DETROIT — Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline has played with or closely watched every starting pitcher the franchise has had in the last 62 seasons.
There have been some great one-two combos in the rotations over the last six decades, but Kaline believes Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander have moved to the head of the class.
"The only ones who compare to the two guys we have now are Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain," Kaline said. "What we’ve got now is very special."
The numbers back up Kaline’s evaluation.
Among those who stayed together for at least five years, as Scherzer and Verlander have as of this season, they’re right there or ahead of 1968 stars Lolich and McLain in every category. The Hal Newhouser-Dizzy Trout pairing from the 1940s was the only other duo to claim a first in any major statistical category.
What we’ve got now is very special.
Al Kaline on the one-two combo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer
There have been other strong combos: Jack Morris and Dan Petry, 1981-85; Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Frank Lary, 1957-61; Lynwood "Schoolboy" Rowe and Tommy Bridges, 1933-37; all-time Tigers victory leader Hooks Dauss and Harry Coveleski, 1914-18; and George Mullin and "Wild" Bill Donovan, 1906-10.
Kaline was asked which one of those pitchers from the last 62 years he would’ve least liked to have faced.
"That’s a hard question," said Kaline, a right-handed batter who had 3,007 hits and 18 All-Star Game selections. "McLain and Lolich both were great. But Mickey was a left-hander, and I wouldn’t have minded facing him all that much.
"I can’t separate three of these pitchers and pick one over the other. For me, it’s a tie between Verlander, Max and McLain. They are the three pitchers we’ve had that I wouldn’t want to face."
All four of those power pitchers piled up strikeouts, and when totaling the stats of pitchers from their best five years together, no duo tops the 2,047 strikeouts of Lolich and McLain. But Scherzer and Verlander need to combine for only 294 strikeouts this season to surpass that total, and they’re on pace to total 505.
The area Scherzer and Verlander dominate is winning percentage. Their .684 winning percentage bests the .636 of Lolich and McLain, who went a combined 187-107 in their best five seasons together, 1965-69.
The current double-aces of the Tigers are 145-67 with four months remaining in their fifth season, but aren’t likely to reach the 187-win total Lolich and McLain had in the four-man rotation era.
As good as Lolich and McLain were together, Lolich actually had his two best seasons after McLain was traded.
Lolich went 25-14 with a 2.92 ERA and 308 strikeouts in 1971, and finished second in Cy Young voting to Oakland’s Vida Blue. The following year, Lolich was 22-14 and came in third for the Cy Young. He teamed with Joe Coleman, acquired in the McLain trade with the Washington Senators, to go 177-150 from 1971-75.
The pitching heroes of ’68 — McLain went 31-6 and won the MVP and Cy Young, and Lolich was the World Series MVP with three victories — combined for a 3.19 ERA over five seasons, which ended in 1969 with McLain tying Batlimore’s Mike Cuellar for the Cy Young.
Detroit’s 2011 Cy Young and MVP winner, Verlander, and 2013 Cy Young winner, Scherzer, have registered a 3.20 ERA and could very well edge Lolich and McLain in that category come October.
The Newhouser-Trout combo went 200-123 (.619) and posted a great 2.54 ERA from 1944-48. They’re tops in both earned run average and wins for any one-two punch Detroit has ever had, but have to be considered the No. 3 pairing for two reasons:
— They pitched two of their seasons during World War II, when major league rosters were void of such stars as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio serving in the military, and Newhouser and Trout combined to go 99-47 in 1944-45. They were 101-76 in the three years after the war.
— And Trout wasn’t really an equal to Newhouser, who was the MVP in 1944 and 1945. Newhouser was 118-56, while Trout was 82-67. So, it wasn’t so much a one-two punch as one elite and one good pitcher teaming up. Only in one year were they both were tremendous. Trout went 27-14 in 1944, and Newhouser was 29-9.
But we’re examining half-decade dominance here. They had very good numbers together and deserve to be remembered for leading the Tigers to a Series win in 1945. In terms of pitchers who teamed to strike fear into opponents, however, they fall short of the Lolich-McLain and Scherzer-Verlander duos.
Kaline recalled the four pitchers who provided the best pair of one-two combos in franchise history:
On Lolich: "Mickey had great stuff and sunk the ball away. He threw a devastating down-and-in slider to right-handers, and was not afraid to push a guy off the plate. He’d back his hitters by coming in on the other team’s hitters if their pitcher was doing that to us. He had tremendous movement on his pitches and kept the ball down. He was both great to play behind and a great teammate."
On McLain: "Denny was unbelievable. It’s a shame he hurt his arm because there is no telling what he would’ve done. (McLain had 114 of his 131 wins by age 25.) He came over the top, and like Scherzer, his fastball had rise on it at the end. He really rose to the occasion in games. In the games when we had trouble scoring runs, he reached back for something extra. He was a fly-ball pitcher and threw strikes. Denny was a pleasure to play behind."
On Scherzer: "Max is a guy who can dial it up but not as hard as Verlander. But he also has four quality pitches and wants to get better. All he thinks about in the winter is getting better. And this year, his curveball is much, much better. He doesn’t throw harder than anybody else, but his movement is up on the pitches. So most swings against him are under his pitches and he gets a pop-up or strikeout."
On Verlander: "He throws four pitches and they are four quality pitches. And Justin can always go to any one of those pitches. As a hitter, you always have that in the back of your mind. And in the late innings, he can still dial it up. He’s not reaching 100 (mph) but the 96-97 is there, and most times he’s reaching it. That’s special. And his curveball makes knees buckle. He’s just a great competitor who works so hard."