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01/08/10 2:39 PM EST
Fielder's '09 best in Brewers' history?
First baseman posted franchise records last season
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWUAKEE -- Dale Sveum has been around 14 years of Brewers baseball, first as a Minor Leaguer during the franchise's early-1980s heyday, then as a big leaguer alongside Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor as the '80s made way to the '90s, and now as the hitting coach for current stars Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. As Sveum sees it, Fielder just had the best year in the Brewers' 41 seasons as a franchise. "Oh, no doubt about it," Sveum said. "I don't think there's any question about that. When you're dealing with what Prince has done with the walks and the homers and the average, what he's done to left-handed pitching, it's the best ever." The numbers give Sveum quite a case. Fielder turned 25 in May on the way to batting a career-best .299 with 46 home runs. He set franchise records with 141 RBIs and 110 walks. He tied Philadelphia's Ryan Howard for baseball's RBI crown, finished one shy of St. Louis' Albert Pujols' league-leading home run total and joined Pujols as the only players in the game to top a .600 slugging percentage (Pujols slugged .658; Fielder was next at .602). Fielder's on-base plus slugging percentage, a good measure of offensive production, was 1.014, the best in Brewers history and third in baseball last season to the respective league MVPs. National League MVP Pujols posted a 1.101 OPS and American League MVP Joe Mauer of Minnesota was second at 1.031. There's also "runs created," a stat based on a formula created by numbers guru Bill James that attempts to estimate the number of runs that can be attributed to a single player. Fielder "created" 150 runs in 2009, most in franchise history. "He's a great player," said Braun of his middle-of-the-order partner. "Look what he did defensively. He takes pride in his baserunning. He had an incredible year. He was right there with anyone in baseball. It was an MVP-type year, and probably the best year in Milwaukee Brewers history. It was incredible to watch every day." The Brewers still own Fielder's rights for two more seasons before he's eligible for free agency. Club officials still plan to approach agent Scott Boras about an extension at some point before Spring Training, but free agents and the team's own arbitration-eligible players take precedence, according to assistant general manager Gord Ash. In the meantime, there's room to debate whether Fielder's 2009 season was the best year in club history. We present three other contenders in no particular order, and you can make your own case in the comments section below: Paul Molitor, 1987 According to the statistical database at BaseballReference.com, only three times has a Brewer qualified for the batting title and finished with an OPS better than 1.000. Fielder in 2009, Fielder in 2007 (1.013) and Molitor in 1987 (1.003). It was a magical season highlighted by a 39-game hitting streak that still stands as the fifth-longest in modern baseball history. Molitor started 105 games in the leadoff slot that year and batted .353 (only Boston's Wade Boggs and San Diego's Tony Gwynn had a higher average in all of baseball) with an AL-best 114 runs scored and 41 doubles. Molitor's .438 on-base percentage still stands as a Brewers record. Molitor ran fifth in AL MVP balloting in 1987, perhaps partly because the Brewers fell as many as 11 games out of first place in the AL East in mid-July. Fielder ran into a similar problem in 2009. "I was there for '87, so, believe me, I know how good Molitor was," said Sveum, who still gives the nod for Fielder in '09. "Dealing with the total package, it's hard to argue that Prince didn't have the greatest season in franchise history." Cecil Cooper, 1983 (or '82?) Cooper drove in 126 runs in 1983 to tie Boston's Jim Rice for the AL RBI crown and set a Brewers record while batting .307 with 30 home runs and 37 doubles. But what made that season especially remarkable was that Cooper essentially matched his numbers from a fabulous 1982, when he hit .312 with 30 homers, 38 doubles and 121 RBIs. Cooper's '83 season was in the news a lot in 2009 as Fielder chased his club RBI record, but Cooper's former teammate, Gorman Thomas, pointed to '82 as Cooper's best. The singular highlight didn't count in Cooper's season stats, but his go-ahead, two-run single in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series against the Angels propelled the Brewers to their only World Series. "We got off to a slow start that year but then we made a [managerial] change and took off, and Coop went right with us," said Thomas, who was a slugging outfielder. "He hit third in the order and he stayed there all year. He was a solid hitter. "Was Coop better than Prince was [in 2009]? I don't know. You don't think about that; you just go play the game. You drive in 125 runs, that's a good year. Prince has more power; Coop was maybe more of a pure hitter." Robin Yount, 1982 Cooper was key to the Brewers' success in 1982, but Thomas gives his "best year ever" nod to Yount. Then a 26-year-old shortstop, Yount led the Majors with 210 hits, a .578 slugging percentage, a .957 OPS and 367 total bases. He batted .331 with 29 home runs and 114 RBIs and gave the Brewers back-to-back AL MVPs after reliever Rollie Fingers had won the honor in 1981. Yount also led the Majors that year with an OPS+ of 166, a measure of production that compares a player to the league average and accounts for ballpark factors. Only one player in Brewers history had a higher OPS+ and it was Fielder in 2009, at 168. "There are a lot of individual things, but we don't get to where we got in '82 without Robin," Thomas said. "But it's impossible to compare guys from different years." Other notable seasons: Cooper, 1980: We've already mentioned '82 and '83 but it's also worth noting Cooper's tremendous 1980 campaign, when he ranked second in the AL with a .352 average, led the league with 122 RBIs and collected 219 hits for a Brewers record that still stands. Fielder, 2007: His monster 2009 season might overshadow what Fielder accomplished two years earlier, when he set a franchise record with 50 home runs and emerged as a true star. Braun, 2007: In only 113 games, Braun belted 37 homers and slugged .634, breaking Mark McGuire's previous rookie record. Braun edged Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki for NL Rookie of the Year honors. Sixto Lezcano, 1976: Lezcano's .987 OPS in '76 ranks fourth-best in franchise history among players with enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title. He compiled it with solid, if unspectacular numbers: A .321 batting average, a .414 on-base percentage, 28 homers, 101 RBIs. His true legacy was felt later, when Lezcano, who never repeated his 1979 success, highlighted a package of players sent to St. Louis in a December 1980 trade that netted the Brewers the next two AL Cy Young Award winners (Fingers and Pete Vuckovich) and top-flight catcher Ted Simmons. Tommy Harper, 1970: Harper was the best player on the Seattle Pilots team that moved to Milwaukee in April 1970, and became the Brewers. He stole 73 bases in 1969 for a franchise record that still stands, but was more productive in 1970, when he batted .296 with 31 home runs and 38 steals, making him the only 30/30 man in club history. Larry Hisle, 1978: A sentimental pick because of Hisle's symbolic meaning to the Brewers. His arrival via free agency signaled a rise to prominence for the former expansion franchise, and the Brewers won 26 more games with Hisle in 1978 than they did the season before. He finished third in AL MVP balloting after belting 34 home runs and driving in 115. He tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder the following April and never was the same again.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.