The Tigers lay claim to being the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in the American League. And, based on everything I can tell, they have a right to that title – as convoluted of a title as it is. But, they were one of the eight charter franchises that formed the American League in 1901, when it became an official rival professional league to the National League. And, even prior to that time, they were originally a part of the Western League (a minor league), dating back to 1894. There are a variety of stories linked to how they received the nickname “Tigers.” Everything from the color of their socks, to a manager laying claim to the origination, to newspapers and military units. Whatever the origination of the name, when they became a professional team in 1901, they sought and received permission to use the Detroit Light Guard’s trademark (a military unit also known as the Tigers).
As a franchise, the Tigers have gone through periods of the highest success, as well as lengthy periods without playoff appearances. From 1907-1909, they won 3 consecutive American League championships, but would go on to lose each of those 3 World Series’ (winning just 1 game in the first two Series against the Cubs, and losing in 7 to the Pirates in ’09). They only had 3 teams from 1910-1933 finish any higher than 3rd place in the AL. But, then they won 4 AL championships from 1934-1945, and won 2 World Championships (’35 & ’45). Another long drought ensued as they finished primarily in 4th place, or worse, from ’46-’67. Then, from ’68-’87, they made 4 playoff appearances, winning it all in ’68 & ’84. Another playoff dry spell emerged, until 2006, when they won the Wild Card race, and made it all the way to the World Series, where they lost to St. Louis. Only once since then have they had a losing record, and they have won their division each of the last three seasons – making it as far as the World Series again in 2012, only to be swept by San Francisco.
As for the players to come through, there has been no shortage of talent in Detroit. They’ve retired 5 players’ jerseys, and 9 HOFers (including one from the very first HOF class) played primarily in the Motor City. And, that doesn’t even include some of their more recent great players, and a number of players that were on the verge of being HOFers. So, choosing just 5 has proven to be a challenging task. But, here they are…
5. Justin Verlander (’05-present) – because of the sheer volume of excellent position players to come through Detroit, only one pitcher cracks the top-5. And, yes, even with HOF pitchers like Jim Bunning (who never received a single Cy Young vote while in Detroit) and Hal Newhouser (whose best seasons were when the league was depleted by WWII) having played the majority of their careers with the Tigers, Verlander trumps them all. Well, he’s at least on par with them at this point. The only way I could see Verlander slipping below those guys is if the wheels come completely falling off over the next couple seasons, and he just has a terrible end to his career. At this point in his career (just 30 years old), Verlander has already won Rookie of the Year, a Cy Young, and an MVP, and has thrown 2 no-hitters (walking just 5, and striking out 16 between the two games). He has led the league in wins twice, win pct. twice, ERA once, WHIP once, and strikeouts 3 times. In addition to winning the Cy Young in 2011, he has finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting 3 more times. All in just 8 full seasons. And, even though his career hasn’t been very long, among pitchers to have pitched at least 1,000 innings in Detroit, he already ranks 9th in wins (137), 2nd in win pct. (.640), 3rd in WHIP (1.19), 1st in K/9 (8.49), 5th in K’s (1671), and 1st in K/BB (3.07).
4. Al Kaline (’53-’74) – it’s difficult to argue the merits of a first-ballot HOFer. But, I feel like I may have to defend Kaline’s position on this list, since some may consider him the best Tiger to ever play. But, his best statistics are in categories that would seem a bit easier to accumulate when you play 22 seasons. Yes, he has over 3,000 hits – but, just barely, and he led the league in hits just once in his career. He wasn’t a power hitter (never hit 30 HR in any season), he didn’t drive in runs at a brisk pace (only cracked 100 RBI 3 times), and he wasn’t a speedster on the basepaths (only had double-digit steals 4 times, and never more than 19). He was a consistently good batter (.297 career average), who played long enough to accumulate some very impressive statistics. But, he never won an MVP (only 4 top-5 finishes), won just 1 batting title, and led the league in OPS just once, in 1959. However, he was the gold standard in right field – winning an impressive 10 Gold Gloves. He also appeared in 15 All-Star games. He ranks 14th on the Tigers’ all-time OPS list (.855), 3rd in runs scored (1622), 2nd in hits (3007), 2nd in total bases (4852), 1st in HR (399), 2nd in RBI (1583), 8th in OPS+ (134), and 2nd in runs created (1852).
3. Miguel Cabrera (’08-present) – it’s my opinion that in just 6 seasons in Detroit, Cabrera has accomplished more than Kaline ever did. Just take a moment to take it all in: since coming over to the Tigers, he has led the league in doubles once, HR twice, RBI twice, total bases twice, and OPS+ twice; led the league in OPS and SLG the last 2 years, OBP 3 of the last 4, and has won 3 consecutive batting titles (just the 4th right-handed batter ever to accomplish such a feat, and the first since Rogers Hornsby from 1920-1925). Oh, and he’s won back-to-back MVP’s (one of just 12 to ever accomplish this), and the Triple Crown (one of just 12 players since the turn of the century to accomplish this, and the first since 1967). Depending on how the next 6-8 years of Cabrera’s career goes, he might make a push for #1 on this list. As it is, he already ranks 5th on the Tigers’ all-time batting list (.327), 6th in OBP (.407), 2nd in SLG (.588), 2nd in OPS (.995), 8th in HR (227 – will climb to 4th with just 35 HR next year), and 2nd in OPS+ (163).
2. Hank Greenberg (’33-’41, ’45-’46) – one of the most overlooked players of his era. It amazes me that it took the BBWAA eight tries to finally get him voted into the HOF. If all you care about are total numbers accumulated, then you might not be so impressed with Greenberg’s 337 HR, or 1,628 hits. But, if that’s all you’re looking at, then you’re missing so much. Greenberg missed the equivalent of more than 4 seasons while serving in the military in WWII. In the 4 seasons leading up to the war, his average season (which, by the way, was just a 154-game season) was .327/.432/.662/1.094, with 43 HR and 148 RBI. And, if there was ever any doubt about whether or nor he would have kept playing as well the years he was in the military, his first full season back, he led the league with 44 HR and 127 RBI, while putting together a .977 OPS at the age of 35. He led the league in doubles twice, HR 4 times, RBI 4 times (including 183 in 1937, which is still the AL record), and OPS once. He won 2 MVP’s (’35 & ’40 – the year before he went to war), and finished in the top 3 twice more. He also led the Tigers to two World Series titles, in ’35 and ’45 (and, had there been a World Series MVP handed out, he would easily have won it in ’45, when he batted .303, with a 1.162 OPS, hitting the only 2 HR for the Tigers, and accounting for more than 1/3 of their offensive production). After playing the equivalent of about 10 seasons, he still ranks 3rd on the Tigers’ all-time OBP list (.412), 1st in SLG (.616), 1st in OPS (1.028 – he ranks 6th in the history of baseball!), 10th in runs scored (980 – and everyone ahead of him has at least 2200 more plate appearances, which is true of every other accumulation stat on this list), 9th in total bases (2950), 8th in doubles (366), 3rd in HR (306), 6th in RBI (1202), 3rd in OPS+ (161), and 9th in runs created (1215).
1. Ty Cobb (1905-1928) – you might accuse me of being a little hypocritical here, considering the fact that Cobb’s numbers are often aided by the fact that he played over 20 years. But, Cobb’s then-record 4,189 hits weren’t the product of simply outlasting everyone else. When Cobb retired, 2nd place on the all-time hits list belonged to another 20+ year veteran (Tris Speaker) – who trailed Cobb by nearly 700 hits! And, even though Cobb’s record has been surpassed, it took Rose nearly 3,000 more plate appearances to accumulate just 67 more hits than Cobb. Cobb didn’t just accumulate hits – he amassed them. He won 12 of 13 American League batting titles from 1907-1919. In that time, he had a .377 batting average. And, before you start to make the comparison to someone like Rose (a career .303/.375/.409/.784 hitter), just look at Cobb’s career numbers: .366 average (still the all-time record), .433 OBP (9th all-time), .512 SLG, .945 OPS (top-25 in the history of baseball). Cobb was anything but a singles hitter. Oh, and he also stole 897 bases, which is still 4th all-time. All of this, while playing the majority of his career in what is considered the “dead ball era.” In spite of playing in that era, he ranks 1st on the Tigers’ all-time batting list (.368), 1st in OBP (.434), 4th in SLG (.516), 3rd in OPS (.950), 1st in runs scored (2088), 1st in hits (3900), 1st in doubles (665), 1st in triples (284), 1st in RBI (1805), 1st in stolen bases (869), 1st in OPS+ (171), and 1st in runs created (2360). Cobb is one of the greatest to ever play the game (which is why he was a part of the inaugural HOF class), and is without question the greatest to ever wear the Detroit Tigers jersey.
So, what do you think of my list? Share your thoughts in the comments.