2015 was an unquestionably successful year for the Milwaukee Bear Claws. They waltzed their way to a league-best 98 wins, and faced little in the way of serious challenges along the way. Then they rolled over the Knoxville Smokies to win the first Patriot League title. It was such an impressive run that the league even decided to name their championship trophy after Bear Claws manager Poss Horton.
2016 was a different story. In the words of owner/GM Jennifer Petitt, “We came into the season with high hopes based on last year, but things didn’t exactly work out the way we planned.” Milwaukee was quickly left in the dust by California and Silver City, and they never climbed back into the playoff race. They barely finished above the .500 mark at 76-74. They went from outscoring their opponents by almost 200 runs to being outscored by 6.
“That’s baseball for you,” said Horton at his end-of-season press conference. “One day you’re king of the hill, the next day you’re on the bottom again. No use crying about it.”
When a seemingly dominant team wins 22 fewer games than the year before, despite the presence of expansion teams to pad their win totals, it’s only natural to ask what went wrong. But the answer is a bit complicated. No one thing went horribly wrong, but a number of small steps back added up to a big regression.
First, the Bear Claws were hit hard in the expansion draft. They lost a couple of key contributors in the heart of their lineup, with both LF Arthur Mealey and 3B Ikaru Suzuki winding up in Las Vegas. The loss of those big bats helped explain Milwaukee’s power outage this season; their 175 homers were only good for eighth in the league. Thanks to the decline in their longball prowess, they finished seventh in runs scored despite a respectable .263 average and .767 OPS. “Without Artie and Zuk, that took a lot of the fizz out of our soda pop,” said Horton. “We never really managed to plug those holes all the way.”
In addition, a couple of fan favorites had rough rides this season. RF Wally Trumbauer lost his spot in the lineup to Warren Stefani during spring training, and he limped through a miserable year as a reserve, batting only .196 in 57 games. His lumbering enthusiasm was also much missed in the clubhouse, as his poor performance sent him into a season-long sulk. Top starter Lou Mallory didn’t lose his place in the rotation, but he seemed out of sorts all season, stumbling to an 8-19 record and a 5.20 ERA.
“It’s a real shame that we couldn’t get Lou sorted out,” said Horton. “But he’s too good to have that happen again next year.”
By and large, though, the story of the Bear Claws’ season wasn’t about collapses, it was just about players regressing a bit. 1B Felipe Mateo’s .283 average, 39 homers, and 1.014 OPS were all splendid… but not as good as last year’s otherworldly numbers (.325, 50 HR, 1.121 OPS). Similarly, closer Oscar Buenaventura had a fine year, posting a 3.41 ERA and .644 OPS against while converting 33 of 42 saves… but he wasn’t as automatic as last year (8-0, 37 saves, 1.16 ERA, .437 OPS against).
It was the same story in miniature across much of the squad. SS Red Petitt and CF DeRonde Maxwell both saw their averages dip by 20 points in 2016. The catching tandem of Frank McGuigan and Paris Champney, solid at the dish last season, became a liability this year; Milwaukee’s backstops combined to hit .231 with little power. Starters Benicio Torrenueva and “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman won 10 fewer games between them, while seeing their ERAs go up by half a run each. Lefty Zack Perriman was the only starter whose numbers improved, but he struggled to stay healthy, missing a third of the season with arm trouble.
“Last year, everybody about maxed out what they could do,” said Horton. “This year, they all got a little worse. Problem was, nobody got better.”
Looking toward 2017, Milwaukee could really use bounce-back years from some of their stars. If even a few players could recapture their 2015 form, it would go a long way toward fixing the Bear Claws’ troubles. If Mallory can pull out of his tailspin and Perriman can remain intact all season, the rotation should be in fine shape.
As with many Patriot League clubs, the bullpen is a sore spot; behind Buenaventura, righty Timmy Almon (5-2, 3.96) and Olen Abernathy (3-5, 1 SV, 3.29) were the only reliable arms, and Abernathy was dealt to California at the deadline. Milwaukee’s relievers allowed 45.5% of inherited runners to score, the worst mark in the league.
Despite the lumps that Milwaukee took this year, Petitt prefers to look on the bright side. “Look at it this way,” she said. “Win or lose, we still get to enjoy sun, baseball, and beer all summer long. To the High Life!”