Welcome to the All-Time Franchise Starting Lineup, where we review one of the 30 current MLB franchises every other week to determine the best players by position in franchise history. After reviewing one of MLB’s newest franchises, the Colorado Rockies, two weeks ago, we’re back to a club with a long history, the Detroit Tigers. You can find any of our prior installments if you’re interested here.
The Ground Rules
- Each player’s WAR with the franchise was the primary driver of the selections. We used two WAR calculations, one from Fangraphs and the other from Baseball-Reference. When the WAR between players was similar, we considered other factors, such as stats and awards, to break the tie.
- We only considered statistics earned with the franchise in question for each player. For example, someone like Albert Pujols won’t be the Dodgers’ first baseman since he only played there for part of a season near the end of his career.
- Players with multi-position eligibility can play any position they played for a reasonable period in their career.
- Outfielders can be shifted between center, left, and right as long as it makes sense defensively – especially for center field.
- Since we have universal DH now, we will assign one DH per team. Doing so also allows us to get more deserving hitters into the lineup who played at a log-jammed position.
- Three pitchers will be named – one right-handed starter, one left-handed starter, and one reliever.
The Tigers were one of the eight original American League teams which began play in 1901. Buoyed by rising star Ty Cobb, the franchise played in their first three World Series from 1907 through 1909 but weren’t victorious in any of them. They wouldn’t return to the Fall Classic until 1934 when they lost again. However, they ended up on top the following season, defeating the Chicago Cubs in six games.
Over the next 50 years, Detroit returned to the World Series only four times, winning three in 1945, 1968, and 1984. The franchise has not been world champions since, though they did make it to the series twice more, in 2006 and 2012. The franchise has a winning percentage of slightly over .500 in its 122 years of existence. Despite mediocre on-field results, Detroit has been the home of several all-time great players, most of whom are in our lineup below.
Catcher: Bill Freehan
Bill Freehan got 11 plate appearances at the end of the 1961 season for Detroit and didn’t see the majors in 1962. In 1963, Freehan got his chance and was solid as a backup catcher and first baseman. The following season, Freehan broke out. He hit .300 with 18 HRs and 80 RBI and made his first All-Star team. Freehan returned to the Midsummer Classic in ten of the next 11 seasons.
Freehan never hit .300 again but was a solid offensive catcher with good pop in an era when pitching was dominant. Behind the plate, he was dominant, though. Freehan won five consecutive Gold Gloves from 1965 through 1969 and led the AL in fielding % three times. At 6’3″ and 200 lbs., runners had to think twice about close calls at the plate when Freehan was back there.
Freehan won a World Series ring with the club in 1968, catching all seven games in the series. Though he didn’t hit much, he impacted the series with his defense. His most famous play came when Lou Brock tried to score from second on a single to left. Freehan blocked the plate, and Brock opted not even to slide. Freehan retired after the 1976 season, playing his entire career with the Tigers. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he leads all Tigers’ catchers in games, hits, doubles, runs, and RBI.
First Base: Hank Greenberg
“Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg would likely be considered among the greatest first basemen of all time had he not been a patriot. Greenberg only played in 1,394 games, the equivalent of about nine full seasons. Even so, he made a tremendous mark on the Tigers, with whom he played almost all of his career. Greenberg’s Jewish ethnicity forced him to be strong as he dealt with anti-Semitism throughout his playing days. His race was illuminated further by Hitler and the Holocaust. In his last season, Greenberg advised a young African American named Jackie Robinson to “Just stay in there and fight back” and to “Always remember to keep your head up.”
Greenberg was given a taste of the big leagues in 1930 when he was only 19 years old. He got one at-bat that September. Three years later, Hank was in the bigs to stay and began a tremendous run that lastest until he was drafted (and later re-enlisted) in 1941. During those nine seasons, which were really eight as he played only 12 games in 1936 due to a wrist injury, Greenberg led the league in HRs and RBI three times, doubles twice, and runs once. He made four All-Star games and won two MVPs in 1935 and 1940.
After the war, Greenberg picked up where he left off despite being out of baseball for four years. He was an All-Star again in 1945 and led the AL in HRs and RBI in 1946. Greenberg’s Tigers went to four World Series with him in tow, winning twice. In 23 World Series games, Hammerin’ Hank hit .318 with five HRs, seven doubles, 17 runs, and 22 RBI.
Greenberg retired after his final season with the Pirates, whom the Tigers sold his rights to before the 1947 season. In 1956 he became a Hall of Famer, and in 1983, Detroit retired his #5.
Second Base: Charlie Gehringer
Charlie Gehringer and Lou Whitaker both belonged in our lineup. As both played second base almost exclusively in their careers, we had to stash one of them at DH. Both players were excellent defenders; thus, we couldn’t use defense as the tie-breaker. Ultimately, we went with Gehringer at second because he had the better career overall and is one of our Top Ten Second Basemen of All-Time.
Gehringer’s nickname was “The Mechanical Man.” He was dubbed so because of his robotic consistency and durability. Gehringer did everything well. He hit, ran, and played defense with the best of them and played his entire career with the Tigers. Gehringer debuted in 1924 but wasn’t a regular until 1926. Once established, the Tigers wouldn’t have to look for a second baseman until 1942. Over that span, The Mechanical Man led the league in games four times; hits, runs, and doubles twice; and triples, stolen bases, and batting average once. In 1937, when he won the batting title, Gehringer was also the AL MVP after hitting .371/.458/.520. In addition, he played in the first six all-star games, beginning in 1933.
Gehringer made it to the World Series three times, winning a World Championship in 1935. In 20 World Series contests, he batted .321 with a .375 OBP. In 1949, seven years after he played his last game, Gehringer was elected to the Hall of Fame. It took a while longer for the franchise to retire his #2, but they finally did so in 1983.
Shortstop: Alan Trammell
Alan Trammell is another of the several players in our lineup who was with the Tigers for his entire career. Trammell debuted in September 1977 and was the team’s starting shortstop in 1978. In 1980, Trammell attended his first of six All-Star games and won his first of four Gold Gloves. He was a good hitter who played excellent defense and played the game the “right way.” Later in his career, Trammell developed more power and eventually started batting cleanup for the club. His best offensive season came in 1987 when he was the MVP runner-up after batting .343 with 28 HRs, 109 runs, and 105 RBI. In addition, Trammell took home the Silver Slugger award that season, which he repeated twice more in 1988 and 1990.
Trammell didn’t see many postseasons with the Tigers but did play on the 1984 championship team. “Playing” is an understatement, as Trammell hit .450 in the series with two HRs and six RBI in the five games, earning World Series MVP honors. Trammell continued to roll out to shortstop through the 1996 season, after which he retired at the age of 38. Trammell wasn’t an immediate addition to the Hall of Fame, but the Veteran’s Committee finally inducted him in 2018. That same season, the franchise retired his #3.
Third Base: Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera is one of our Top Ten First Basemen of All-Time, but he’s also played a fair amount of third base in his career, and we needed him for the hot corner in our lineup. Cabrera debuted with the 2003 Marlins team that won the World Series and joined the Tigers via trade before the 2008 season as Florida began one of its many rebuilds. Miggy carried his National League success to the AL and was a dominant force for the franchise for nearly a decade.
From 2008 – 2016, Miggy went to seven All-Star games, won five Silver Sluggers, and was the back-to-back MVP in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 MVP was particularly special as Cabrera won the Triple Crown that season, a feat that hadn’t occurred since 1967. Over this nine-year stretch, Cabrera hit .325/.405/.573 and averaged 34 HRs, 97 runs, and 114 RBI per season while winning four batting titles. The Tigers made the playoffs four times in this period, with the pinnacle being the 2012 World Series (where the Giants unceremoniously swept them).
Cabrera has already eclipsed 3,000 hits and 500 HRs and is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his generation. He plans to continue playing beyond this season and will undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he’s eligible.
Left Field: Harry Heilmann
Harry Heilmann and Al Kaline both made our Top Ten Right Fielders of All-Time list, but we could only put one of them at his natural position. We opted to put Kaline, an excellent defender, in right and moved Heilmann to left, even though he only played eight games there in his career. Heilmann debuted with the Tigers in 1914 but didn’t stick with the club until 1916. Playing next to the great Ty Cobb helped Heilmann become a premier hitter, and after returning from a short stint in WWI, he hit better than .300 for the rest of his career. Only Cobb has a higher lifetime batting average with the Tigers than Heilmann’s .342.
In 1921 Heilmann won his first batting title and led the AL in hits. He repeated this accomplishment every other year over the next six seasons, winning four altogether. In 1923 Heilmann, aka “Slug,” eclipsed the .400 mark with a .403 BA and finished third in the MVP voting. Despite Heilmann’s success and the presence of Cobb for most of his tenure with the team, the Tigers never won a pennant while he was with them.
Heilmann likely would have joined the 3,000-hit club had he not been hampered by arthritic wrists late in his career. He was claimed off waivers by the Reds in 1930 but played only one season before retiring due to the pain. He mounted a comeback in 1932 as a player-coach for Cincinnati but retired for good at the end of May. In 1952, the BBWAA inducted Heilmann into the Hall of Fame, but unfortunately, Slug wasn’t there to see it as he passed away the prior year.
Center Field: Ty Cobb
In the first vote for the Hall of Fame in 1936, Ty Cobb received the most votes. More than any other first-class inductee, including Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. This illustrates how highly regarded Cobb was by his contemporaries, and rightly so considering his myriad accomplishments. Cobb ranked second in our Top Ten Center Fielders of All-Time and is the greatest player ever to don a Tigers uniform.
Cobb began his career with the Tigers in late 1905, a few months before his 19th birthday. Two years later, he won his first batting title, hitting .350 in 1907. Cobb proceeded to win the batting title 11 times over the next 12 seasons. The only year he didn’t win it during that stretch was 1916, when he hit .370. He was simply the most dominant hitter in the game in the first two decades of the 20th century. In addition to the batting titles, Cobb led the league in OPS ten times, hits/SLG eight times, OBP seven times, stolen bases six times, runs five times, triples/RBI four times, doubles three times, and HRs once (with nine). “The Georgia Peach” also won the Triple Crown in 1909 and the MVP in 1911.
Cobb’s Tigers, on the other hand, weren’t as successful. Despite having the best player in the game, they only managed to get to the World Series three times early in Cobb’s career. Detroit represented the AL for three consecutive years from 1907 to 1909 and lost all three. The losses surely gnawed at Cobb, who was well known as an ultra-competitive and difficult player. In 1921 he tried to do even more by becoming the club’s player/manager. In his six years at the helm, though, the best the Tigers would finish was second place. He played his final two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics before retiring after 24 seasons in 1928.
At the time of his retirement, Cobb held many MLB records. Most have fallen over the years, but he still has the highest lifetime batting average and is second in hits, runs, and triples. However, Cobb remains the franchise leader in multiple categories, including plate appearances, hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBI, and stolen bases. The Tigers couldn’t retire Ty Cobb’s number because he didn’t have one. Instead, he is honored on the wall at Comerica Park with his initials “TC.” In addition, a statue of him has graced the stadium since 2000.
Right Field: Al Kaline
Al Kaline was an all-time great right fielder for the Tigers, covering the position for most of his 22 seasons with the club. His longevity with the team earned him the nickname “Mr. Tiger.” Kaline broke in with Detroit straight out of high school in 1953. Two years later, at only 20 years old, Kaline won the batting title with a .340 average. He also made his first All-Star team that year, an honor he would repeat 17 more times.
In 1957, MLB created the Gold Glove award, and Kaline was among the first recipients. Mr. Tiger won the award every season except one from 1957 to 1967, putting ten on his mantle. The Tigers only advanced to the playoffs twice during Kaline’s time, with the highlight being the 1968 World Series. Kaline hit .379 in the series with two HRs and eight RBI in the seven-game victory over the Cardinals.
After a long career, Kaline retired as a lifelong Tiger in 1974. He is the franchise leader in HRs still. In 1980, Kaline joined the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA elected him in his first year of eligibility. That same season, the Tigers made Kaline’s #6 jersey the first to be retired by the franchise.
Designated Hitter: Lou Whitaker
As mentioned above, Lou Whitaker deserved to be our starting second baseman, but it is difficult to unseat one of the greatest ever to play the keystone. Thus, “Sweet Lou” gets the nod as our DH, even though his defensive abilities were a big part of his successful career. Whitaker is closely linked to our shortstop, Alan Trammell, as the two played together for virtually their entire careers. Both debuted in September 1977, were starters in 1978, and played their whole careers with the Tigers. Whitaker retired one year before Trammell, but the duo played 1,918 games together, making them the longest-running double-play combination in the history of baseball.
Sweet Lou got off to a strong start in 1978, winning Rookie-of-the-Year at only 21 years old. He played excellent defense and provided solid offense over his first five seasons until breaking out in 1983. Whitaker hit .320 that year, was an All-Star, and won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. He repeated most of these feats over the subsequent four seasons as an All-Star each year and winner of two more Gold Gloves and three more Silver Sluggers. In the 1984 World Series, Whitaker hit .278 with a .409 OBP and scored six runs in the five games.
Sweet Lou didn’t get much love from the BBWAA voters in 2001, only receiving 2.9% of the Hall of Fame vote and dropping off the ballot. The support seems criminally low, considering his lifetime WAR is higher than many Hall of Famers, including relative contemporaries like Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar. Many support his induction, but he is still waiting. The Tigers grew tired of the wait and retired Sweet Lou’s #1 in August of this year.
Left-Handed Starter: Hal Newhouser
“Prince Hal” Newhouser threw five innings for the Tigers in 1939 when he was only 18 years old. The following season, the young lefty was in the rotation for most of the year but struggled with his control. He was not a key component of the rotation yet and did not pitch in the World Series that year, which the Tigers lost to the Reds. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Newhouser did not enter the military during World War II. He enlisted but failed his physical due to a heart murmur. So Prince Hal kept pitching and kept improving.
In 1942 Newhouser was an All-Star for the first of seven consecutive seasons. Two years later, he hit another level, winning the AL MVP after winning 29 games with a 2.22 ERA. Hal took it up another notch in 1945, winning a second consecutive MVP and the pitching Triple-Crown. Newhouser’s 25 wins, 212 strikeouts, and 1.81 ERA led the league that season as did his 29 complete games, eight shutouts, and 313 innings pitched. Newhouser was remarkable again in 1946, leading the AL in wins and ERA, but finished second in the MVP voting.
Prince Hal got another shot at pitching in the Fall Classic in 1945. The Cubs lit him up for seven runs in less than three innings in Game 1, but Newhouser bounced back and won Games 4 and the pivotal Game 7. The volume began to catch up with him in 1949, and his effectiveness waned. In 1953, he threw only 22 subpar innings, and the Tigers released him after the season. Hal planned to retire, but former teammate Hank Greenberg coaxed him to join Cleveland’s bullpen. He was successful in this role in 1954 but called it quits for good just two games into the 1955 season.
Newhouser’s career line hides how dominant he was at his peak, and thus he had to wait to get into the Hall of Fame until the Veteran’s Committee inducted him in 1992. Five years later, his #16 was retired by the Tigers.
Right-Handed Starter: Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander began his eventual Hall of Fame career on July 4, 2005. He made only two starts with the Tigers that season and then the club shut him down to protect his arm. The club knew he was destined for great things. In 2006, Verlander was the AL Rookie-of-the-Year after winning 17 games. He capped the season off by making two World Series starts but lost both as the Tigers fell to the Cardinals in five games.
The following season he made his first All-Star team, an honor he would repeat five more times with the Tigers. After a rough 2008, Verlander began an incredible five-year stretch in which he led the AL in innings, starts, and strikeouts three times, wins twice, and ERA once. Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown, Cy Young, and MVP in 2011 when he threw 251 innings with a 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA, and 250 strikeouts. The Tigers made it back to the World Series in 2012, but things did not go well once again. The Giants swept them, and Verlander got hit hard in his only start.
The 2014 season did not go well for Justin as he struggled with a 4.54 ERA. He rebounded over the next few seasons, but the Tigers were no longer contenders and traded him to the Astros on August 31, 2017. Surely the Tigers did not expect that Verlander would thrive in Houston late in his career, making three more All-Star teams, winning a World Championship, and taking home another Cy Young. Verlander underwent Tommy John surgery in 2020 and missed all of 2021. Unbelievably, 2022 has been one of the best seasons of his career, and the 39-year-old is the favorite to win the Cy Young award for the third time.
Reliever: John Hiller
John Hiller was a reliever in an era before it became a specialty. The lefty started a handful of games in the 1960s but worked primarily out of the pen. Even so, the fireman accumulated innings that many starters throw in a season now. He began his career in 1965 but didn’t stick in the bigs until 1967. Hiller threw 128 innings as a combo starter and reliever the following season, and the Tigers won the World Series. Hiller didn’t play a significant role in the Fall Classic, however, giving up three runs in two innings of work.
Hiller established himself as an important cog in the Tigers bullpen over the next few seasons. Then, in January 1971, tragedy struck when Hiller suffered three heart attacks. His recovery was long and included an intestinal bypass surgery, a very experimental procedure at the time. It was a minor miracle when Hiller resumed his career in July 1972. However, not only did Hiller return, but he was better than ever. In 44 innings that season, he had a 2.03 ERA. The following year, Hiller had his best season, leading the AL in games and saves with a 1.44 ERA. He finished fourth in the Cy Young and MVP voting that year; an unbelievable accomplishment.
Hiller made his lone All-Star appearance in 1975 and continued his excellence through 1978. He began to feel his age in 1979 and retired in May 1980. At that point, Hiller was the franchise leader in games pitched with 545, a record he still owns. Hiller was a great pitcher and an inspiration. For his bravery and resilience, he won The Hutch Award for fighting spirit and competitive desire and the American Heart Award.