Detroit Tigers All-Time 25-Man Roster
We continue our offseason project with a look at the Detroit Tigers all-time 25-man roster.
The Detroit Tigers came into existence when the American League was created to rival the older National League in 1901. They are one of four charter members of the American League who still play in their original city, along with the Red Sox, White Sox, and Indians. In the first season of the league, the Tigers finished third out of eight teams.
The Tigers signed Ty Cobb in 1905 and would become the best team in the American League two years later. They won the pennant three years in a row from 1907 to 1909, but lost the World Series all three years. After that early success it would take another 25 years before the Tigers made it back to the World Series. They went to back-to-back Fall Classics in 1934 and 1935. They lost the first but finally earned their first World Series championship in 1935. These were the Tigers of Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg.
The 1940s saw the Tigers make the World Series twice. They lost in seven games to the Cincinnati Reds in 1940, then won their second championship with a World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs in 1945. Little did Chicago Cubs fans know that they would be waiting another 70 years before they would finally win a World Series.
The 1950s were not good for Tigers fans. They finished second in 1950, then never finished higher than fourth in an eight-team league until 1961. It all started to come together again in the late 1960s. With Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe, and Al Kaline on the roster, the 1968 Tigers beat the Bob Gibson-led St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The team would make it back to the playoffs four years later but lost in the ALCS to the Oakland Athletics.
The winningest team in Detroit Tigers history was the 1984 squad that started the year 35-5 and finished with 104 wins. They continued their run with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Tigers in the ALCS and won four of five against the San Diego Padres for their fourth World Series title.
That 1984 team was so good, it seemed they would rule the American League for years to come. Instead, they won just 84 games the following year and 87 the year after that and missed the playoffs both years. They got back to the playoffs in 1987, but lost the ALCS to the Minnesota Twins, then went 18 years without a playoff berth.
Since 2006, the Tigers have been in the playoffs five times and the World Series twice. Unfortunately, they lost both times. The Cardinals beat them four games to one in 2006 and the Giants swept them in 2012. In their long history, the Tigers have been to the World Series 11 times but have won just four World Series titles.
Their most recent run of playoff teams has been under the ownership of Mike Ilitch, who purchased the team in 1992. Under his ownership, the team has been more than willing to pay for premium talent, like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, and Victor Martinez, in the hopes of winning the championship. Sadly, Ilitch died on February 10 at the age of 87 before he could get a World Series title.
The Detroit Tigers all-time 25-man roster has a mix of players from throughout their history. Here is the Detroit Tigers all-time 25-man roster.
(with Tigers from 1961, 1963-1976)
44.8 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR), 44.7 bWAR (Baseball-Reference WAR)
.262/.340/.412, 1774 G, 6900 PA, 112 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Bill Freehan was signed as a bonus baby for $125,000 when he was just 19 years old. This was before MLB created the June Amateur Draft. Because he received such a high signing bonus he had to be kept on the major league roster that year. He wasn’t ready to play at that high level, so he was limited to just four games in his first year and was sent to the minors the following year.
He came back up in 1963 and began to establish himself as the team’s catcher and team leader. He really came into his own in 1964 when he hit .300/.350/.462 with 18 homers and 80 RBI. He also made the all-star team for the first of 11 times, including ten in a row from 1964 to 1973. He was also recognized for his skills behind the plate with five straight Gold Glove Awards from 1965 to 1969.
Freehan was the premier catcher in the American League during his career. From the time he became a regular in 1974 until his last season with nearly full-time play, 1975, he was third in all of baseball among catchers with 42.8 WAR (per FanGraphs). Only Joe Torre and Johnny Bench were worth more and Torre stopped playing catcher after the 1970 season.
When the Tigers went to the World Series in 1968, Freehan was a big part of their success. He caught 138 games and appeared in another 21 at first base. At the dish, he hit .263/.366/.454 with career-highs in home runs (25) and RBI (84). He finished second in AL MVP voting behind teammate Denny McClain, who won 31 games.
One of the memorable plays of Freehan’s career came during Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. The speedy Lou Brock was on second when Julian Javier singled to left. Tigers left fielder Willie Horton fired a perfect one-hop throw to Freehan, who caught the ball and made the tag to nail Brock. Many fans of the St. Louis Cardinals insist that Brock was safe on the play. Of course, had he slid instead of gone in upright, he likely would have scored.
The year after the Tigers won the World Series, Freehan kept a diary that would eventually become a book called Behind the Mask. It came out in 1970, the same year as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Bouton’s book was much more scandalous at the time, as it revealed the rampant use of amphetamines (greenies) by MLB players, along with their less-than-exemplary activities on the road.
Freehan’s book was not nearly as well known, but it would be in the headlines in 1970 because of the things Freehan wrote about teammate Denny McLain. At the time, McLain was serving a suspension related to a gambling investigation, so Sports Illustrated published excerpts from Behind the Mask that portrayed McLain in a poor light. For example, Freehan wrote that McLain was often allowed to break club rules and the coaching staff did nothing to stop him.
Even though Freehan’s teammates disliked the preferential treatment McLain had often received, they were not happy with Freehan “violating the sanctity of the clubhouse” through his book. Many fans were also not happy with Freehan after the book came out, but they came around when he had a good 1971 season.
As Freehan aged into his 30s, the toll of catching so many games took their toll. He averaged 141 games per year from 1964 to 1971, then just 108 games per year over his last five seasons. Like many of the players on this all-time 25-man roster, Freehan played his entire career with the Detroit Tigers.
First Baseman—Hank Greenberg
(with Tigers from 1930, 1933-1941, 1945-1946)
57.9 fWAR, 54.1 bWAR
.319/.412/.616, 1269 G, 5588 PA, 161 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Greenberg signed with the Tigers in 1929 and was called up at the end of the 1930 season to get a taste of the big leagues. He batted just one time and played the next two seasons in the minor leagues. He finally broke through as a 22-year-old in 1933 with a .301/.367/.468 season.
In 1934, Greenberg hit a league-leading 63 doubles. That’s still the fourth-most doubles in one season in baseball history, but it was just a precursor to the big year Greenberg would have in 1935 when he hit .328/.411/.628 with 36 homers and 168 RBI. He led the league in both categories, as well as total bases. The big year with the stick won him the AL MVP Award.
The Tigers were very successful in 1934 and 1935. They went to the World Series both years, losing the first but winning the second. Their World Series title in 1935 was the first time in five attempts that they were able to win the championship.
During the stretch run of the 1934 season, Greenberg was the subject of controversy. He was Jewish but admitted that he never strongly identified himself as a Jew. When the Tigers were battling the Yankees for the pennant in September of 1934, Greenberg had to decide whether to play on Rosh Hashanah, which was on September 10. The previous year, he did not play on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. In 1934, after consulting with a rabbi, he decided to play on Rosh Hashanah and homered twice in a 2-1 Tigers’ victory.
On Yom Kippur, ten days later, the Tigers had a solid lead and Greenberg sat out. Syndicated newspaper poet Edgar Guess wrote about Greenberg, “We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat, But he’s true to his religion – and I honor him for that!”
Greenberg injured his wrist in the 1935 World Series and re-injured it early in the 1936 season, which caused him to miss most of the season. He came back strong in 1937 with a 40-HR, 184-RBI season. His 184 RBI is still the third most in a season in baseball history.
From 1937 to 1940, Greenberg had the second most Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs) in baseball. Only Joe DiMaggio was worth more. Greenberg made the all-star team all four years, was the MVP once, and finished third in AL MVP voting two times. His average season during this stretch was incredible: 149 G, 664 PA, 130 R, 43 HR, 148 RBI, .327/.432/.662.
In the middle of this stretch, 1938, he challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60. He had 58 home runs with five games to play. Even though he had seven hits in the final five games, none of them went over the wall and he ended up two dingers short.
Greenberg was coming off his second MVP season when his career hit a roadblock known as World War II. Greenberg played 19 games in 1941, then missed the next three years serving as a first lieutenant in the Air Corps. At the time, he said, “We are in trouble and there is only one thing to do—return to service. Baseball is out of the window as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to baseball.”
Even after missing almost four seasons, Greenberg came back strong. He rejoined the Tigers in July of 1945 and hit a home run in his first game back. Late in the season, he hit a grand slam in the ninth inning that clinched the pennant for Detroit. In the World Series win over the Chicago Cubs, Greenberg hit .304/.467/.696 with 2 home runs, 7 runs scored, and 7 RBI.
Despite leading the league in home runs and RBI in 1946, Greenberg started to feel his age. He was 35 years old and “only” hit .277 (with a .373 on-base percentage and .604 slugging). The Tigers thought his better days were behind them so they sold him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $75,000.
Greenberg considered retiring. The Pirates played in Forbes Field, which was a tough park for right-handed hitters. In order to get Greenberg to agree to play, the Pirates moved the left field fences in and dubbed that area “Greenberg Gardens.” Greenberg joined the Pirates. He hit .249/.408/.478, with 25 homers in 125 games. He also led the league in walks, with 104.
Another benefit to the Pirates was Greenberg’s tutelage of young Ralph Kiner. Kiner had led the NL in home runs the previous year, with 23, but with Greenberg on the team and the “Greenberg Gardens” to shoot for, Kiner knocked 51 over the wall. This area would be re-named “Kiner’s Korner” and Kiner would end up leading the league in home runs the first seven years of his career.
Greenberg retired after the 1947 season. Nine years later he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 85% of the vote. In 1983, Greenberg’s number 5 and Charlie Gehringer’s number 2 were retired by the Detroit Tigers during a ceremony at Tiger Stadium. It was the last time Greenberg would appear at the stadium and he was honored, saying, “I am very proud of the fact that my name and uniform number will be remembered as long as baseball is played in Detroit.”
Second Baseman—Charlie Gehringer
(with Tigers from 1924-1942)
78.6 fWAR, 80.6 bWAR
.320/.404/.480, 2323 G, 10245 PA, 124 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Charlie Gehringer’s nickname was “The Mechanical Man.” He was as consistent as a metronome. He’s the guy in high school who would win the prefect attendance award. Back when teams played 154-game seasons, Gehringer had a stretch during the middle of his career in which he played 150 or more games nine times in 11 years. He also hit over .300 10 times during this 11-year stretch. The year he didn’t hit .300, he hit .298.
When talking to an interviewer about his nickname, Gehringer said, “I think it was Lefty Gomez of the Yankees who gave me the ‘Mechanical Man’ name. He made a statement to the papers once that ‘you wind Gehringer up in the spring and turn him off in the fall and in between he hits .340.’ Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. Like anything, it’s a lot of hard work and practice.”
Joe Posnanski wrote about Gehringer, describing him as a player who was unemotional, almost never spoke, and rarely smiled. He didn’t show frustration or joy. His mother was diabetic and Gehringer lived with her his entire career so he could take care of her.
Gehringer was signed after attending a tryout with the Tigers. He became a regular at second base in 1926 and held that spot until 1941. He had a pattern of improvement as his career went along. His WAR (Baseball-Reference) increased from 0.7 to 4.0 to 4.4 to 5.8 to 6.5 in his first five full seasons. He just got better each year. Then he had a down year in 1931 because of an injury that limited him to 101 games. He came back from the injury to have consecutive seasons with 4.7, 7.2, and 8.4 WAR, once again just getting better each year.
After finishing in the top six in MVP voting four straight seasons, Gehringer won the award in 1937 when he hit .371/.458/.520. That .371 average led the league. He was the third Tiger in four years to win the MVP Award.
The Mechanical man finally started to wind down at the age of 36 when he played just 118 games. He played two more seasons as a regular, then a final season as a player-coach in 1942. In September of that year, he enlisted in the Navy and served as the baseball coach of the St. Mary’s College naval preflight school in California.
Gehringer was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949 and had his number 2 retired in 1983. He was selected by the fans to the all-time Tigers team in 1999. Statistically, he’s easily among the top 10 second baseman of all-time, with only Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, and Joe Morgan being clearly better.
(with Tigers from 1977-1996)
63.7 fWAR, 70.4 bWAR
.285/.352/.415, 2293 G, 9376 PA, 110 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Alan Trammell had terrible timing. He came along at the tail end of a decade in which shortstops were almost universally good field/no-hit guys. That was the decade of the 1970s and Trammell became a regular in the Tigers’ lineup in 1978. Throughout the 80s he was overshadowed by a guy who played in Baltimore named Cal Ripken, Jr. Trammel’s last season was 1996, just as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra were exploding onto the baseball scene.
In many ways, Trammell is similar to Tim Raines. Raines was a very good player who only recently earned entry into the Hall of Fame in his final year of eligibility. It took him so long in part because he wasn’t as good as Rickey Henderson, a base-stealing contemporary of his. Well, few players in the history of baseball were as good as Rickey Henderson. Henderson finished his career with 110.8 WAR (Baseball-Reference). Raines had 69.1 WAR.
Trammell’s career overlapped with Cal Ripken Jr.’s career. Trammell wasn’t as good as Ripken. Ripken had 95.5 WAR in his career to Trammell’s 70.4. Not being Cal Ripken, Jr. shouldn’t have hurt Trammell as much as it did when it came time to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ripken deservedly went in on the first ballot. Trammell got 40.9% of the vote in his final year and is now off the ballot.
Based on FanGraphs WAR, Trammell is the 12th best shortstop in baseball history, sitting between Lou Boudreau and ahead of Ernie Banks. All of the eligible shortstops ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame and the eight of the nine eligible shortstops just after him are in the Hall of Fame. He was rated the ninth best shortstop of all time in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that came out in 2001. Hopefully, Trammell will get a chance with one of the Era Committee in the future (formerly know as Veterans Committees).
One of the interesting things about these Era Committees is that they split the time period they consider into 1970 to 1987 (“Modern Baseball”) and 1988 to 2016 (“Today’s Game”). The players considered are those “whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from” that particular era.
For Trammell, this division nearly splits his career in half. He had four MVP-caliber seasons (6 WAR and above) before 1988 and two more MVP-caliber seasons from 1988 on. Trammell was not on the “Today’s Game” ballot this winter. Perhaps he’ll be on the “Modern Baseball” ballot in at the end of this year.
Trammell came up to the big leagues as a 19-year-old in 1977 and played his entire career in Detroit, which lasted until 1996. He was an all-star six times and won four Gold Glove Awards. His best season was in 1987 when he hit .343/.402/.551, with 109 runs, 28 homers, 105 RBI, and 21 steals. He was robbed of the AL MVP Award when the writers gave it to George Bell, who had 5 WAR to Trammell’s 8.2 (although Wade Boggs and his .363/.461/.588 season had an argument).
The Tigers made the playoffs twice during Trammel’s career. They were the undisputed best team in baseball in their World Series championship season of 1984, then lost in the ALCS in 1987. Trammell may not be in the Baseball Hall of Fame (or the Tigers Hall of Fame), but he was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, so there’s that.
Third Baseman—Travis Fryman
(with Tigers from 1990-1997)
24.6 fWAR, 27.4 bWAR
.274/.334/.444, 1096 G, 4792 PA, 106 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Third base is the weakest spot on the Tigers all-time 25-man roster (well, besides closer). The only legitimate choices are Travis Fryman and George Kell. Fryman had fewer than 5,000 at bats with the team and Kell had under 4,000. Fryman gets the nod as the team’s all-time third baseman because he was with the Tigers for a bit longer and was a little more valuable.
Fryman was the Tigers’ first round draft pick in the 1987 Amateur Draft. He spent parts of four seasons in the minor leagues before coming up to the big leagues in July of 1990. He hit well right from the start and got down ballot votes in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, finishing sixth.
In his first two years, Fryman split time between shortstop and third base. When Alan Trammell was injured in 1992, Fryman took over at shortstop and made the all-star team. He went back to splitting time between shortstop and third base in 1993 and made the all-star team again, then was exclusively a third baseman in 1994, while making the all-star team for the third straight year.
Unfortunately for Tigers fans, as Fryman was establishing himself in the big leagues the Tigers were getting progressively worse around him. They went 53-62 (.461) in the strike-shortened 1994 season, then 60-84 (.417) in the late-starting 1995 season and bottomed out at 53-109 (.327) in 1996.
Fryman lasted one more year with the team, hitting .274/.326/.440 in 1997. He hit 22 home runs for the second year in a row and had a second consecutive year with more than 100 RBI. Then he was traded to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in November and traded again to the Cleveland Indians in December.
Left Fielder—Bobby Veach
(with Tigers from 1912-1923)
42.3 fWAR, 45.8 bWAR
.311/.370/.444, 1604 G, 6794 PA, 130 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Bobby Veach played alongside Ty Cobb for many years in Detroit but their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Cobb was a very aggressive person, both on the field and off. Veach was much more easygoing and laid-back, without the fiery spirit that Cobb seemed to have swirling around him.
Despite the difference in their personalities, Veach and Cobb worked well together in the Tigers’ lineup. Cobb most often batted third, right in front of Veach. This arrangement allowed Veach to average 107 RBI per year from 1915 to 1922. He led the AL in RBI three times during this stretch.
Veach was able to be productive despite not hitting many runs prior to the introduction of the lively ball in 1920. In his first seven seasons with regular playing time, he averaged three home runs per year and had a single-season high of eight. At the same time, he was averaging 30 doubles and 13 triples per season, so it’s not like he was just a singles hitter. When the lively ball was introduced in 1920, Veach hit 11, 16, and 9 home runs over the next three years, while continuing to produce double-digit totals in triples.
Cobb showed the person he could be in 1921. According to this article at SABR, Cobb had long felt Veach didn’t take baseball seriously enough so he told fellow outfielder Harry Heilmann to insult Veach throughout the 1921 season. Veach was described by Tigers historian Fred Lieb as a guy who “was as friendly as a Newfoundland pup with opponents as well as teammates.” Cobb got Heilmann to mock Veach from the on-deck circle by calling him a quitter, a dog, and a yellow belly.
Veach responded by hitting .338/.387/.529 with career highs in runs, hits, home runs, and RBI. At the end of the year, Heilmann tried to tell Veach that Cobb was behind the insults, but Veach didn’t believe him and held a grudge against Heilmann for the rest of his life.
Despite the great year Veach had, Cobb tried unsuccessfully to get him traded to the Yankees prior to the 1922 season. Veach responded with another great year, hitting .327/.377/.468, with 96 runs and 126 RBI.
Veach was 35 years old in 1923. He hit .321/.388/.406 but only had 340 plate appearances because of injuries and the strong play of newcomer Heinie Manush. At the end of the year, the Tigers sold Veach to the last place Red Sox. He wasn’t happy about his departure from the Tigers. His major league career ended after the 1925 season.
With his big league days behind him, Leach joined the minor league Toledo Mud Hens (later made famous in the TV show M*A*S*H as Corporal Klinger’s favorite team). Veach apparently enjoyed getting away from Cobb and Heilmann, In his first three years with the Mud Hens, he hit .362, .363, and .382.
Center Fielder—Ty Cobb
(with Tigers from 1905-1926)
143.4 fWAR, 144.7 bWAR
.368/.434/.516, 2806 G, 12120 PA, 171 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Ty Cobb is one of the top five position players in the history of the game. He was also, by many accounts, one of the most aggressive players in the history of the game. His on-field accomplishments speak for themselves:
- Led the league in batting average 12 times
- Led the league in on-base percentage 7 times
- Led the league in slugging percentage 8 times
- Led the league in all three 4 times
- Led the league in hits 8 times
- Led the league in steals 6 times
- Led the league in runs 5 times
- Led the league in RBI 4 times
Cobb played 22 seasons for the Tigers, starting in the Dead Ball Era and continuing well into the Lively Ball Era that began in 1920. As good as he was during the regular season, he didn’t have the same success in the post-season. The Tigers went to the World Series three straight years from 1907 to 1909 and Cobb hit .262/.314/.354 in 17 games. The Tigers lost all three.
The 1909 World Series was particularly frustrating for Cobb. At the time, he was the dominant player in the American League and Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner was his counterpart in the National League. It was a big deal having Cobb’s Tigers play Wagner’s Pirates in the World Series.
During the 1909 regular season, Cobb had won the American League Triple Crown, leading the league with a .377 batting average, nine home runs, and 107 RBI. He also led the league in runs, hits, steals, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Over in the National League, Honus Wagner also filled up the stat sheet. He led the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, RBI, and total bases.
The series went seven games. The teams swapped victories back and forth through the first six games. Game 7 was in Detroit and featured Babe Adams starting for the Pirates and Bill Donovan on the bump for the Tigers. Adams totally shut down Detroit. He pitched a complete game shutout and allowed just six hits and one walk. Cobb was 0-for-4. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense knocked Donovan out of the game after three innings and won easily, 8-0. Wagner was 1-for-3 with 1 run, 2 RBI, and 2 walks. In the series, Wagner hit .333/.467/.500, while Cobb struggled with a .231/.310/.346 batting line.
Cobb continued to be a great player for many years after that World Series but the Tigers never got back to the post-season over the remainder of his career. After the 1926 season, during which Cobb hit .339/.408/.511 in just 79 games, he abruptly retired. Shortly thereafter, another big star at the time, Tris Speaker, also retired.
It would be revealed later that former Detroit pitcher Hubert “Dutch” Leonard (not to be confused with Emil “Dutch” Leonard, who was the more accomplished of the two) had claimed that Cobb and Speaker were involved in throwing a game in 1919, which was the same year as the Black Sox Scandal.
This had the potential of being a huge scandal, but Leonard refused to travel to Chicago to face Cobb and Speaker at a hearing. In January of 1927, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that Cobb and Speaker were not guilty. Joe Posnanski has a much more detailed look at this situation. Whatever the truth about Cobb being involved in a gambling scandal, he was innocent in the eyes of the commissioner and allowed to continue his career.
Cobb finished out his career with two seasons in Philadelphia playing for the legendary Connie Mack. He played 133 and 95 games and hit a combined .343.419/.460. When the Baseball Hall of Fame was created and inducted the first group of players, Ty Cobb was the top vote-getter with 98.2% of the vote (how does someone NOT vote for Ty Cobb for the Hall of Fame? Was Murray Chass alive back then?).
Right Fielder—Al Kaline
(with Tigers from 1953-1974)
88.9 fWAR, 92.5 bWAR
.297/.376/.480, 2834 G, 11596 PA, 134 OPS+ (with Tigers)
The Detroit Tigers signed 18-year-old Al Kaline in 1953 and gave him a $6,000 signing bonus. This made him a bonus baby and required the team to keep him on their big league roster for two years. Kaline hardly played at all as an 18-year-old. He played in 30 games and had 30 plate appearances; so most of the time he was a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. The next season, he played much more regularly but was a well below average hitter. Heck, he was still just 19 years old.
Rather than send him to the minors for more seasoning now that his baby bonus time had expired, the Tigers kept him in the big leagues and were rewarded when Kaline had the first of 13 straight all-star seasons. He led the league in hits, batting average, and total bases, and finished second to Yogi Berra in AL MVP voting (Kaline had 8.2 WAR to Yogis’ 4.5, but Mickey Mantle topped them all with 9.5 WAR).
That season by Kaline at the age of 20 is in the top five all-time for seasons by a 20-year-old. Based on FanGraphs WAR, Mike Trout’s 2012 season and Alex Rodriguez in 1996 were clearly better, but Kaline is in the conversation with Mel Ott in 1929 and Ted Williams in 1939.
This might have been Kaline’s peak. It was the only season in which he led the league in more than two categories and one of two times he finished second in the MVP voting. Over the rest of his career, he established himself in the range between an all-star and an MVP. He had a dozen seasons at a level just below this impressive age-20 season.
In 1957, baseball glove manufacturer Rawlings created the Gold Glove Award to commemorate the best fielding performance at each position. Kaline monopolized the award in the American League, winning it 10 times in the next 11 years. He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t make over-the-head catches like Willie Mays, but he made every play that needed to be made and was a smart fielder who threw to the right base and hit the cutoff man.
Kaline played much of his career during a difficult era for hitters. The 1960s were dominated by pitching. Kaline never hit 30 homers in a season, but hit 27 or more homers six times. He only topped 100 RBI three times. He only had 200 hits in a season once. He never won an MVP Award, but finished in the top 10 nine times. Add it all up, though, and you get a player who played in 2,834 games and scored and drove in more than 1,500 runs. He came up one homer short of 400, two doubles shy of 500, and 3 points shy of a career .300 batting average.
He was also a key part of two playoff teams. The 1968 regular season had been rough for Kaline. He only played 102 games and had his lowest slugging percentage in eight years (this was the “Year of the Pitcher”). When the World Series rolled around, though, Kaline was terrific. He hit .379/.400/.655 and helped the Tigers win it in seven games. Four years later, at the age of 37, Kaline wasn’t as good in a five-game series loss to the Oakland A’s. He hit .263/.333/.421.
Kaline was nearing the end at this point. In 1973, at the age of 38, he hit just .255/.320/.394. It was his lowest batting average since that 30 plate appearance season when he was 18 years old. He was also limited to 91 games as a career of aches and pains caught up with him. He bounced back a bit in 1974 when he was healthy enough to play 147 games, but he wasn’t the player he’d once been. Still, on September 24, 1974, at the age of 39, Al Kaline lined a double to right field in Baltimore for his 3,000th hit.
That 1974 season was the last for Kaline. He went into the announcers’ booth the following year and broadcast Tigers games until 2002. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980 in his first year of eligibility and was the first Tigers player to have his uniform number retired. More than any other player in the team’s history, Kaline is worthy of the nickname “Mr. Tiger.”
Designated Hitter—Miguel Cabrera
(with Tigers from 2008-Present)
48.3 fWAR, 51.4 bWAR
.325/.404/.573, 1376 G, 5929 PA, 162 OPS+ (with Tigers)
The first base position for the Tigers is a competitive spot, with Hank Greenberg, Norm Cash, and Miguel Cabrera all having good arguments. In the end, I put Greenberg in the starting spot at first base and Miggy at Designated Hitter, which left Norm Cash on the bench. Both Greenberg and Cash have slightly more career wins above replacement as Tigers than Cabrera, but Cabrera should move ahead of both in the next few years.
Miguel Cabrera was already one of the best hitters in baseball when the Tigers acquired him in a trade after the 2007 season. The Tigers sent Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, and Dallas Trahern to the Florida Marlins for Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Cabrera was about to get expensive and the cheapskate Marlins didn’t want to pay him what he deserved.
Cabrera hit a league-leading 37 home runs in his first year with the Tigers, and had 127 RBI, but “only” hit .292/.349/.537. That would be his worst year at the bat in the nine years he’s been in Detroit. Over the last eight years, he’s averaged 152 games per year, with 98 runs, 34 homers, 113 RBI, and a .330/.412/.578 batting line. That’s his average season. He’s led the league in batting average four times, on-base percentage four times, and slugging percentage twice and peaked during the 2013 season when he led the league in all three, hitting .348/.442/.636. He won his second straight AL MVP Award that year (although Mike Trout was likely the better overall player).
The Tigers have been to the playoffs four times in Cabrera’s nine years with the team. This includes one World Series appearance, which they lost to the Giants in a four-game sweep in 2012. Cabrera is heading into his age-34 season and there is some signs of age. After being a 7 WAR player from 2011 to 2013, Cabrera has been a 5 WAR player the last three years. That’s still all-star caliber, but not at the MVP level he was previously.
The Tigers have been trying to win a World Series for owner Mike Ilitch since hw purchased the team in 1992. With that goal in mind, the team has continued to add to their team around their stars, including Cabrera. Sadly, Ilitch died last week before he could see the Tigers win a World Series. It will be interesting to see what this means for the franchise and for Cabrera, who is owed $212 million over the next seven years.
Backup Catcher—Lance Parrish
(with Tigers from 1977-1986)
32.1 fWAR, 29.9 bWAR
.263/.317/.469, 1146 G, 4674 PA, 114 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Coming out of high school, Lance Parrish could have accepted a scholarship to play football at UCLA but chose a career in baseball instead. He had the build of a football player. Parrish lifted weights at a time when baseball players were cautioned against it. The idea was that baseball players shouldn’t get too bulky. Parrish was one of the more muscular players in baseball and finished his career with 324 home runs, tied for fifth all-time among players who predominantly played catcher.
Parrish came up as part of a strong “up the middle” combination that included him at catcher, Alan Trammell at shortstop, Lou Whitaker at second base, and Kirk Gibson in centerfield. He had his first all-star season in 1980 when he hit 24 homers and drove in 82 runs. He would be an all-star eight times in his career and earn three Gold Gloves for his defense behind the dish.
The 1984 season was a special one for the Detroit Tigers. They won 35 of their first 40 games and finished at 104-58, 15 games ahead of the second place Toronto Blue Jays. Parrish hit a career-high 33 home runs in 1984, but it came with an ugly .287 on-base percentage. In the Tigers’ post-season run to a World Series victory, Parrish hit .267/.314/.533 in eight games.
Parrish played just two more years with the Tigers, as he was growing disenchanted with the team’s unwillingness to sign him to a long-term deal. He didn’t think much of team president Jim Campbell. When Parrish was offered the same $850,000 contract in 1987 that he had the year before, he declined and became a free agent. He signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies. Over the last nine years of his career, Parrish played for six different teams but never had the success he’d had with the Tigers.
Backup First Baseman—Norm Cash
(with Tigers from 1960-1974)
54.3 fWAR, 51.7 bWAR
.272/.374/.490, 2018 G, 7776 PA, 139 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Norm Cash was born in Justiceburg, Texas, which is a small town southeast of Lubbock. In the census nine years before Cash was born, the population of Justiceburg was 25. It’s hard to imagine a major league player coming from a smaller town than Justiceburg, Texas.
Football was the sport Cash was more known for growing up. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL but chose to sign with the Chicago White Sox instead. After two years in Chicago, Cash was traded to Cleveland in December of 1959 and traded again in April of 1960 to the Tigers.
In his first year in Detroit, Cash was solid. He hit .286/.402/.501 in 121 games. The next year he had one of the great fluke seasons of all-time. Cash hit .361/.487/.662, with 119 runs, a league-leading 193 hits, 41 homers, and 132 RBI. He led the league in batting average and on-base percentage and even stole a career-high 11 bases.
No one kept track of it at the time, but Cash’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) was a major outlier in 1961. His career BABIP was .273. In 1961, he BABIP’d .370. As he said later when reflecting on that season, everything just seemed to drop in.
According to Baseball-Reference, Cash was worth 9.2 Wins Above Replacement in 1961. His next-best season was a 5.4 WAR season in 1965. Even though he never reached the great heights he’d reached in 1961, Cash was a solidly above average player for a 12-year stretch with Detroit from 1960 to 1971.
The Tigers went to the post-season twice during Cash’s time on the team. He was one of the team’s best hitters in their seven-game World Series win over the Cardinals in 1968. Cash hit .385/.433/.500 with five runs and five RBI. He also performed well in the team’s 1972 playoff loss to the Oakland A’s when he hit .267/.353/.467 in that series.
One memorable moment in Cash’s career came in a game on July 15, 1973, when he stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning of a game in which the opposing pitcher, Nolan Ryan, was attempting to compete his second career no-hitter. Cash had already struck out three times in the game. For this at-bat, he walked up to the plate with a table leg.
The 1974 season was the final one in the big leagues for Cash. He only played in 53 games and hit .228/.327/.416. The team released him in August. Two years later he worked with former opponent Bob Gibson as a broadcaster on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. He lasted only one season in part because his sense of humor was not appreciated by everyone.
Cash was well-liked by teammates. He was a big, friendly guy with a great sense of humor. Teammate Al Kaline said, “Whenever you mention Norm Cash, I just smile. He was just a fun guy to be around and a great teammate. He always came ready to play.” During one game, Cash was on second base when the game was delayed by rain. When play resumed, Cash was standing on third base. The umpire asked him what was going on and Cash answered, “I stole third.”
Backup Second Baseman—Lou Whitaker
(with Tigers from 1977-1995)
68.1 fWAR, 74.9 bWAR
.276/.363/.426, 2390 G, 9967 PA, 117 OPS+ (with Tigers)
In the long history of baseball, only nine second baseman have reached base by a hit or walk more often than Lou Whitaker, who did so 3,566 times. He doesn’t have as many career hits as the players above him, but he also walked more than 1,000 times. In fact, he’s fourth among second baseman in career walks. He’s also 12th in runs scored, 11th in home runs, 15th in hits, 15th in RBI.
According to FanGraphs WAR, Lou Whitaker ranks ninth among second baseman, one spot ahead of Craig Biggio and two spots ahead of Roberto Alomar, both Hall of Famers. Despite his accomplishments, Whitaker received just 2.9% of the vote in his one year on the ballot. Many people, including the great Bill James, were surprised that his vote total was so low.
Whitaker was drafted in the fifth round of the 1975 draft. A year later, the team drafted Alan Trammell and the two players were roommates at the team hotel in the Instructional League in Florida. They would be teammates for the next two decades, much of that time spent as the Tigers’ impressive middle infield combination.
The first full season in the big leagues for Whitaker was in 1978 and he was good right from the start, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award over Paul Molitor, Carney Lansford, Rich Gale, and teammate Allan Trammell. His defense was a big part of his value over the next few years, but he got going with the bat in 1982 when he hit .286/.341/.434 with 15 home runs. It was his first of 11 straight years with 12 or more homers.
Whitaker was very good from 1983 to 1987. In this five-year stretch, he averaged 150 games per year, with 98 runs, 15 homers, 67 RBI, 11 steals, and a .258/.356/.438 batting line. He averaged 4.7 WAR per year and made the all-star team all five years. He also won the Gold Glove three times and the Silver Slugger four times.
Whitaker was recognized during this stretch with all those all-star appearances, but he continued to be very valuable over the next six years despite not making another all-star team. From 1988 to 1993, he continued to average 4.7 WAR per season despite playing 130 games a year instead of 150.
By 1994, Whitaker was playing about half the time. He hit .301/.377/.491 as a 37-year-old in 1994 and .293/.372/.518 the next year, playing mostly Designated Hitter. Despite still being productive with the bat, Whitaker eschewed offers from multiple teams and chose to retire.
Whitaker and Trammell are expected to be on the “Modern Baseball” Era Hall of Fame ballot later this year and could be inducted together in 2018. It would be fitting for two players who formed the longest-running double-play combination in big league history to make the Hall of Fame in the same year.
Backup Shortstop—Dick McAuliffe
(with Tigers from 1960-1973)
35.5 fWAR, 37.5 bWAR
.249/.345/.408, 1656 G, 6828 PA, 111 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Dick McAuliffe likely would have been more appreciated in a different era. Back when he played, batting average had an oversized significance in the evaluation of a player. McAuliffe was a .247 career hitter and never hit better than .274 in a season. His career on-base percentage was a much more healthy .343. He also had good pop for a middle infielder, with 11 years with double-digit home runs.
McAuliffe stood at the plate with a very open stance. He made that adjustment after starting his career by struggling to get around on fastballs. The open stance allowed him to pull the ball for good power. As his career continued, he became very good at hitting the ball in the air, either for line drives or fly balls, and avoiding ground ball outs. In 1968, he came to the plate 658 times and didn’t hit into any double-plays. Over a four-year stretch from 1967 to 1970, McAuliffe grounded into a double-play just five times in 2,293 plate appearances.
One of the infamous moments of McAuliffe’s career came during the 1968 season. After a pitch from Tommy John barely missed McAuliffe’s head, he charged the mound and tackled the pitcher. John’s shoulder was separated in the fight and McAuliffe was suspended for five games. McAuliffe always claimed the pitch near his head was intentional, while John has argued that it wasn’t.
McAuliffe played 14 years with the Tigers. After the 1973 season, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Ben Oglivie. He didn’t play well in two seasons with the Red Sox and would say later that the one thing he would have changed in his career was leaving the Tigers: “I think the only mistake I made was I should have stayed back in Detroit, where I felt more comfortable, and finished up there.”
Backup Outfielder #1—Harry Heilmann
(with Tigers from 1914, 1916-1929)
64.4 fWAR, 67.6 bWAR
.342/.410/.518, 1990 G, 8394 PA, 149 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Harry Heilmann was signed by the Tigers thanks to a tip from Fielder Jones, a former player who was president of the Northwestern League in which Harry Heilmann played. Heilmann was the heir apparent to one of the Tigers’ best players, Sam Crawford.
After playing 68 games for the Tigers in 1914, Heilmann was sent to the minors for a year. He came back to the bigs in 1916 just as Crawford’s career was winding down. Heilmann hit .296/.353/.424 across five seasons from 1916 to 1920. His highest batting average in a season was .320 in 1919.
Then, suddenly, Heilmann took his game to another level. He hit a league-leading .394 in 1921. His 237 hits also led the league. He also had a .444 on-base percentage, which was the first time in his career he topped the .400 OBP mark. His .606 slugging percentage was 129 points higher than his previous career best. This was a whole new Harry Heilmann.
After hitting .394 in 1921, Heilmann was even better two years later when he hit .403 in 1923. The next American League player to top .400 was Ted Williams in 1941. Heilmann also hit .393 in 1925 and .398 in 1927. He led the league in batting average four times.
From 1921 to 1930, Heilmann hit .367/.439/.573 in over 6,000 plate appearances. He averaged 98 runs and 113 RBI per year. By FanGraphs WAR, Heilmann was the fourth-best player in baseball during this stretch, behind Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Frankie Frisch.
After 15 years with Detroit, Heilmann finished his playing career with two seasons with Cincinnati. He returned to Detroit in 1933 to become a radio broadcaster for the Tigers. No former player had done play-by-play broadcasting before Heilmann. This was in the days when away games were broadcast through the imagination of the broadcaster. Heilmann might read on the ticker tape “Single to center” and would fill in the details with his imagination. He spent 17 years as an announcer with the Tigers.
Backup Outfielder #2—Sam Crawford
(with Tigers from 1903-1917)
60.1 fWAR, 63.5 bWAR
.309/.362/.448, 2114 G, 8869 PA, 145 OPS+ (with Tigers)
Sam Crawford was nicknamed “Wahoo Sam” because he was born in Wahoo, Nebraska. In high school, he was a star football player who helped his team win two state football championships. When he was 18 years old, he played on a traveling baseball team. The following year he agreed to play for a team in the Canadian League, then jumped to a team in Grand Rapids. The Cincinnati Reds noticed Crawford and purchased him from the Grand Rapids Prodigals in the summer of 1899 and he played 31 games in the National League that year.
After three more seasons with the Reds, Crawford was a highly-desired player who was pursued by the Reds and Tigers in a bidding war that developed between the National League and the upstart American League, which had just come into existence in 1901. Crawford signed contracts with both teams and the dispute became a hot topic in baseball. It was settled by a judge, who awarded Crawford to the Tigers and required them to pay the Reds $3,000 as compensation.
Crawford played 15 seasons with the Tigers. He had five seasons with 100 or more RBI, including three seasons in which he led the league, but his real skill was hitting triples. With the Tigers, Crawford led the league in triples five times. Including his time with the Reds, Crawford hit 309 triples in his career, the most all-time.
After playing regularly as a 35-year-old in 1915, Crawford played just 100 games in 1916. He hit .286/.359/.401, which was still better than league average. The next year was a disaster. He hit .173/.204/.269 in 61 games and called it a career with the Tigers. Like many players in those days, Crawford didn’t stop playing baseball just because his major league career was over. He moved to the West Coast and spent four seasons with Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League.
Many years after his career was over, while he was living in California, Crawford was interviewed by Lawrence Ritter for the book The Glory of Their Times. His stories about the men he played with were a memorable part of the book.
Starting Pitcher #1—Hal Newhouser
(with Tigers from 1939-1953)
60.4 fWAR, 59.0 bWAR
200-148, .575, 3.07 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 29044 IP, 130 ERA+ (with Tigers)
The Tigers signed Hal Newhouser when he was just 17 years old and pitching for an American Legion team in the summer of 1938. They started him in Class D as an 18-year-old in 1939 and he pitched 230 innings in the minor leagues before getting one start in the big leagues at the end of September. The way pitchers are handled these days, it’s incredible that an 18-year-old was pitching 230 innings.
Newhouser started 20 and 27 games over the next two years, but struggled with control and had below average ERAs of 4.43 and 4.28. When he had a bad game, he acted like an immature teenager, often smashing things in the clubhouse. He struggled to keep his composure on the mound. With his great arm, he could be brilliant one inning and a disaster the next.
The Tigers made the World Series in 1940 after a hard fought battle for the American League pennant with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. The final margin was a single game over the Indians and two games ahead of the Yankees. The World Series matchup was with the Cincinnati Reds. Newhouser was just 19 years old and hadn’t been one of the top pitchers in the rotation during the year, so he never pitched an inning in the Tigers four-games-to-three loss.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941 it increased the number of major league players who left the game to serve in World War II. Newhouser expected to go but was classified 4-F, unfit for duty, when the doctors heard the sound that indicated a mitrovalve prolapse. He tried other time to get past the medical screening but again failed. With the heart problem, he was excused from service.
As many players left the big leagues to fight in World War II, Newhouser took advantage of the easier competition and flourished. He made the all-star game in six of the next seven years and the only reason it wasn’t seven straight was because the 1945 game was cancelled. He also led the league in wins four times, ERA twice, and strikeouts twice. He was 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA in 1944, 25-9 with a 1.81 ERA in 1945 and 26-9 with a 1.94 ERA in 1946.
His dominance on the mound won him the AL MVP Award in 1944 and 1945 and he nearly won it three years in a row when he earned a second place finish in 1946. If not for Ted Williams’ return from the war, Newhouser would have won three straight.
Newhouser was a dominant pitcher during this stretch, but he also continued to have trouble with walks. In his career, he walked more than 100 batters in a season seven times. He also pitched a ton of innings during his peak. From 1944 to 1949, he averaged 295 innings per year. All of those innings took their toll. Newhouser pitched 213 2/3 innings at the age of 29 in 1950, but had a 4.34 ERA and his shoulder had been hurting for two years.
Everyone had a remedy for shoulder pain in those days. Newhouser estimated he was x-rayed more than 100 times during his career. Of course, they didn’t have the technology at the time to do MRIs. Some of the attempts at alleviating the pain included having a tooth pulled, chiropractic appointments, and shots in the neck.
Newhouser kept pitching but struggled through the next three years with the Tigers. They released him after the 1953 season and he signed on with Cleveland. He had one last hurray as a long reliever, posting a 2.51 ERA in 46 2/3 innings for a team that went 111-43 and beat out the 103-win Yankees. He came back for the 1955 season but was released after pitching in just two of the team’s first 19 games.
For nearly four decades after his playing career ended, Newhouser was a scout in the Michigan area. He worked for the Orioles, Indians, Tigers, and Astros. Near the end of his scouting caree, he encouraged the Houston Astros to take Derek Jeter with the first pick of the 1992 draft. The team took Phil Nevin instead and Newhouser quit in disgust.
That same year, Newhouser was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee. In 1997, one year before he died, Newhouser’s number 16 was retired by the Detroit Tigers. He was the fourth player in Tigers history to have his number retired, along with Al Kaline, Charlie Gehringer, and Hank Greenberg (Willie Horton has since had his number retired).
Starting Pitcher #2—Justin Verlander
(with Tigers from 2005-Present)
52.6 fWAR, 50.5 bWAR
173-106, .620, 3.47 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 2339 IP, 123 ERA+ (with Tigers)
The Tigers drafted Justin Verlander with the second overall pick in the 2004 Amateur Draft (after Matt Bush) and it didn’t take long for Verlander to make his mark. In 2006, Verlander was 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA and won the AL Rookie of the Year award.
The Tigers made the post-season that year, but Verlander struggled. He had a no-decision in one start against the Yankees in the ALDS (5.3 IP, 3 ER) and picked up a win in the ALCS against Oakland (5.3 IP, 4 ER) in a sub-par outing. Then, in the Tiger’s World Series loss, Verlander had two starts and gave up 10 runs (7 earned) in 11 innings. Verlander is the only player still on the roster who played for the 2006 team. After Tigers owner Mike Ilitch died on Friday, Verlander posted his condolences on Twitter:
Heartbroken hearing of Mr I's passing. He was a family man. A self made man. A giving man. An icon for our city and nation. #RIPMrIllitch
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) February 11, 2017
Verlander followed up his strong rookie season with an 18-6, 3.66 ERA year in 2007 and made the all-star team for the first time. At the time, he was a three-pitch pitcher. He threw a 95 mph fastball roughly 60% of the time and mixed in a curve and a change-up. He had not yet fully harnessed his fastball. He led the American League with 19 hit batters and 17 wild pitches.
After seemingly establishing himself as one of the AL’s best pitchers, Verlander tossed in a clunker of a season in 2008. He was 11-7 with a 4.84 ERA. His 17 losses led the league. Luckily for Tigers fans, it was a blip. Verlander came back to have five straight all-star seasons. He led the league in innings pitched three times and in strikeouts three times during this stretch. He also led the league in wins twice.
The 2011 season was peak Verlander. He was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He won the Triple Crown of pitching by leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. That strong season won him the AL Cy Young Award and the AL MVP Award. He was the first pitcher to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the third Tigers pitcher to achieve this feat, along with Denny McLain (1968) and Willie Hernandez (1984). He also became the first pitcher in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP in his career.
The Tigers made the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. They beat the Yankees in the ALDS but lost to the Rangers in the ALCS. Verlander started four games, but struggled again. He allowed 12 earned runs in 20 1/3 innings (5.32 ERA).
Verlander followed up his Cy Young year with another great season, going 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA. This time he finished second in Cy Young voting behind David Price in a very close vote. Price earned 14 first-place votes to Verlander’s 13 and the final point total was 153 to 149.
The Tigers were back in the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2012 and Verlander finally showed what he could do in the post-season. He won two games in the ALDS over Oakland, then another game in the ALCS over the Yankees. In three playoff starts, Verlander was 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep it going in the World Series. He started one game and was knocked around for five earned runs in four innings.
In 2013, the Tigers made the playoffs for the third straight year and Verlander was once again a dominant force. The Tigers won the ALDS against Oakland but lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS. Overall, Verlander made three starts and allowed just one earned run in 23 innings while striking out 31 batters.
Verlander’s 2014 season was reminiscent of his 2008 season. For only the second full season of his career, Verlander had an ERA over 4.00. His fastball velocity was down three miles per hour from its peak and he struck out batters at the lowest rate since his rookie year. He had core muscle surgery prior to the season but still made the Opening Day start for the seventh consecutive time. Later in the season, he missed a start for the first time in his career.
Verlander’s streak of Opening Day starts ended in 2015 when he started the year on the Disabled List because of a strained right triceps. The injury limited him to 20 starts that year and his strikeout rate was still down from his prime.
Just when it looked like Verlander was heading into his decline phase, he bounced back big time in 2016. Verlander’s average fastball velocity was up to its highest season long average since 2012. He finished the year 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA and league-leading 254 strikeouts. It was a Cy Young-caliber season.
Of course, as any Justin Verlander or Kate Upton fan knows, Verlander did not win the Cy Young last year. Despite 14 first-place votes, Verlander lost the award to Rick Porcello, who only had eight first-place votes. Kate Upton took her rage to Twitter:
He had the majority of 1st place votes and 2 writers didn't have him on their ballots?!! can you pick more out of touch people to vote?@MLB
— Kate Upton (@KateUpton) November 16, 2016
Verlander has three years and one option year left on his contract with the Tigers. If he can continue to pitch near the level of last year, he’ll pass Hal Newhouser as the Tigers’ all-time best starting pitcher within a few years.
Starting Pitcher #3—Mickey Lolich
(with Tigers from 1963-1975)
61.8 fWAR, 47.5 bWAR
207-175, .542, 3.45 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 3361.7 IP, 105 ERA+ (with Tigers)
I think of Mickey Lolich as being the 1960s version of David Wells. Both were hefty left-handed pitchers, although Well is listed at 6’3” and 187 pounds and Lolich is listed at 6’1” and 170 pounds on Baseball-Reference. I think that’s probably at least 40 pounds shy of each pitcher’s actual weight.
The similarities don’t end there. Both pitchers were well known for having a good time, and were particularly fond of downing a few cold ones after the game. Lolich pitched 3,638 innings and won 217 games in his career with an ERA that was 4% better than league average. Wells pitched 3,439 innings and won 239 games with an ERA that was 8% better than league average. If you average their WAR from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Wells comes out slightly ahead, with 55.9 WAR to Lolich’s 54.7.
While growing up in Oregon, Lolich was a dominant pitcher on his Babe Ruth and American Legion teams, both of which went to the World Series for that level when Lolich was pitching for them. The Tigers signed him out of high school in 1958. After a few years in the minors, he pitched his first season with Detroit in 1963 and was 5-9 with a 3.55 ERA in 144 1/3 innings.
Lolich became a mainstay in the Tigers rotation the next year. From 1964 to 1975, he won an average of 17 games per year with a 3.45 ERA. He was absolutely brilliant in the 1968 World Series when he went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA. All three of his starts were complete game victories, including the Game 7 start when he outdueled the great Bob Gibson, 4-1. Lolich was named the MVP of the series.
Three years later, Lolich had his best season. He went 25-14 with a 2.92 ERA and 29 complete games. Amazingly, he pitched 376 innings. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting to Vida Blue, who was 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA in 312 innings. Blue was also the AL MVP that year. Lolich followed up that season by going 22-14 with a 2.50 ERA in 327 1/3 innings. This time he was third in the Cy Young race.
The Tigers made the playoffs for the second time in Lolich’s career in 1972. He started two games against Oakland in the ALCS and allowed just three runs in 19 innings, but didn’t get a victory in either game. The Tigers lost the series three games to two.
The workload of many pitchers in the early 1970s is incredible when viewed through a modern lens. Lolich had four years in a row in which he pitched more than 300 innings and averaged 330 innings per year during this stretch. That’s two seasons worth of pitching for Stephen Strasburg.
Lolich’s career in Detroit ended following the 1975 season. He went 12-18 with a 3.78 ERA on a team that was 57-102. The Tigers traded him with Billy Baldwin to the New York Mets for Rusty Staub and Bill Laxton. Mets fans were not happy that Staub was traded and did not welcome Lolich with open arms. Lolich wasn’t at all happy in New York either. He retired after the season and opened up a doughnut shop in a Rochester, Michigan.
After sitting out one year, Lolich returned to baseball to pitch two seasons with the San Diego Padres. He was used mostly in relief. He was good the first year (1.56 ERA in 34 2/3 innings) but struggled the next (4.74 ERA in 49 1/3 innings). After the 1979 season, he retired for good. He went back to his doughnut shop and also coached at the Tiger Fantasy Camp in Florida, where he was one of the most popular former players.
Starting Pitcher #4—Tommy Bridges
(with Tigers from 1930-1943, 1945-1946)
47.1 fWAR, 52.5 bWAR
194-138, .584, 3.57ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 2826.3 IP, 126 ERA+ (with Tigers)
Tommy Bridges was signed by the Tigers in 1929 after pitching at the University of Tennessee. At the time, not many major league players had gone to college. It didn’t take much time in the minor leagues before Bridges made his big league debut with the Tigers in 1930. The first batter he faced in the bigs was Babe Ruth, who popped out. Bridges started five games for the Tigers in his first year.
Bridges struggled in his second year, going 8-16 with a 4.99 ERA, but found his groove after that. From 1932 to 1943, Bridges averaged 215 innings per year, 15 wins, and a 3.45 ERA. He led the league in innings pitched twice and strikeouts twice and made the AL all-star team six times. His best season was an MVP-caliber performance in 1936 when he was 23-11 with a 3.60 ERA. He completed 26 of his 38 starts that year.
Bridges had two very memorable starts in his career. Early in his career, on August 5, 1932, he took a perfect game into the ninth. He retired the first two batters, then had to face pinch hitter Dave Harris. Bridges brought the gas and Harris singled to end the perfect game bid.
Three years later, Bridges started Game 6 of the 1935 World Series. The Tigers led the series three-games-to-two and were playing at home. The score was 3-3 going into the top of the ninth. Stan Hack led off the inning for the Cubs with a triple to deep centerfield. Bridges was in a bit of a pickle, but he was able to strand Hack on third by recording a strikeout, a groundout back to the pitcher, and a fly ball to left to end the inning. The Tigers scored on an RBI-single by Goose Goslin in the bottom of the ninth to win their first World Series ever.
Baseball players were smaller in those days than they are now, but Bridges was small even by the standards of the time. He’s listed at 5’10” and 155 pounds by Baseball-Reference. Contemporary reports have him weighing between 145 and 165 pounds at different times in his career.
On the mound, he was most known for a terrific curveball, possibly the best in the league at the time, as well as a great fastball. He also had a reputation for throwing a biting spitball. Former teammate Charlie Metro said of Bridges’ spitter: “Boy, if he’d get two strikes on a guy and maybe he had just one guy out or maybe this was the deciding hitter in the ball game, here would come that spitter. I never saw how he did it, and I watched him real close.”
After averaging 264 innings per year from 1933 to 1937, Bridges innings pitched totals decreased over the last half of his career. Rather than pitch 250-275 innings per year, Bridges pitched 150-200 innings per year.
Shortly after the 1943 season was completed, Bridges was inducted into the U.S. Army. He would miss all of the 1944 season and most of the 1945 season. He came back in 1946 at the age of 39, but with so many younger players returning from service in the war, Bridges was the last man in the bullpen. He pitched just nine times all year and was released in September. He ended his career six wins short of 200 for his career.
Starting Pitcher #5—Dizzy Trout
(with Tigers from 1939-1952)
45.3 fWAR, 45.2 bWAR
161-153, .513, 3.20 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 2591.7 IP, 125 ERA+ (with Tigers)
Dizzy Trout was a larger than life figure with a big personality. His real name was Paul, but he nicknamed himself “Dizzy” because of the popularity of a pitcher in the National League in the 1930s named Dizzy Dean. Trout even made up a story about how he got the nickname that he gave himself.
There have been numerous stories told about Trout, but it’s hard to know which of them are true. In one story, he claimed he once struck out Ted Williams to finish off a game and asked Williams to sign the ball. Williams refused. When they met again, Williams hit a home run off Trout and yelled out, “I’ll sign that one if you can find it.” This may have happened, but it should be said that another pitcher claimed the same story for himself. Maybe it happened multiple times with multiple pitchers or maybe it never happened at all.
Trout’s first year with the Tigers was in 1939 when he was 24 years old. He had losing records in each of his first four seasons in the majors and was 33-44 with a 3.71 ERA for his career through the 1942 season. Then, like his teammate Hal Newhouser, Trout was able to take advantage of pitching during the war. More than 200 major league players left the league to serve in the armed forces, but Trout was classified 4-F because of poor eyesight and hearing. He worked in war plants in the off-season and made speeches promoting war bonds and the Red Cross.
Against watered-down competition, Trout was 20-12 with a 2.48 ERA in 1943 and 27-14 with a 2.12 ERA in 1944. He led the league in starts, complete games, shutouts, and innings in 1944, but finished second in AL MVP voting to teammate Hal Newhouser, who was 29-9. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, Trout was the better pitcher (11.1 WAR to 8.6).
The 352 1/3 innings Trout pitched in 1944 took their toll the following year. He still pitched 246 1/3 innings but his arm was hurting. Manager Steve O’Neill pushed him hard down the stretch. Trout pitched 10 times in 20 days at one point in September, but gave him some rest before he got a start in the World Series. Trout started once and relieved once and was very effective. He pitched 13 2/3 innings while allowing two runs (one earned). The Tigers won the World Series in seven games.
Trout continued to be an effective starter through 1948, but the arm woes never totally left him. He was moved to the bullpen in 1949 then spent the rest of his career swinging between starting and relieving. The Tigers traded him away in the middle of the 1952 season. He was part of a nine-player deal that was essentially a salary dump for the Tigers. He finished out the year with the Red Sox and was 9-8 with a 3.64 ERA after the trade, but decided to retire at season’s end. He talked about his fastball to a reporter: “When it got to the plate it was so slow, two pigeons were roosting on it in mid-air. I decided to quit.”
After his career ended, Trout struggled financially to support his wife and a still-growing family. He tried to come back at the age of 42 shortly after his ninth child, Steven, was born. His comeback consisted of two big league relief appearances. Dizzy Trout finally found his niche as a speaker promoting the White Sox for owner Bill Veeck. Dizzy’s son, Steve Trout, would be a first round draft pick of the White Sox and have a 12-year major league career.
Starting Pitcher #6—Jack Morris
(with Tigers from 1977-1990)
44.3 fWAR, 37.9 bWAR
198-150, .569, 3.73 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3042.7 IP, 108 ERA+ (with Tigers)
Jack Morris came up with the Tigers the same year as catcher Lance Parrish and the middle infield combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Morris only pitched 45 2/3 innings his first year, but had a better-than-league-average 3.74 ERA. He had some arm pain and the Tigers shut him down before the season was over. The team had seen what a heavy workload did to Mark Fydrich’s arm in 1976 and were taking more care with Morris.
Morris only pitched 106 innings in the big leagues in his second year while he worked through his arm problems, but solidified his spot in the rotation in year three with 27 starts and 197 2/3 innings. He became a workhorse after that. From 1979 to 1990, Morris won 194 games and averaged 241 innings per year. He pitched 235 or more innings nine times in this 12-year stretch.
Morris was a good pitcher in the late 70s using a fastball, slider, and changeup. He started to have trouble getting the break on his slider in the early 1980s and learned the forkball, or split-fingered fastball. The Tigers pitching coach at the time was Roger Craig, but Morris has credited teammate Milt Wilcox with teaching him the pitch. He first started using it in 1982, then fully embraced the pitch in 1983 and beyond.
The 1984 season was a magical one for the Detroit Tigers. They stared the year by winning 16 of their first 17 games. Morris started the opener and the Tigers won 8-1. His second start was in Chicago against the White Sox. Morris wasn’t exactly on his game that day—he walked six batters—but he kept the Sox hitless into the ninth. With two outs, he just missed on a 3-2 pitch to Greg “The Bull” Luzinski, but struck out Ron Kittle to seal the no-hitter.
Morris was 19-11 during the regular season that year, then beat the Kansas City Royals in his one start in the ALCS and won both of his starts in the team’s World Series victory over the San Diego Padres. Morris was considered the ace of that team. His 19 wins were the most on the staff and he led the team in innings pitched.
Over the next few years Morris continued to rack up innings and wins. He had his second 20-win season in 1986 when he was 21-8 with a 3.27 ERA. He won 18 more in 1987 and helped the Tigers get back to the playoffs. This time, he wasn’t as successful in the post-season. He started one game against the Twins and was knocked around for six runs in eight innings. The Tigers were bumped out of the ALCS in five games.
Morris struggled at the end of his tenure in Detroit. He was 6-14 with a 4.86 ERA in 1989 and 15-18 with a 4.51 ERA in 1990. He was still a workhorse, but not as effective as he’d been before. When his contract expired after the 1990 season, he signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Twins.
Morris pitched four more years after leaving Detroit. He pitched well for the Twins in 1991, especially in the post-season. He won two games in the ALCS and two more in the World Series, including a 10-inning Game 7 shutout that clinched the series. He was named the MVP of that series and that game would be one of the most often mentioned moments of his career over the next 25 years. In 1992, he was 21-6 with the Toronto Blue Jays, but his post-season magic left him. He started four games combined in the ALCS and World Series and was 0-3 with a 7.43 ERA.
Morris finished out his career with one more season in Toronto and a season in Cleveland, but had a combined ERA of 5.91 in 294 innings. In retirement, he did some announcing for the Blue Jays, the Twins, and Tigers.
When Morris appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2000, he didn’t get much support his first four years. He never topped 23% of the vote. He slowly gained some traction over the next few years, but was still below 50% after 10 years on the ballot. At some point along the way, Morris became a lightning rod of controversy in Hall of Fame discussions. The traditional, old-school baseball fan supported his candidacy, while the new-school, more statistically-inclined crowd did not.
The Jack Morris Hall of Fame debate raged on as his time on the ballot drew to an end. He topped 50% of the vote in his 11th year on the ballot, then got above 60% in his 13th year. He inched up again in year 14, getting 67.7%. He only needed to get to 75% and it was assumed by many that he would get there in his 15th and final year. Instead, he dropped to 61.5% and fell of the ballot. He’ll get another chance with one of the Era Committees in the future. He has also not yet been inducted into the sports wing of the Mustache Hall of Fame, which currently includes three former major league players—Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Reggie Jackson.
Relief Pitcher #1—John Hiller
(with Tigers from 1965-1970, 1972-1980)
11.4 fWAR, 31.2 bWAR
87-76, .534, 120 SV, 2.83 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 1242 IP, 134 ERA+ (with Tigers)
John Hiller is a throwback to a different era for relief pitchers. Current relievers, especially closers, generally throw one inning in an outing and are done for the day. Hiller had a few seasons in which he was used almost exclusively as a reliever and still pitched 120 or more innings, including a 150-inning season in 1974.
In that 1974 season, Hiller appeared in 59 games in relief and threw 150 innings with a 2.64 ERA. He was 17-14. Last year, not one starting pitchers had 31 decisions and the reliever with the most innings was Brad Hand, with 89 1/3.
Hiller’s 1974 season was not even his best season. In 1973, he led the league with 65 appearances and 38 saves, which set the major league record at the time. He pitched 125 1/3 innings with a 1.44 ERA and finished fourth in the voting for AL Cy Young and AL MVP.
As good as these seasons were, they take on more importance when you realize that Hiller missed the entire 1971 season after suffering three heart attacks on one day a few months before the season was about to start. Hiller had gained nearly 35 pounds in three years prior to the heart attacks. After the heart attacks, Hiller went through intestinal bypass surgery, which was an experimental procedure at the time that was supposed to help him lose weight. Ten months later, he was losing weight and working out three hours a day. He felt strong enough to make a comeback.
Before the missed season, Hiller had been a fastball/slider pitcher. When he came back in 1972, he worked as a minor league instructor at first and learned a changeup from a minor league pitching coach he worked with. The Tigers weren’t ready to let him pitch in games, but they did allow him to travel with the team to pitch batting practice.
When two Tigers pitchers were injured in July, Hiller got his chance. He pitched in 24 games, three of which were starts, and had a 2.03 ERA in 44 1/3 innings. He was back and better than ever. This led to those back-to-back great seasons in 1973 and 1974. He was on his way to another great season in 1975 when he suffered a pulled muscle and missed the last two months of the season.
Hiller continued to pitch effectively for three more seasons, primarily out of the bullpen but also getting some starts along the way. He had his first bad season in 1979, going 4-7 with a 5.22 ERA. Then he started the 1980 season poorly and decided to retire at the end of May.
Relief Pitcher #2—Mike Henneman
(with Tigers from 1987-1995)
10.4 fWAR, 12.7 bWAR
57-34, .626, 154 SV, 3.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 669.7 IP, 136 ERA+ (with Tigers)
After being drafted in the 4th round of the 1984 amateur draft out of Oklahoma State University, Mike Henneman spent parts of four seasons in the minors before coming up to the big leagues in 1987. The Tigers were in a playoff race that year and Henneman was a big help down the stretch. He pitched 55 games in relief and was 11-3 with a 2.98 ERA in 96 2/3 innings. Unfortunately, when the playoffs rolled around, Henneman struggled in two of his three outings in the five game series loss to the Twins. He pitched five innings and allowed six earned runs.
After a strong rookie year, Henneman was even better season in 1988. He was 9-6 with a 1.87 ERA in 91 1/3 innings and had 22 saves. He continued to pitch well over the next five years, although never as good as that 1988 season.
Henneman pitched in a time when relievers were transitioning from multi-inning pitchers to the modern game where most end-of-game relievers pitch just a single inning. In his first seven years in the big leagues, Henneman averaged 62 games and 87 innings pitched, but his innings per outing gradually went down. In his rookie year, he averaged 1.76 innings per outing. By his last year in Detroit, he averaged right around one inning per outing. Henneman is a good representative of how managers changed their closer usage from the late 80s to the mid-90s.
The strike-shortened 1994 season was an ugly one for Henneman. He had a 5.19 ERA in 34 2/3 innings. He bounced back in 1995 with a 1.53 ERA in his first 29 appearances. With the Tigers heading towards a fourth place finish, they decided to trade Henneman to the Houston Astros, who were in second place in the NL Central, 7 ½ games out of first. Henneman finished out the year with the Astros, then pitched one final year with the Texas Rangers before retiring after the 1996 season.
Henneman is second on the Tigers in career saves and fifth in games pitched. After his playing days, he spent some time coaching in the Tigers organization.
Relief Pitcher #3—Willie Hernandez
(with Tigers from 1984-1989)
5.7 fWAR, 8.5 bWAR
36-31, .537, 120 SV, 2.98 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 483.7 IP, 135 ERA+ (with Tigers)
Willie Hernandez was a veteran of seven major league seasons when he came to the Detroit Tigers in a trade before the 1984 season. He was acquired along with Dave Bergman in exchange for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss. Hernandez joined the Tigers at the right time; they were about to have the most regular season wins in their history.
The 1984 Tigers wouldn’t have won 104 games without their strong bullpen. Hernandez was the closer and had the best season of his career. He appeared in 80 and went 9-3, with 32 saves in 140 1/3 innings. The post-season brought more of the same. Hernandez appeared in six post-season games and allowed just two runs in 9 1/3 innings while picking up three saves as the Tigers won their first World Series since 1968. Hernandez made the all-star team for the first time that year and was the AL Cy Young and AL MVP.
Two more all-star seasons followed, but Hernandez never got back to the excellence of that first season in Detroit. His role had changed by the time the Tigers got back to the playoffs in 1987. He had just eight of the team’s 31 saves. He only pitched one time in the Tigers four-games-to-one ALCS loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Hernandez had his last good season in 1988 when he was 6-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 63 appearances, but the 1989 season was ugly. The Tigers went 59-103. It was their most losses since 1952. Hernandez was part of the problem. He led the team with 15 saves but they came with a 5.74 ERA. He also had two stints on the disabled list.
The Tigers released Hernandez in December of 1989. He was signed by the Oakland Athletics before the 1990 season but left camp with a sore arm after two days, walking away from guaranteed money. He gave it another shot with the Phillies in 1991 but didn’t make the team and pitched briefly in Triple-A.
Four years later, when MLB teams hired replacement players in the spring of 1995, Hernandez tried out for the Yankees. The strike came to an end when future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction against the owners. Hernandez stayed with the Yankees organization but had a 7.67 ERA in 22 outings with the Columbus Clippers in his final season.
Hernandez returned to Detroit in 2009 for the team’s 25th anniversary of the 1984 championship season and enjoyed the camaraderie with his former teammates and fans. He remained a Tigers fan after his career was over and said in 2009, “Even when they have a bad ballclub, I follow them, because they gave me good memories. I played for three different teams, but I want to be known as a Tiger, and I will always be a Tiger.”
Relief Pitcher #4—Aurelio Lopez
(with Tigers from 1979-1985)
5.6 fWAR, 3.8 bWAR
53-30, .639, 85 SV, 3.41 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 713 IP 119 ERA+ (with Tigers)
I originally had this spot for Todd Jones, the Tigers’ career leader in saves, but I changed my mind and put Lopez here. I believe he was the better reliever. People who value saves more than I do will likely disagree.
Aurelio Lopez had a terrific nickname when he was in the big leagues: “Señor Smoke.” In Mexico, he was known as ”El Buitre de Tecamachaico,” which means The Vulture of Tecamachalco. Lopez was discovered in his hometown and pitched in the Mexican League as a teenager. When he was 25 years old he was signed by the Kansas City Royals. He pitched just eight games with Kansas City before heading back to the Mexican League.
Lopez is still a legend for his pitching in Mexico. During his career there, he put his name all over the record books. He was not only very good on the field, he was also incredibly popular off the field. There is a statue of him in Tecamachalco, Puebla.
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Four years after his short stint with the Royals, Lopez signed with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1978 seasons. He only pitched one year there before being traded to Detroit prior to the 1979 season. Lopez was not the main player in the deal. He was sent to Detroit with Jerry Morales for Bob Sykes and minor leaguer John Murphy.
It was in Detroit that Aurelio Lopez was at his best. He went 10-5 with 21 saves in 1979, then was 13-6 with 21 saves in 1980. He pitched well in the strike-shortened 1981 season, then struggled in 1982.
Lopez made the all-star team for the only time in his career in 1983 when he had an impressive 2.81 ERA in 115 1/3 innings. He followed that up with a terrific 1984 season, going 10-1 with 14 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 137 2/3 innings. Señor Smoke and Guillermo (Willie) Hernandez were a dynamic one-two, righty-lefty punch at the back of the bullpen. Between them, they were 19-4, with 36 saves and a 2.42 ERA in 278 innings. They did the workload of four modern day relievers.
The innings put on Lopez’ arm over the 1983-84 seasons led to him wearing down at the end of the 1984 season. His struggles continued into the 1985 season in which he had a 4.80 ERA in 86 1/3 innings. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson lost all confidence in Lopez and the team released him after the season.
Lopez wasn’t ready to call it quits, though. He pitched two more seasons with the Astros before walking off a big league mound for good after the 1987 season. He returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco and was elected mayor three years later, despite not really wanting to run. He said, “It really wasn’t my idea, but the people asked me to do it, and I couldn’t say no. This is my home. You can never forget where you come from.”
Detroit Tigers All-Time 25-Man Roster:
2B Charlie Gehringer
CF Ty Cobb
DH Miguel Cabrera
1B Hank Greenberg
RF Al Kaline
SS Alan Trammell
3B Travis Fryman
C Bill Freehan
LF Bobby Veach
C Lance Parrish
1B Norm Cash
2B Lou Whitaker
SS Dick McAuliffe
OF Harry Heilmann
OF Sam Crawford
SP Hal Newhouser
SP Justin Verlander
SP Mickey Lolich
SP Tommy Bridges
SP Dizzy Trout
SP Jack Morris
RP John Hiller
RP Mike Henneman
RP Willie Hernandez
RP Aurelio Lopez
Just Missed the Cut (the next 10 players)
1B Rudy York
3B George Kell
SS Donie Bush
UT Tony Phillips
OF Willie Horton
OF Chet Lemon
OF Kirk Gibson
SP Hooks Dauss
SP George Mullin
RP Hank Aguirre