Ask Brewers owner Mark Attanasio how in the world his team does it. Ask him how a team that plays in the majors’ smallest television market, that has not produced a top-five offensive team in the National League for more than a decade and annually keeps a payroll below major league average can win more games over the past seven years than every NL team but the Dodgers and Braves. Ask and Attanasio will begin with stability.
“One of the main common denominators is we have the same field staff and baseball ops staff,” Attanasio says. “Matt [Arnold] took over [as general manager] from David [Stearns], but David was advising for the balance of the year.
“There’s been absolute continuity. I think in any business stability is a good thing.”
Four weeks ago, Attanasio stared right into the possible end to that stability.
He sat across from his manager of the past nine seasons, Craig Counsell, Wisconsin-born and bred, who grew up handling fan mail for players that came through the office of his father, John, the team’s director of community relations. Counsell has played for the Brewers, worked in their front office and won the most games as their manager.
And yet at that meeting, even as the Brewers were headed toward their fifth postseason in the past six years, Counsell told Attanasio he would not commit to returning as Brewers manager next season. His contract expires with the last game the Brewers will play this year.
“I’m still in the same place,” Counsell says. “A while ago I promised myself I would take until the end of the year to wait to see what life had in store for me and then make a decision. As you get closer to it, you realize you’re going to have the ability to choose. You’ll have a couple of options. I want to have a month that presents many options.
“The whole point is to wait until the end of the year to see where life has me and what’s going on.”
Attanasio was not surprised. Counsell has dropped enough hints this season about keeping his options open—both on and off the field.
“Look,” says Attanasio, “he’s got multiple options. He could decide to take a year off—or more. He has two sons playing college baseball. He has some broadcast opportunities. I’m sure with other jobs that open teams will look at him. He could have opportunities with us in the front office. Our first choice is to have him back in the dugout for a number of years.”
The Brewers are the efficiency experts of MLB. Measured by runs or dollars, few teams operate with such a thin margin of error and come out on top so often. As the 2023 NL Central champions, they have built a seven-year run in which they have made the postseason five times and played only two of 1,033 games while mathematically eliminated. They have spent $1.24 million per win, almost half as much as the Dodgers ($2.34 million) and about three-quarters as much as the Braves ($1.69 million).
They are a dangerous postseason team because, out of necessity, they are built to win close, low-scoring games, the hallmark of October. Since 2017, only the Dodgers and Astros have won more games while scoring three runs or less.
The stability embedded in this run features starting pitchers Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Milwaukee is 205–134 when those three start a game, a .663 winning percentage that equates to the pace of a 107-win team.
“It’s like the Moneyball A’s with Hudson, Mulder and Zito,” Counsell says. “What’s that phrase? ‘Don’t bury the lede?’”
Milwaukee’s belief system in this run is as blunt as how Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta attack hitters. The Brewers believe in run prevention over run production. They believe in the almighty power of the fastball; no team in baseball throws them more often (63%). They believe in defense and baserunning. They do not believe in the bunt.
They believe in technology. In 2019 they invested $60 million to build a state-of-the-art pitching lab at their spring training headquarters. Since then, the Brewers have struck out the most batters in baseball and they keep turning other teams’ pitchers into better versions of themselves. Among the renovated pitchers on this year’s roster alone are Wade Miley, Colin Rea, Bryse Wilson, Joel Payamps, Elvis Peguro and Hoby Milner, pitchers who are a combined 34–21.
Above all, they believe in Counsell. They believe their manager will find some way to win a ballgame. Counsell is at the heart of Milwaukee’s ethos. He is the rare managerial difference-maker who will be the biggest free agent this winter this side of Shohei Ohtani.
“We don’t really ebb and flow that much as a group,” Arnold says. “The stability in our clubhouse goes back to Craig and to spring training when he sets the expectations high right away. He oozes credibility when he walks in the door.”
Says Attanasio, “Craig really has an innate understanding of what it takes to get through a 162-game season. Some moves don’t make sense, but he has the big picture in mind. By the way, often when his move doesn’t make sense it works out anyway.”
Managing in the majors has become a middle management job. The front office staff, including expanding analytics and “sports performance” departments, tell managers how to play baseball, though usually carefully enough to do so with influence rather than direct command.
“I believe a lot of clubs increasingly are run from upstairs,” Attanasio says. “We give Craig information, but he has the authority.”
Counsell is a throwback. He may be the last manager left who defines how his team plays, the way it used to be for managers such as Whitey Herzog, with his carpet-ready speed-based teams in Kansas City and St. Louis, Billy Martin with his “Billyball” helter-skelter style and Bruce Bochy, who with the Giants pulled levers and hit the right notes of a deep bullpen with the mastery of a pipe-organ virtuoso.
For Counsell, that means making very few runs stand up with pitching, defense and his knack for finding the right matchups on offense and defense. His Brewers play with a thin margin of error—and thrive on it.
Attanasio uses Wilson as an example of how Counsell gets the most out of his players. The Pirates designated Wilson for assignment in January. He had a 5.54 career ERA, below average velocity and no pitch that graded as anything better than about average. Milwaukee picked him up for cash.
With the help of the Brewers’ pitching lab, Wilson sharpened the break on his cutter and added velocity to it, leading to an increase in usage. Noting Wilson’s effectiveness against righthanders, Counsell used Wilson 61% of the time against righthanders, a career high platoon advantage for a full season. Wilson has held righties to a .194 average and posted a 2.58 ERA.
“The analytic metrics when you dive into the qualitative data for Wilson are not off the charts, but the surface numbers are good,” Attanasio says. “Craig has picked terrific spots to use him. He talked about Wilson as an example of a guy you may not be able to see on a computer how effective he can be, but he’s been effective for us.
“Craig is definitely a modern manager, and he plays matchups. From an owner’s seat, he seems to use matchups more in September. Around Milwaukee we call it Craig-tember.”
The Brewers require deft maneuvering because they are not a very good offensive team—and never have been under Counsell. They have ranked no better than sixth in the league in runs per game in any year since 2013. This year was particularly challenging, especially before Milwaukee brought up outfielder Sal Frelick and traded for outfielder Mark Canha and first baseman Carlos Santana.
Milwaukee hit the fewest homers, had the fewest hits and slugged the worst of any postseason team. Only three teams have won a full-season division title in the wild card era by hitting .240 or less. Counsell has managed two of them (2021 and ‘23; Bob Melvin’s 2012 A’s are the other).
With Counsell, the famously fickle nature of one-run games regularly tips in the Brewers’ favor. Only two managers ever won one-run games at a higher clip than Counsell’s .567 mark (211–161): Frank Chance and Weaver.
“I think overall it’s about trying to get everyone to understand that keeping runs off the board is the same as scoring runs,” Counsell says. “I always try to make that an emphasis before the season starts.
“The great thing about run prevention is everybody on the team takes part in it. On offense, it’s just your 13 hitters. But run prevention is something we care about and make a point of emphasis.
“We feel like defense matters because of the kind of offense we play. And we’ve had good bullpens. That’s important in one-run games.”
Says Arnold, “Our DNA here has always been pitching and defense. It’s always been our calling card. When you’re looking at a short series and you’re facing Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta and Devin [Williams] at the back end, that’s a really good group to lean on. The defense behind them is really talented as well.”
Williams was drafted in the second round out of high school in 2013. Woodruff was an 11th-round pick the next year out of Mississippi State. Peralta was acquired the next year from Seattle in a trade for Adam Lind. And Burnes was picked the next year in the fourth round out of St. Mary’s. All four, available to every team, became the building blocks of how Milwaukee has reached the postseason five times in the past six years, surpassing its four postseason berths in its first 49 seasons (expanded playoff caveat noted).
As imposing a postseason threat this pitching-rich team looks, the formula has not worked well in recent Octobers. Counsell is 7–10 in the postseason, including 1–6 in the club’s past three trips while scoring 11 runs and hitting .190 in those seven games. Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, Williams and that thin margin of error have not been enough.
This year, the Brewers are one of three teams with a chance to win their first World Series (with Texas and Tampa Bay). Milwaukee has been to one World Series—in 1982. Counsell was 12 years old when he watched from the upper deck of Busch Stadium as the Brewers blew a 3–1 lead to St. Louis in Game 7 to lose, 6–3. He broke down and cried. He knows more than most what a championship would mean for Milwaukee.
“The goal has always been a championship,” he says. “Baseball matters in this city. You make it matter by putting a good product on the field. That’s what brings kids to the ballpark. And once they see baseball, they are true fans. You bring them October baseball and you have a baseball fan for life.
“That means a lot to me, for sure. We’re creating the next generation of Brewers fans. Now we’d like to give them the ultimate success.”
It may be his last, best shot in Milwaukee.