the first seasons of long MLB careers. Bill Travers was coming off an All-Star season and was still only 24. Wisconsin native Jerry Augustine pitched over 200 innings in his first season as a full-time starter at age 24, and Jim Slaton went on to be the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, anchored the staff at age 27.
That collection of young arms may have grown up to have nice MLB careers but they didn’t carry the ’77 Brewers very far. Milwaukee starters ranked 10th in the 14-team AL with a 4.49 ERA and the team went 67-95.