Throughout baseball history, 32 players to suit up in an MLB game hailed from the country of Australia. Guys like Grant Balfour, Peter Moylan and Liam Hendriks solidified themselves as solid bullpen pieces, with Balfour and Hendriks making an All-Star Game. We even have interviewed an Australian MLB player in Josh Spence on our podcast. But I'm not here to talk about any of those guys, not even a pitcher either. I'm here to bring to light the greatest Australian baseball player that you've never heard of: current Brisbane Bandits manager Dave Nilsson, who spent time in the outfield and first base in addition to the majority of the time as the catcher for the Brewers from 1992-99.
The mid-to-late 90s Milwaukee Brewers, which was a pretty forgettable era, were dominated by the likes of John Jaha, Jeff Cirillo and Darryl Hamilton as the teams pretty much played through a mediocre decade-plus of baseball. Milwaukee's pitching during that decade was less than adequate. While Cirillo and Jaha normally lead the team in most offensive statistics, you'll see the name of Dave Nilsson close behind in a lot of them, especially in 1995, 1996 and 1999.
Nilsson, who played at Kedron State High School in Brisbane, signed with the Brewers as an amateur free agent in 1987 at the age of 18. He rose through the minor leagues, making his debut in 1992. He would slash .232/.304/.354 with four home runs and 25 RBI in his first season, which was pretty solid for a rookie season, as the potential was there for him to increase his production.
From 1992-95, he would string together a solid line, hitting .264/.328/.421 with 35 home runs and 187 RBI as a reliable option for the Brewers despite battling injury issues during most of his career, contributing 2.2 fWAR and 92 wRC+. He also hit the first home run at Globe Life Park in 1994. Also in 1994, Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd would become the first-ever All-Australian battery mates. It wouldn't be until the next season where he would take off. A common theme during these seasons was for Nilsson to return to play in the ABL during the offseason, which is what most Australian players do.
BREAKOUT SEASON: 1996
Returning to the Brewers late in the 1996 season due to a broken foot, Nilsson would recover in a big way from the injury, having the most productive season of his MLB career. He slashed .331/.407/.525 with a .932 OPS, all career-highs to that point, and swatted 17 home runs and 84 RBI, both career-highs as well. While his defense often was not anywhere close to his offense, he finished the season with a 131 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR. This began a string of solid seasons for Nilsson. He finished sixth in the National League in batting average and also becoming the first Brewer to hit two home runs in an inning, doing so on 5/17/96 against Minnesota.
1997 would be his first and only season where he would suit up in more than 150 games, and he would continue to rake, batting .278/.352/.446 with a career-high 20 home runs and driving in 81 runs. He spent time at first base, left field and designated hitter during this season as he recovered from knee surgery. While his hitting production dipped, he was still able to contribute a 104 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR.
1998 was another dip in production, but still a solid line nonetheless. Despite playing in just 102 games, Nilsson hit .269/.339/.437 with 12 home runs, 56 RBI, 104 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR.
1999 was arguably his best season at the age of 29, but it would also surprisingly be the last season of his career. Only playing in 115 games, he strung together a .309/.400/.554 line and crushed 21 home runs and 62 RBI. He finally regained enough ability to play catcher full-time for Milwaukee and exploded to a 134 wRC+ and a 2.9 fWAR, which were both his career-highs. Nilsson would replace Mike Lieberthal of the Phillies in the All-Star lineup at Fenway Park as a pinch-hitter, his first and only All-Star appearance, and becoming the first Australian baseball player to play in the All-Star Game until Grant Balfour in 2013 and Liam Hendriks in 2019. He struck out in his only plate appearance which came against John Wetteland of the Rangers as the AL topped the NL 4-1.
Nilsson was hitting .311 with 19 home runs and 52 RBI before the All-Star Break, but only hit two more home runs and drove in ten more runs before the season was over, battling injuries for the entire month of September. He would play in his final MLB game on 10/3/99.
Nilsson would never return to the MLB again. He had bought the ABL during the 1999 season and renamed it the International Baseball League of Australia. A free agent during the 2000 offseason, he turned down money from any MLB team and represented his country at the 2000 Olympics.
Nilsson was always incredible during international competitions, often being in the top in batting average. He won tournament MVP in the 1999 Intercontinental Cup and led the 2000 Olympics in batting average by 151 points. Nilsson would play a few more seasons in both Australia and international competitions, finishing his career at the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He became a manager of several teams following his career and is currently at the helm of the Brisbane Bandits in the new ABL.
Why is Nilsson the best Australian position player to play in the MLB?
Of the 32 Australian MLB players to suit up in a game, just ten of them were position players. Australian baseball players have combined for 173 home runs in MLB history, and Nilsson has 105 of them, accounting for 60-percent of all Australian home runs. He has the highest career WAR, second-most hits, highest qualified batting average (Glenn Williams went 17/40 in 2005 for Minnesota which is insane and a travesty he never played after that), and the highest on-base and slugging percentage. You could make an argument for Joe Quinn, who played in the very early days of the MLB and leads in hits and RBI, but the fact that he did this over 17 seasons and not just eight like Nilsson turns the scales in his favor.
It's players like him who I really enjoy in the MLB, the guys that the casual fans won't remember but the die-hards will always cherish. Nilsson was great for eight years, and you probably would not have known that unless I took this deep dive.