When you think about baseball in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – it’s safe to assume your mind goes directly to the Milwaukee Brewers, but if you look close enough, you’ll find another talented professional baseball team there as well.
The Milwaukee Milkmen organization was founded in 2018 and the first home opener came on June 24, 2019. In their first season, they finished with a .380 W-L% with a record of 38-62 and falling 26 games behind the first place St. Paul Saints for the North Division of the American Association.
A year later, the team faced a new challenge – COVID-19.
“There was definitely a lot of uncertainty as to how this year would progress once the sports world came to a halt in mid-March. But the league was steadfast in maintaining that there would be baseball played this year as long as it could be done safely according to local guidelines.” Kyle Lesniewski said while speaking with Dugout Dish.
He continued, “In April, the American Association announced that the goal was to move the season from starting in mid-May to the beginning of July, and in the months that followed, a comprehensive plan was put in place to make sure that we were able to get the ball rolling on Fourth of July weekend.”
Lesniewski began working for the organization in January with Data Analysis and Player Procurement/Development. And started his first full season with the team and in professional baseball during a global pandemic.
“I sort of just stumbled into the baseball industry by accident. I didn’t fall in love with the game until I was a little bit older, the summer I was going into 7th grade. Working in baseball wasn’t ever something that was even on my radar.”
But after finishing a stint in the Army, Lesniewski found himself listening to a lot of sports talk radio. “I’d often disagree with their takes on my local Brewers, so I began looking for an outlet to express my opinions and started my own little WordPress blog at the end of 2014. Shortly after that, I was recruited to run a blog on the Fansided Network, and after working on that site for about a year, I was hired as a staff writer at Brew Crew Ball on the SB Nation blog network.”
When the Milkmen franchise arrived in suburban Milwaukee, Lesniewski and his wife, along with their four kids found themselves interested in what the independent baseball team had to offer. “The games at the independent level are just so much more accessible for a large family like mine – the parking is free, the tickets are inexpensive, and with every seat in the park close to the action and all the entertainment stuff in between innings, the kids are a lot more in-tune to the game and enjoy the experience considerably more than if we are sitting in the nosebleeds at Miller Park.”
After a chance at fate and seeing Lesniewski’s work, the Milkmen’s manager Anthony Barone reached out and the two developed a relationship. “Before long, I was brought on board to assist in player procurement and on-field strategy using advanced data and statistics.”
Although the team began playing in the 2020 season, there were a few challenges. “We did have a few players that chose not to participate, each with individual circumstances that certainly made those decisions understandable. The rest of the team and coaches have been diligent in observing the testing and safety guidelines in order to make sure that we can get through the season.”
He added, “In terms of building a roster, this year has presented a lot of differences versus what a normal season in the American Associate would be like. The league decided not to enforce the service time rules this year and held a dispersal draft at the beginning of the season in order to give all the best players in the league an opportunity to play.”
And for the Milkmen, it paid off.
“We were also able to sign players who have contracts with affiliated clubs, but who aren’t participating at alternate training sites for their MLB parent organization. Without the limit of five “veteran” players, we have been able to go out and add a lot of talented players to our roster.”
Names such as Tim Dillard and Anthony Bender appeared on the Milkmen’s roster. “Right now, we have four former MLB pitchers occupying our starting rotation, and we’ve gotten significant contributions from players like AJ Schugel and Dylan Tice who we targeted in the dispersal draft.”
Continuing, “The result league-wide has been arguably the highest level of competition that the American Association has ever fielded, with several scouts suggesting that the league is at a Triple-A level this season.”
But with playing in a year like 2020, it meant adding protocols and safety.
“On the other hand, the added testing protocols have made it more challenging to add players during the season. There has been about a week to two-week lead time this year when it comes to signing new players, making it difficult to address immediate roster needs and stressing the importance of positional versatility when you’re playing with a 23-man roster. Obviously, the protocols are necessary, of course, and the testing is a big part of the reason that we’ve been able to successfully play the season so far.”
In the regular season, the Milwaukee based team finished in first place with 34 wins and 26 loses to advance into the finals against the Sioux Falls Canaries. So far, the Milkmen lead the American Association Finals 2-0.
“The expansion season last year didn’t go very well for the Milkmen – so with this being the first year for Anthony and I and our coaching staff (pitching coach Hayden Carter and hitting coach Matt Passerelle) all working together, we are incredibly proud of the progress that we’ve made in a short time.” Lesniewski added.
“Our pitching staff has so far been tops in the league this season. Henderson Alvarez and Tim Dillard have both been terrific since joining the club mid-season, and David Holmberg has been our ace all year long – leading all starters with a 2.47 ERA while ranking tied for second with 68 strikeouts, tied for third with six winning decisions, and ranking seventh in the AA with 65.2 innings pitched.”
He continued, “Our bullpen has been our biggest strength, however, and we’ve been able to shorten games with our back-end trio of Myles Smith, Schugel, and Peyton Gray. Each of the three gets it done in different ways. Smith is 94-96 MPH with a devastating changeup and owns a 1.27 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 21.1 innings pitched.”
Smith is a 28-year-old, 6’1 right-handed pitcher who was originally drafted by the New York Mets in the 16th round back in 2012. He was drafted from Miami-Dade College, Kendall Campus in Miami, Florida. And then drafted once again in the 2013 draft by the Boston Red Sox in the 4th round. He began playing independent baseball in 2017 with the Kansas City T-Bones.
Schugel is the big-league veteran who doesn’t miss as many bats – 7.8 K/9 this year – but he just knows how to avoid barrels and get outs, working to a 1.11 ERA in 24.1 innings.”
Schugel, the 31-year-old right-handed pitcher stands at 6’0 even. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 33rd round of the 2007 MLB draft out of Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. He was later drafted in 2010 by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Arizona.
“Gray is a true rookie in the American Association this year, but one look at his pitching line with show that he’s arguably been the most impressive hurler in the league. He doesn’t throw overly hard, typically in the 90-93 range, but his stuff plays incredibly well because of spin rates that would rank among the tops of all MLB pitchers. He has allowed only nine hits and 12 walks in 290 innings this year while striking out 50 batters.”
Gray, the 6’1 25-year-old right-handed pitcher went played in the Northwest League after attending Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida and Western Michigan University. He began his independent baseball career this summer with the Milkmen.
“Offensively, the biggest story for us has been former Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker. A local product born on the northside of Milwaukee, he was already a fan favorite but has really flourished at the plate in his second season playing in the American Association. Health has been a big key for him after dealing with nagging injuries throughout last year, and he’s tapping into his raw power like he never has before.”
At the time of Dugout Dish’s interview, Walker led the American Association with 21 home runs in only 53 games, was second in slugging percentage, and third in OPS. This earned Walker to earn Player of the Year in the league.
Walker shared this on his Instagram (@walkoff28), “I can’t lie this feels really good. It’s been a wild couple of years for me. Thankful to have the people in my corner cheering me on. But I told my family that was the goal this year. I told my manager that was the goal. I wanted it for no other reason than to prove to myself that I can still play this game as a high level.”
The Milkmen had a lot to prove going into their second season and in a year like 2020, they have exceeded such expectations. “In the long run, we want to establish the best process possible for building a winning roster that involves all angles of approach – looking at things from the statistical point of view, the scouting side, and how an individual player will fit within the culture and locker room that we’ve worked to build.”
Lesniewski finished with, “There is no time for multi-year rebuilds in independent baseball, and the city of Milwaukee hasn’t had a professional baseball championship to celebrate since the Braves won the World Series in 1957. We want to build something that will be sustainable in Milwaukee to provide a winning ball club for fans to come and cheer on year in and year out.”
(Photo credit: Milwaukee Milkmen/@MKEMilkmen on Instagram)