The Detroit Tigers' All-Time Starting Rotation
Imagine you are responsible to select an all-time starting rotation for the Detroit Tigers. The pitchers you pick will form the Tigers all-time team and compete against the best of their competition.
Who would you select? To whom would you give the ball to face off against Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Whitey Ford, Jim Palmer, and Roger Clemens? Who would be your backup pitchers and relievers as well?
The guidelines are simple: You may select pitchers from any era since the inception of the team in 1901. Starting pitchers must have reached 1,000 innings for the Tigers, and relievers must have appeared in 250 games to be eligible for your team.
The Early Years: 1901-1945
The Tigers were one of eight charter teams in the American League. Detroit had baseball before the Tigers got their start. The Detroit Wolverines were a part of the National League from 1881-1888. They won the pennant in ’87, but were soon contracted for lack of attendance after the ’88 season.
In 1894, the Western League, a minor league with big ambitions, established a team in Detroit. Owner George Vanderbeck built Bennett Park in 1895 for the new team.
When the league changed their name to the American League in 1900, the team wrote to and got permission to use the name of a local military light guard unit with a heroic reputation, called the Tigers.
By the time the American League declared itself a major league in 1901, the team had the Tigers as its official name.
That first decade witnessed early success for the new team.
In 1905 the Tigers acquired Ty Cobb, who joined a talented team including Sam Crawford, Hughie Jennings, and pitchers Bill Donovan and George Mullin.
By 1907, they were the team to beat in the AL, winning the first of three consecutive pennants. Their best pitchers were George Mullin, who won 20 games five times; Bill Donovan, who went 25-4 in 1907; and Ed Killian, who won 20 games twice in his short career.
This pitching staff allowed the team to hold their American League competition at bay, while the offense took care of business. But when it came time for the Tigers to face their National League opponents, it was a different story.
The 1907 and 1908 World Series pitted the Tigers' prolific offense against the Cubs dominant pitching.
The Cubs came out on top both times, featuring one of the most dominant pitching trios in baseball history in Mordecai Brown, Ed Reulbach, and Orvall Overall. The Cubs trio shut down the Tigers offense both years and took home the titles.
The Tigers again brought their game in 1909, armed with new pitching stars Ed Willett and Ed Summers, who combined for 40 wins in the regular season, joining Mullin (29 wins) and mainstays Donovan and Killian.
The Tigers handled Lefty Leifield, Deacon Phillippe, and eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Vic Willis at various points in the series. It was Pittsburgh control artist, rookie Babe Adams, who stole the show, winning three complete games, including a shutout in Game Seven.
So, Ty Cobb remained thwarted of baseball’s biggest prize, a World Series title. In 1907 and 1908, it was the dominant pitching of the Cubs, and in 1909, it was Honus Wagner and a sensational rookie pitcher.
The Tigers never again appeared in a World Series during Cobb’s considerable career as a player and manager through 1928. They twice finished second in 1915 and in 1923.
The next resurgence of Tigers greatness came in the mid- and late 1930s.
Going into 1934 the team made two moves: They brought in veteran (and future Hall of Fame) catcher Mickey Cochrane and future Hall of Fame outfielder Goose Goslin. They teamed up with Hank Greenburg, Charlie Gehringer, and third baseman Marv Owen to make one of the greatest offensive juggernauts the sport has ever seen.
Fronting the team on the mound were developing stars Tommy Bridges and Schoolboy Rowe. Over the next three years, the duo won 128 games and pitched 25 shutouts. They are one of the great pitching duos is baseball history.
Schoolboy Rowe was a strapping, naturally gifted athlete. He became a fan favorite for his good looks and devotion to his high school sweetheart, Edna.
Eddie Cantor picked up on Rowe’s quotation of, “How am I doing, Edna?” The phrase caught on through radio broadcasts and was chanted at games. Rowe featured excellent command, leading the league in K/BB ratio in both ’34 and ’35.
Tommy Bridges stood 5'10” and weighed 155 pounds, dripping wet. Despite his slight frame, he possessed some of the best stuff in the league, leading in strikeouts in both 1935 and ’36. It was his drop-off-the-table curve that opponents held in wonder.
In 1935, the Tigers finally won their first World Series title. They beat the Cubs in the Series. Bridges won two games.
Despite Rowe being given the attention and lead starting roles in the World Series, it was Bridges who beat Dizzy Dean in the ’34 Series, and came away with a career record of 4-1 in the Tigers' three World Series battles, including a win in the 1940 series against the Reds.
Bridges remained a leading pitcher in the league until he left for the war after the ’43 season.
Just two seasons later, the Tigers were in a youth movement. They featured young star hurlers Dizzy Trout, Hal Newhouser, and Virgil Trucks.
What a difference two years makes.
In ’43, Newhouser went 8-17. But the following year, he flipped the switch, and became the dominant pitcher in the American League, winning 80 games over the next three years while winning two MVP awards. He led the Tigers to a pennant and World Series title in ’45.
The Tigers showed little patience toward former hero Tommy Bridges waiting for him to come back to form after he returned from the war. The team basically sent him packing, telling him he was washed up. But Bridges had some gas left in his tank, pitching a perfect game in ’47 and winning the ERA title in the Pacific Coast league.
With a bit of patience, the Tigers might have had a second Hall of Fame pitcher to go along with Hal Newhouser, as Bridges’s career total wins ended at 194, just short of the 200 opening the door for HOF consideration. Newhouser ended with 207 wins.
Giving support to the efforts of Newhouser was Tigers workhorse Dizzy Trout.
Not being able to enlist because of a hearing impairment, Trout was one of the top AL pitchers during the war, winning 27 games in 1944. He was instrumental in the Tigers second World Series title in ’45.
The Early Years Rotation
1. Hal Newhouser, 1939-53: 200 W, 33 SHO, ERA-plus 130
2. Tommy Bridges, 1930-46: 194 W, 33 SHO, ERA-plus 126
3. Dizzy Trout, 1939-52: 161 W, 28 SHO, ERA-plus 125
4. George Mullin, 1902-13: 209 W, 34 SHO, ERA-plus 102
T5. Bill Donovan, 1903-18—140 W, 29 SHO, ERA-plus 109
T5. Schoolboy Rowe, 1933-42: 105 W, 16 SHO, ERA-plus 114
Spot Starters: Hooks Dauss (223 W, ERA-plus 102), Virgil Trucks (114 W, ERA-plus 114), Fred Hutchinson (95 W, ERA-plus 113)
The Modern Era: 1960s to present.
Toward the end of the 1940s, Newhouser’s arm was shot, and the Tigers drifted into mediocrity over the next decade until the 1960s.
As the '60s began, the team was blessed with some fine position players like Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, ’61 batting champion Norm Cash, and later, Willie Horton. The team also featured dependable starters Frank Lary and Jim Bunning.
Bunning’s career really took off after he left the Tigers and put up some great years for the Phillies.
But it was not until the next generation of pitching started to emerge that the Tigers surged to the top of the league standings, winning the pennant in ’68 after narrowly missing the year before.
It was flamboyant Denny McLain who stole the show in 1968, winning 31 games, the Cy Young Award, and the MVP Award. Even during his peak, McLain burned the candle at both ends, playing organ in a musical group which appeared at night clubs.
If it was Denny McLain who got the Tigers to the World Series, it was blue collar, lunch pail-carrying Mickey Lolich who brought home the title in the World Series. Lolich was fearless, shutting down a great St. Louis team with his darting fastball and poise on the mound.
When Game Seven came around, it was Lolich against the great Bob Gibson, who had already set the single game strikeout record (17) against the Tigers in Game One. In one of the greatest series ever played, Lolich brought home the MVP award by winning his third game.
It was the Tigers’ third World Series title.
Denny McLain soon self-destructed, getting involved in gambling and the wrong ilk. It wasn’t long before he was out of the game. One could only wonder what could have been if McLain could have controlled his problems.
The Tigers remained a good team for several years, making the postseason in ’72 with a rag tag group of older veterans including their core, pinch-hitter Gates Brown, super sub Tony Taylor, and late-season acquisition Frank Howard.
Their playoff series against the eventual World Series champion A’s was one of the most hotly contested playoff series in history. It took every bit of greatness available to the three-time World Champion A’s to turn back the Tigers in this playoff series.
Twice Mickey Lolich pitched nine innings of one-run ball without coming away with a win.
In Game Four, down two games to one in a best-of-five series, the A’s scored twice in the top of the 10th inning after Lolich left the game. The series was theirs until the Tigers clawed back to score three runs in the bottom of the inning to send it to a fifth game.
Most of these Tigers players knew this was their last chance at postseason success, and they didn’t go down without a fight. Game Five came down to the last at bat for the Tigers, down 2-1 and facing a dominant Vida Blue sent in as a reliever.
However, this time there was no miracle come-from-behind win, and on to the World Series went Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, and the rest of the legendary A’s. They went on to win three titles in a row.
Mickey Lolich won 25 and 22 games in ‘71 and ’72, but narrowly missed winning a Cy Young award. He came as close as any pitcher has to 3,000 strikeouts (2,832) without passing the milestone. His 41 shutouts, World Series heroics, and career resume give him a strong case for the HOF.
After the old guard retired, the Tigers needed to rebuild.
They brought in Sparky Anderson, manager of the team of the decade in the '70s—the Big Red Machine—to lead them onward. Beginning in 1980, the Tigers began to surge, winning two division titles in ’84 and ’87 and finishing second in ’83, ’88, and ’91.
The magical year for the Tigers proved to be 1984. They broke out of the gate at a record pace, going 35-5 to open the season. The team never looked back and won the World Series.
The formula again was the convergence of strong position players with strong pitching.
Catcher Lance Parrish led an offense that included Allan Trammell, Lou Whittaker, Chet Lemon, Kirk Gibson, and Darrell Evans. They featured plenty of power and some great infield defense.
Leading the pitching staff was workhorse and ace Jack Morris, accompanied by Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox.
However, any mention of the ’84 Tigers would be remiss if it didn’t give ample credit to "Captain Hook’s" go-to guys, Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez. They combined to pitch in 151 games and 278 innings, giving up only 205 hits while saving 46 games between them. They were truly amazing.
Jack Morris was consistent and strong throughout the '80s for the Tigers. But it was after he travelled on to the Twins and Blue Jays that he won two more championship rings and dazzled a generation of fans with his 10-inning, shutout performance in Game Seven of the ’91 series.
The Tigers, after winning only 43 games in ’03, built their way back to being competitive. In their first year with Jim Leyland as manager in ‘06, they made it to the World Series.
Poor weather hindered the play of the Series. Several costly errors by the Tigers pitchers also spelled the team’s doom, as they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in an anti-climactic Series.
The leader of the Tigers staff today is Justin Verlander. Verlander won Rookie of the Year award in ’06, and has generally turned in strong performances on his way to a significant career. Other young Tiger pitchers have shown promise but not the ability to sustain success to this point.
The Modern Rotation
1. Mickey Lolich, 1963-75: 207 W, 39 SHO, ERA-plus 105
2. Jack Morris, 1977-90: 200 W, 24 SHO, ERA-plus 108
3. Frank Lary, 1954-64: 123 W, 20 SHO, ERA-plus 116
4. Jim Bunning, 1955-63: 118 W, 16 SHO, ERA-plus 116
5. Denny McLain, 1963-70: 117 W, 26 SHO, ERA-plus 110
Spot Starters: Milt Wilcox (1977-85), Justin Verlander (2005-10)
There are four relievers to mention when looking to name an all-time Tigers team.
Todd Jones leads the Tigers in saves with 235, but has a rather pedestrian ERA-plus of 114 for a reliever. Mike Henneman has 154 saves and a very respectable ERA-plus of 136.
Both of these closers have inflated WHIP marks of 1.456 and 1.305. This relates to having runners on base.
The two I am selecting for the team are John Hiller, who pitched in 545 games, had 125 saves, and an ERA-plus of 134 with a 1.268 WHIP, and Willie Hernandez, who appeared in 358 games, had 120 saves, and had an ERA-plus of 135.
There is certainly room for interpretation here in the choice, but I feel confident with the latter two, Hiller and Hernandez.
The All-time Rotation and staff
1. Hal Newhouser
2. Tommy Bridges
3. Mickey Lolich
4. Jack Morris
5. Dizzy Trout
Spot Starters: George Mullin, Bill Donovan, Schoolboy Rowe, Denny McLain
Relievers: Willie Hernandez, John Hiller
If you’re a fan of Virgil Trucks, Jim Bunning, or Frank Lary, they could certainly go in the spot starter group in place of those listed. The team is deep at this level of pitching.
Throughout the team history, success has depended on the combination of strong position players and sturdy pitching. When the two came together, the team surged to success.
With a couple of breaks here and there, this rotation could be touting four of its pitchers as members of the Hall of Fame. Bridges and Lolich have strong cases, and Jack Morris is still up for election.
The Tigers have a full-flavor history. The pitchers are no exception. Each one of these starters has a great story behind them.
It is my wish that Tiger fans understand and embrace their team history and the formula for future success that is so clearly laid down in their history.
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