In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan. So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history. There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully. Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important. Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.
While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically. Sometimes, a non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements or because the team was unique in some way. I wanted every decade to be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades, this was a challenge. However, the Tigers have managed to put together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those seasons will also be included.
The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.
The 1990s were a tough time for Tigers fans, especially those too young to remember the great teams of the mid-1980s. It was a decade where the Tigers failed to make the playoffs and posted only two winning seasons. However, they did have some exciting offensive teams at the beginning of the decade. In 1990, Cecil Fielder came out of nowhere to become the first major league hitter in 13 years to blast 50 homers. That season almost made the list for that reason alone.
The best team of the decade though was the collection of hitters which led the American League in home runs, walks and strikeouts in 1991. The Tigers finished in second place at 84-78, seven games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. It wasn't a great team, but the Bengals explosive offense held the attention of fans all year long. They finished second in the league with 817 runs scored and crushed 209 homers which was 32 more than the next highest team, the Rangers at 177.
Fielder had another outstanding season leading the majors with 44 homers and 133 RBI and finishing second in the MVP voting to Baltimore's Cal Ripken. However, he may not have been the best hitter on the team. His 27.1 Batting Runs were only third on the team behind catcher Mickey Tettleton (30.4) and second baseman Lou Whitaker (30.2). The Tigers also had perhaps the best utility player of all time in Tony Phillips. Phillips played at least nine games at every position expect catcher and first base while reaching base at a .371 clip.
Adding to the character of the team was the hit-or-miss duo of Rob Deer and Pete Incaviglia. They could hit the ball a mile but combined to strikeout 267 times in 916 at bats. With 25 homers and 89 walks. Deer may have been the best .179 hitter ever! Many blamed the lack of success of this team on all the strikeouts, but it was actually an offensive machine.
The reason the team did not go further was the pitching. They finished 12th in the league with 794 runs allowed. Their staff was led by right hander Bill Gullickson (3.90 ERA in 226 innings) and Frank Tanana (3.77 ERA in 217 innings), but they had little depth. Gullickson was the last Tigers pitcher prior to Justin Verlander to win 20 games, but much of that was due to some of the best offensive support in baseball.