The Brewers’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Ted Higuera (1985-94)
Five years after Fernandomania swept the baseball world, Higuera—a fellow Mexican native whose middle name, ironically, was Valenzuela—failed to engender the same publicity, but he was beloved in Milwaukee, where he was arguably the American League’s top left-handed pitcher in the late 1980s.
Higuera impressed during the early 1980s in the Mexican leagues, and signed on with the Brewers for 1984; after a year in the minors, he had a solid 15-8 rookie campaign in 1985 and improved further the next year by becoming only the second Mexican in major league history—and the last Brewer to date—to nab 20 wins in a season, just three days after Valenzuela had beaten him to the punch. The effort placed Higuera second in the 1986 AL Cy Young Award vote, behind Roger Clemens.
Throughout the rest of the decade, Higuera would retain his ace status in the Milwaukee rotation, finishing 18-10 in 1987 and 16-9 (with a career-low 2.45 earned run average) in 1988, thus becoming the only Brewers pitcher to win at least 15 games in four straight seasons.
Higuera’s downfall came early in 1991 when his rotator cuff became unhinged, missing nearly three full years as a result. A comeback attempt fell completely flat.
Mike Caldwell (1977-84)
For six years in the National League, Caldwell bounced around three teams as a model of frustration, with stretches of promise constantly interrupted by elbow problems. Even his first half-season with the Brewers, after a trade from Cincinnati in 1977, showed little sign of progress—or hope. Then came 1978.
Showing off a new slider, Caldwell broke out with blindsiding success—posting a 22-9 record and 2.36 ERA in a prodigious 293.1 innings; he led the AL with 23 complete games, shut out the World Series-bound New York Yankees three times and finished second in the AL Cy Young vote. Hitters complained he was too good to be true, with multiple accusations that his slider was, in fact, a spitter.
Over the next five years, Caldwell never duplicated the success of 1978 but remained a solid factor in the rotation, winning 69 games; for the 1982 AL champion Brewers, he won 17 and received credit for two of the team’s three wins in the seven-game World Series loss to St. Louis, throwing one complete game and coming within one out of another.
Rollie Fingers (1981-85)
Best remembered as the closer with the quintessential mustache for the world champion Oakland A’s of the early 1970s, Fingers gave Milwaukee baseball fans some of their happiest memories with his short but sweet stint as a Brewer during the early 1980s.
Of Fingers’ 17 years as a major leaguer, none was better than his 1981 debut with the Brewers. In a season cut in third by the players’ strike, Fingers led the AL with 28 saves and produced a miniscule 1.04 ERA, lifting the team to its first-ever postseason berth while becoming the first reliever to win both the MVP and Cy Young awards in the same season.
Fingers was in the midst of another solid campaign in 1982 when a September elbow injury sidelined him for the rest of the year—and all of 1983 to boot; his absence from the 1982 World Series possibly cost the Brewers, whose bullpen produced a shoddy 5.54 ERA in his absence as St. Louis won in seven games. Back in action in 1984, another excellent campaign (1.96 ERA, 23 saves) came to a screeching halt in late July when he hurt his back, shelving him again for the rest of the year. Fingers’ career came to an end a year later after a substandard (1-6, 5.04 ERA) campaign.
Corbin Burnes (2018-present)
The right-hander from Bakersfield, California went to baseball hell and back, emerging in the early 2020s as the premier pitcher in a Brewers rotation blessed with strong arms.
After a promising start at the big-league level in 2018 when he posted a 7-0 record and 2.61 in 30 relief appearances, Burnes was slotted into the rotation for 2019, with disastrous results—finishing the season 1-5 with an 8.82 ERA. Not even a trip to Triple-A (where he produced an equally bad 8.46 ERA) failed to cure him. The problem was not health-related—at least not on a structural level.
Two decisions changed Burnes’ career. He diligently sought and received guidance from a mental performance coach, which gave him newfound discipline to remove the psychological chaos and provide work/life balance in more streamlined fashion. On the mound, Burnes mastered a cut fastball he rarely previously used.
The results were phenomenal. Back with the Brewers during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Burnes was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA, a modest sample of numbers which proved to be no fluke a year later when, over a full season, he won the NL Cy Young Award with a league-best 2.43 ERA while striking out 234 batters—the first 58 of them registered before issuing his first walk to set an MLB record. He continued to thrive in 2022, leading the NL with 243 K’s. The only thing that’s been hard to come by for Burnes is a victory; he won 23 games between 2021-22, but also was denied a win in 17 other outings in which he threw a quality start (six-plus innings, three or fewer earned runs allowed).
Yovani Gallardo (2007-2014)
Two decades after Higuera, the Brewers witnessed another Mexican native emerge as the team’s top pitcher in Gallardo, who produced a sturdy succession of solid campaigns in Milwaukee.
Called up to replace an injured Chris Capuano in June 2007, Gallardo answered with a 9-5 record and 3.67 ERA in barely half a season to stake his claim on the Brewers rotation. A knee injury stripped him of activity for the majority of the 2008 campaign, but he stayed healthy afterwards—producing five straight winning seasons with impressively steady strikeout and ERA figures. Though he only won one of five postseason appearances for the Brewers, he did so with a fine 2.08 ERA.
Gallardo also possessed one of the game’s best power strokes among pitchers, belting 12 home runs in 362 career at-bats for Milwaukee; he was the only pitcher ever to homer off Randy Johnson to win a 1-0 duel for the Brewers in 2009—making him only the third pitcher in history to throw a shutout, strike out at least 10 and go deep for the only run of the game.
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