Thursday, December 30, 2021

If Turkey Stearnes and Pete Hill Were Tigers: Where Would They Rank?


Detroit Stars outfielder "Turkey" Stearnes was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2001

(Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Near the end of 2020, Major League Baseball announced that it would officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920-1948 as major leagues.  Historians have long considered baseball played in these leagues as comparable in quality to the White major leagues.  It is about time that they these leagues get their due recognition.  

It is of course tragic that the Black leagues were not integrated with the White leagues and shameful it has taken so long for them to be classified as major leagues.  Since the merger, more baseball writers and analysts have begun to delve into the records and stories in order to make the rich history of the Negro Leagues more widely known. 

Of particular interest to me is trying to integrate the statistics of Black and White leagues so we can evaluate and compare players from both sets as if it was one organization where they all played together. In the past, I have ranked Detroit Tigers players by position. What would these lists look like if Detroit Stars players were included?  In this post, I will look at center fielders in particular.      

It is important to understand the challenges of analyzing Negro League data.  Hall of Fame historian Jay Jaffe discussed these issues in a FanGraphs article.  I will summarize some of them here:

  • Negro Leagues statistics are only about three quarters (73%) complete according to Ben Lindbergh, writer at The Ringer.  It varies by era depending on how frequently newspapers printed box scores and accounts.  For example, the 1920s era is mostly complete while the 1940s era is only about half complete. 
  • Seasons prior to 1920 will be excluded.  For example, Hall of Fame outfielder Pete Hill played for the Chicago American Giants, one of the greatest Black teams ever, from 1911-1918 but those years will not be counted in official major league statistics.  His statistics from 1920-1925 with the Detroit Stars and other teams will count.
  • Seasons after 1948 will be excluded.  So, seasons for players, such as Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, playing in the highly competitive Negro American League from 1949-1962 will not be recognized.  
  • Players like Jackie Robinson who played in both the Negro Leagues between 1920-1948 and also the White major leagues will have their official total statistics altered to include their time in the Negro Leagues.
  • The Negro Leagues had shorter official seasons - usually somewhere between 50 and 100 games - than the White majors.  Teams may have played 100 or more additional games outside of league play often against inferior local teams, but these games will not be counted.  
  • The official site for Negro Leagues statistics is  It is a fun site and you should get to know it.  
While there is some guess work involved in comparing players from Black and White leagues, most historians who have looked at this issue believe that the best players in Black leagues were comparable to the best players in White leagues.  The best evidence of this may come from examination of the performance of Black players in the time following integration starting with Jackie Robinson.  

To this end, Hall of Stats creator and Seamheads analyst Adam Darowski, tabulated the top 40 position players in Major League Baseball by Wins Above Replacement in the three decades following integration and noted that 21 of the 40 players were Black.  

I have already listed the top ten Detroit Tigers center fielders.  The greatest Detroit Star was center fielder Turkey Stearnes.  Where would he rank on this list and are there any others Detroit Stats who should be considered?  
The Detroit Stars were established as an independent league team in 1919 and became a founding member of the Negro National League in 1920.  The Stars played through 1931 when the Negro National League collapsed due to the great depression.  A different Negro National League was established in 1933.  The Detroit Stars played in the league the first year, but were not very successful and played under 40 games. In this analysis, I am going to look at 1919-1931.  While 1919 is not officially recognized as a major league season, they had a strong team in a competitive league that year. 

Norman Thomas "Turkey" Stearnes was the top player in Detroit Stars history and one of the best in Negro Leagues history.  He was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Stearnes was quiet and unassuming off the field, but he was a dynamic player on the field.  The legendary Satchell Paige once said that Stearnes "was one of the greatest hitters we ever had.  He was as good as Josh (Gibson).  He was as good as anybody who ever played" (  

If Turkey played today, he would be described as a five-tool player.  Legendary Negro League outfielder Cool Papa Bell said "that man could hit the ball as far as anybody and he was one of our best all around players.  He could field, he could hit, he could run.  He had plenty of power. (

The left-handed hitting Stearnes batted .348 with a 173 OPS+ (seventh best in Negro League history) in 1,049 games lifetime.  His 199 home runs was the third most behind Gibson (238) and Oscar Charleston (211) in recorded Negro Leagues history. Between 1920-1948, the seasons now recognized as Major Leagues, his 199 homers was more than any Negro League player. He was truely one of the all-time greats.  

In nine years with the Stars (1923-1931), Stearnes posted a 175 OPS+ (4th overall for the time period), 144 homers (1st) and a .661 slugging average (2nd).  He lead the league in home runs four times and in OPS+ twice.  He finished in the top ten in OPS+ every year and the top five seven times.  

I am going to rank Stearnes number two behind the legendary Ty Cobb and ahead of Chet Lemon, but he is closer to Cobb than Lemon.  

The other center fielder to consider is Hall-of-Fame outfielder Pete Hill.  Hill played most of his career in the pre-Negro League era prior to 1920.  His organized baseball years ran from 1899 to 1925 and he was one of the pioneers of Negro League Baseball.  He was the captain of Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants from 1911-1918, the most dominant African American team of the time.  Foster created the Detroit Stars in 1919 and named Hill the manager.  Foster then organized the Negro National League in 1920 and the Stars were one of the original franchises.  

Negro League statistics were not accurately kept or well published and statistics for Black baseball prior to 1920 were even worse, but Hill was considered an excellent fielder with a cannon arm and great glove.  Offensively, he was a line drive hitter and a speedy base runner.  His 167 OPS+ is 13th in recorded Negro League history.    Prominent baseball historian and author of Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball James Riley said that he would include Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Pete Hill in his pre-1920 era all star outfield.  

Had he played with the Stars for longer, Hill would probably rank number three behind Cobb and Stearnes.  Unfortunately, Hill's days with the Detroit Stars did not come until he was 36 years of age in 1919.  He was a player manager from 1919-1921 and he could still hit.  He put up Ruthian numbers in 1919 batting .396 with 16 home runs and a 273 OPS+ in 165 plate appearances.  He followed that up with OPS+ of 139 and 153 in 1920 and 1921 respectively. Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.  

Hill's numbers with the Stars were spectacular, but it was only three years and 589 plate appearances, so he needs to be placed behind some Detroit Tigers hitters with longer careers and more data.  He had six WAR in those 589 plate Appearances.  If we had all the data and the Stars played an official schedule of 154 games those years, we can guess that he may have accumulated 18 WAR. It is tough to rank him, but I am going place him fifth between Curtis Granderson and Barney McCosky. 

The rest of the list is shown below.

1. Ty Cobb (1905-1926  145 WAR  1,106 ABR  171 OPS+)

Ty Cobb is the easiest choice for number #1 of any position.  Much has been said about his character flaws and there are debates about whether he was truly a bad person or just a product of his time period.  It's probably some complex combination of both, but there are no doubts about his talents as a player as he is inarguably at the top of the list of the game's all-time greats.  He is 4th in lifetime WAR behind Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays and second in Offensive WAR behind Ruth.  He led the American League in batting average twelve times, slugging eight times, OPS ten times and the list goes on and on. 

2. Turkey Stearnes (1923-1931 33 WAR 176 OPS+)

See above for career profile.

3. Chet Lemon (1982-1990  31 WAR  102 ABR 117 OPS+)

Chet Lemon was acquired from the White Sox for left fielder Steve Kemp in 1981 and became one of the important pieces of the successful Tigers teams of the 1980's while Kemp's career was marred by injuries.  Lemon was known to do some odd things on the bases like frequently diving head first into first base, but he more than made up for questionable base running with above average offense and excellent defense.  In nine seasons with the Tigers, Lemon reached 2+ WAR eight times and 3+ WAR five times.  His best year in Detroit was the 1984 championship season where he had a 135 OPS+ and 6.2 WAR.

4. Curtis Granderson (2004-2009  21  WAR  54 ABR  114 OPS+)

Curtis Granderson is the best home-grown Tigers position player since the 1980s and was a big fan favorite during his time in Detroit.  He went out of his way to connect with fans as much as any player since I became a fan in 1968 and he was also talented.  He was an above average hitter, fielder and base runner and was 3+ WAR in each of his four full seasons with the Tigers.  His best year was 2007 when he was 7.6 WAR and one of only five players ever to achieve the quad twenty - 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases.

5. Pete Hill (1919-1921 6 WAR 185 OPS+)

See above for career profile.

6. Barney McCosky (1939-1946  13 WAR  47 ABR  110 OPS+)

Barney McCosky was a lead-off hitter and strong defender who had a .384 OBP and 3.4 WAR as a rookie in 1939.  He had an even better year in 1940 batting .340 with a league-leading 19 triples and 4.0 WAR in helping the Tigers to a pennant.  He was 2+ WAR in each of his first four years as a Tiger before missing three prime seasons serving in World War II from 1943-1945.  If we assume conservatively that he was 2 WAR in each of those three seasons, he would have been 19 WAR as a Tiger.  So, he gets a bump on this list for that.  

7. Ron Leflore (1974-1979  14 WAR  84 ABR  108 OPS+)

Ron Leflore did not begin playing baseball until he was 22 and in the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, a maximum security facility where they send the worst criminals.  He was so talented that a fellow prisoner with connections to Tigers manager Billy Martin helped get him a try out.  According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, et al, Leflore was a given a tryout  at Tiger Stadium while on a 48-hour furlough in June, 1973.  A year later, he was in the majors and he soon became one of the more exciting players in the game.  In 1976, he batted .316 including a 30-game hitting streak and stole 58 bases.  The speedy Leflore led the league with 68 steals in 1977.  He was 3+ WAR each season from 1976-1979, but was traded to the Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder because he became a clubhouse problem.  
8. Austin Jackson (2010-2014  20 WAR  36 ABR  105 OPS+)

Austin Jackson came to the Tigers along with pitchers Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth  in a seven player three-team deal which also saw Granderson go to the Yankees.  Jackson was primarily a defensive outfielder but was an average hitter and good base runner.  He averaged 4.7 WAR from 2010-2013 (FanGraphs WAR is a little less generous at 3.7 per year due mostly to a different fielding statistic).  His best season was 2012 when he had a 129 OPS+ and 5.5 WAR.  
9. Jimmy Barrett (1901-1905  14 WAR  51 ABR  117 OPS+)

Jimmy Barrett was one of the players that hazed and infuriated Ty Cobb in his early days as a Tiger.   Barrett also wasn't on the best of terms with his manager Edward Barrow.  In Barrow's autobiography My Fifty Years in Baseball, he writes that Barrett said to him: "Mr. Barrow, your methods take all the individuality away from a player"  Barrow responded: "Young man, if you ever speak to me that way again, I will take more than your individuality away from you.  I will knock your block off."  So Barrett was not the easiest guy to get along with but he was a solid player both offensively and defensively.  Barrett was the Tigers first star in their opening season in 1901 with a 108 OPS+, strong defense and 2.7 WAR.  His best season was 1903 when he led the league with a .407 OBP and had an OPS+ of 144.

10. Hoot Evers (1941-1952, 1954  14 WAR  44 ABR  112 OPS+)

According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, Walter Arthur Evers got his nickname because he "hooted" as a baby.  Hoot averaged 3.2 WAR and a 125 OPS+ between 1947-1950.  His best season was 1950 when he batted .323/.408/.551 with a 141 OPS+.    

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Hall of Fame Thoughts - 2022 Edition

 I always begin any Hall of Fame discussion with a reminder that long-time Tigers second basemen Lou Whitaker has the highest career Wins Above Replacement among 20th Century position players not in the Hall and not connected to steroids or gambling.  Whitaker will likely get another shot in the future, but was not on any of the ballots this year, so let's turn our attention to the upcoming Baseball Writer's Association of America ballot (BBWAA).

There were no new inductees selected by writers in 2021, so the ballot of worthy candidates remains crowded largely due to confusion and division on how to deal with players linked to the Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).  Many holdovers and a few worthy new candidates still make the vote a challenge though.  There are 30 eligible players and writers can vote for up to 10 candidates.  I, of course, do not have a vote, but will fill my theoretical ballot here.

My selection process involves comparing players to their contemporaries, other players at the same position and current Hall-of-Fame members.  I value peak performance and career performance equally.  I use many traditional and advanced statistics, most of which can be found on Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.  Some of my favorites are plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, batting runs, wOBA,and WAR for hitters and innings pitched, ERA, pitching runs, strikeouts and WAR for pitchers.  I used multiple WAR statistics in my analysis, but any reference to WAR cited below is Baseball-Reference WAR.

In earlier years, I did not bring PED use into my thought process.  The use of PEDs was very widespread, not only in the 1990s and 2000's, but all the way back to the sixties and even further.  It was impossible to know which players stayed clean and which used and how much it affected their performance.  Eliminating or even judging players based on suspicion seemed very unfair to me.  It also seemed pretty obvious that the game turned a blind eye to the problem for many decades.  Thus, I considered PED use to have been part of the game and choose players solely based on their on-field performance.  

Starting in 2005, Major League Baseball players and owners accepted a new policy banning steroids and issuing penalties to steroid users.  The policy has been expanded in recent years to include amphetamines and other PEDs.  Now that it is accepted by all parties that steroid use is absolutely prohibited, this makes the evaluation process more complicated.  I think it's fair to penalize players who tested positive under the agreement starting in 2005, but I do not believe these offenders should be banned from the Hall of Fame entirely. They did, after all, already serve their time through suspension.  However, the qualifications for inclusion in the Hall of Fame do include integrity, sportsmanship and character as illustrated by the following clause:
Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.
Those things are very subjective and near impossible to measure, but failed drug tests are objective.  Thus, I shall use proven drug use as another data point feeding my decision process.  Since I do not believe PED use turns a player into one of the game's all-time greats, I will still vote for an elite player such as Alex Rodriguez this year.  However, I might drop a borderline player from the ballot.  

The PED question first became an issue for me when first baseman Rafael Palmeiro appeared on the ballot in 2011.  He was a legitimate candidate, who had tested positive in 2005.  He was not a particularly strong candidate though and, given that the ballot had more than ten deserving candidates that year, it was not difficult to dismiss him.  

Outfielder Manny Ramirez who tested positive for PEDs in both 2009 and 2011 has been eligible for several years.  Based on his career numbers, Ramirez was one of the best hitters of his generation and would surely make it if he were clean. 

However, the PED data point exists for Ramirez (twice!).  Ramirez was a very one dimensional player and not a slam dunk choice of the magnitude of ARod.  He is more comparable to designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who was finally inducted in 2019.  I have been on the fence in regards to Ramirez for a while, but this year I'm voting for him. 

Now, for my ballot:

Barry Bonds: The greatest player of his generation and on a very short list of the best players ever.  You can't have a Hall of Fame without him.  

Roger Clemens: As with Bonds, the Hall-of-Fame does not make much sense with Clemens excluded.  He is arguably one of the five best pitchers in the history of the game.

Alex Rodriguez: Similar to Bonds and Clemens, I suspect Rodriguez's links to PED use will keep him out, at least initially. However, he is one of the all-time greats and impossible to dismiss.  The slugging infielder is fouth on the all-time home run list (696), seventh in total bases (5,813) and 12th in WAR (117).

Curt Schilling: Schilling is a jerk and I wish he would keep his shallow opinions to himself, but that has nothing to do with his Hall of Fame worthiness.  Arguably the best post-season pitcher ever, but was a lot more than that.  He had a 127 ERA+, 3,116 strikeouts (15th best ever), 81 WAR (26th best).  

Scott Rolen: The Lou Whitaker of his time, had a long distinguished career, but was never regarded as a superstar.  His 122 OPS+ and outstanding defense at third base helped him accumulate 70 WAR.

Todd Helton: Helton is difficult to judge because of his home park in Colorado.  He Accumulated 61 WAR, and had an OPS+ of 160 or better four times.  His peak years were fantastic including three years with WAR of 8.9. 8.3 and 7.8.  If Scott Rolen is Lou Whitaker than Helton is Ryne Sandberg.

Manny Ramirez: As mentioned above, Ramirez's candidacy is clouded by failed PED tests, but he was an elite hitter with a 154 OPS+ and 69 WAR.  He was 15th all-time in home runs (555) and 30th in total bases (4,826).  His 29 post-season home runs in 111 post-season games is the most in MLB history.

Andruw Jones: Jones is difficult to evaluate because he was not an outstanding hitter like other players on the list.  He did have power and hit a 434 career home runs including a league leading 51 in 2005.  However he had a .339 on base percentage and his career OPS+ was just 111.  On the other hand, he was widely regarded as the top defensive outfielder of his time and arguably the best of all-time.  According to the Total Zone Runs statistic which uses play-by-play data and is tracked back to 1973, Jones saved 253 runs with his defense which was the second best behind only third baseman Brooks Robinson.   

David Ortiz: Most writers consider Ortiz to be a slam dunk Hall of Famer.  I see him as a difficult choice.  Based on his regular season performance - a 141 OPS+ and 57 WAR with virtually no defensive contribution, he falls short of Hall of Fame status.  His great reputation is largely based on his post-season heroics.  Is that enough?  I don't generally give a lot of weight to post-season performance and I have criticized writers in the past for giving pitcher Jack Morris too much credit for his 10-inning 1-0 shutout in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series.  That was a great historic game, but his overall post-season record was unremarkable.  

Ortiz, on the other hand, was consistently extraordinary in the post season compiling a fantastic .947 OPS in 85 games.  It was not just one moment or one series.  He did it year after year accumulating a career post-season Win Probability Added (WPA) of 3.16 which is the highest of any hitter in MLB history.  Whereas WAR is context dependent, WPA is a situational statistic which takes the score of a game, runners on base and number outs for each plate appearance into consideration.  How much weight should we give to post-season versus regular season.  Tom Tango suggested in a recent tweet a weight of three for the playoffs and ten for the World Series.  That seems a little excessive to me, but what if we give a weight of three for any post-season game?  That is nine wins for Ortiz which added to his regular season WAR gives him 66 wins.  That is high enough for the Hall of Fame.        

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Detroit Tigers All Stars: 1990-1999

In 1990, first baseman Cecil Fielder became the first MLB player in 13 years to hit 50 home runs in a season.
(Photo credit: Julian H. Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press)

This week, I present the Detroit Tigers All Star team for the 1990-1999 decade.  All Star teams for previous decades are found below:










Detroit Stars: 1919-1930

In each decade, I select nine position players, one for each position on the field plus one other hitter.  This ninth player could be a designated hitter, a multiple position player who didn't fit neatly into one position and/or the best hitter who didn't get selected as a position player.  I refer to this final hitter as the utility player.  Then I select five pitchers: four starters and one reliever.  In earlier decades when relievers were not frequently used, it will just be the fifth best starting pitcher.  

Some further general rules are as follows:

  • A player must have played at least half of his games with the Tigers at a given position or played that position more than any other position.  In rare cases, I might cheat a little bit if none of the players qualifying at a given position are any good at all and there is a superior player who played a good number of games at that position. 
  • A player must have played at least two full seasons with the Tigers, preferably at the assigned position. 
  • Only games played with the Tigers are considered. 
  • If a player played other positions with the Tigers besides his assigned position, his hitting performance in those games does count. 

Many statistics and sometimes, especially for fielding evaluation, anecdotal information will be considered.  For hitters, some of the statistics I consider are:

  • Games Played (G)
  • Plate Appearances (PA) 
  • Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference WAR), 
  • Adjusted Batting Runs (ABR
  • Adjusted On Base Plus Slugging (OPS+)
The follow are among those I use for evaluating pitchers:

The 1990s was a decade of disharmony and disillusionment in Major League Baseball.  This included the longest player strike ever from 1994-1995 and the historic cancellation of the 1994 post-season.  There was an offensive explosion during the decade culminating in the record setting home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, an exciting event at the time, but later perceived with skepticism.  The abundance of home runs during the decade marked the beginning of a Steroids controversy which still rages today. 

There were four new expansion teams during the decade and the first expansion of playoffs since 1969.  In 1994, baseball went from four divisions to six and a wildcard team was added to the playoffs in each league.  The new playoff structure, of course, was delayed by the player's strike until the 1995 post-season.  On the field, baseball was dominated by the Atlanta Braves and, once again, the New York Yankees.  

The Tigers had arguably the worst decade in franchise history with losing records every season except two and no serious playoff contention in any year.  The main culprit was a horrendous pitching staff which finished at or near the bottom of the league most seasons.  They reached their nadir in 1996 when the the staff ERA was an incredible 6.38.  Only the Philadelphia Phillies of 1930 did worse with a 6.71 ERA and they played in the Baker Bowl which was perhaps the most extreme hitter's park in history.   

Offensively, the Tigers were quite potent from 1990-1994 leading the league in runs scored in 1992 and 1993 and finishing in the top three in the American League each year.  They also led the league in home runs each year from 1990-1992 and finished second in 1993 and 1994.

In 1990, mammoth first baseman Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs to become the first major league player with 50 home runs since 1977.  Holdovers Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell and newcomers Travis Fryman, Tony Phillips and Mickey Tettleton also contributed to an entertaining offense, but the feeble pitching prevented them from winning.     

The team WAR leaders were

Travis Fryman 28

Tony Phillips 25

Lou Whitaker 23

Cecil Fielder 17

Alan Trammell 15

Not surprisingly, there are no pitchers on this list.

The decade All Star team is listed in Tables 1 and 2 below and player profiles follow.

Table 1: Tigers All Star Position Players: 1990-1999











Mickey Tettleton









Cecil Fielder









Lou Whitaker









Alan Trammell









Travis Fryman









Tony Phillips









Milt Cuyler









Bobby Higginson









Tony Clark









Table 2: Tigers All Star Pitchers: 1990-1999











Justin Thompson









David Wells









Brian Moehler









Bill Gullickson









Mike Henneman








Player Profiles

C Mickey Tettleton

Mickey Tettleton was acquired from the Orioles after the 1990 season for pitcher Jeff Robinson.  He paid immediate dividends in Detroit slugging 31 home runs and reaching base at a .387 clip as the Tigers starting catcher in 1991.  He captured the attention of Detroit fandom that year with seven home runs in seven days including two over the roof in Tiger Stadium from June 21-June 27.  

Froot Loops had an on-base percentage of .387 and an OPS+ of 135 in his four years as a Tiger from 1991-1994.  He walked in 18.3% of his plate appearances which was third best in baseball during that period behind outfielder Rickey Henderson and first baseman Frank Thomas. 

Along with his slugging and on-base skills, the Oklahoma native was famous for the chaw of tobacco in his cheek and his unique straight legged batting stance with his bat held parallel to the ground before initiating his powerful swing.      

1B Cecil Fielder

After playing for the Blue Jays with little success from 1985-1988, Cecil Grant Fielder then spent the next year playing regularly and crushing home runs for Japan's Hanshin Tigers.  He was then signed by the Detroit Tigers after the 1989 season and provided a much bigger return than anybody could have reasonably expected.  

The rotund first baseman led the American League with 51 run home runs, 132 RBI and a .592 slugging percentage. He hit home run numbers 50 and 51 on the last day of the season in Yankee Stadium to become only the 11th player in major league history reach 50 and the first one since Reds Outfielder George Foster in 1977.  The only other Tiger to reach that mark was Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg who clubbed 58 four sackers in 1938.

Fielder never quite reached those lofty numbers again, but he continued to display impressive power leading the league with 44 homers and 133 RBI in 1991.  He then added 35 home runs and again led the league with 124 RBI in 1992.  From 1990-1995, Fielder hit 219 home runs which was more than any player in baseball.

According to writer Bill Dowd, Fielder gave a lot of credit to manager Sparky Anderson for his new found success in Detroit: "He was like my dude, man. When he died, I cried. I remember giving a speech in Detroit and I started to talk about him and I just cried. He was so important to my development and for building up my confidence." (Detroit Free Press, May 25, 2020) 

2B Lou Whitaker

In the 2019 Bill James Handbook, James estimated that Whitaker was the second best player not in the Hall of Fame (and not currently on the ballot).  One has to go back to the 19th Century to find the best one - shortstop Bill Dahlen.  The sentiment that Whitaker is one of the biggest Hall of Fame snubs is not new.  In fact, it is almost universally shared by the sabermetric community.  

Whitaker may have lost a step defensively by the time the 1990s came around, but he lost nothing offensively.  Even though he started the 1990s at age 33, he hit for a 129 OPS+ that decade versus 114 in the 1980s.  The improvement came from an increase in power (one homer every 25 at bats in the 90s versus one homer every 37 at bats in the 80s) and walk rate (14.1% versus 10.9%)  Part of the difference was seeing fewer left handers late in his career, but his splits reveal that most of the difference remains if we just look at his at bats against right handers.

His performance by four age breakdowns is also interesting:

20-24 94 OPS+

25-29 119 OPS+

30-34 122 OPS+

35-38 131 OPS+

SS Alan Trammell

Hall of Fame entry was a long time in coming for Trammell, but it was well deserved.  The argument was always that he was better than half the shortstops in the Hall of Fame.  He was 10th among 22 inducted shortstops in WAR, 8th in WAR7 9th in JAWS and 12th in OPS+.

Trammell peaked in the 80s and did not age quite as well as his keystone partner Lou Whitaker and was frequently injured in his 30s, but he still had some strong years left.  In 1990, he finished fourth in the American League in batting average (.304) and WAR (6.7).  In 1993, he hit .329 with a 138 OPS+. 

3B Travis Fryman

Fryman was an unassuming but steadily above average performer for the Tigers for eight years.  His best season was in 1993 when he batted .300/.379/.486 with 133 OPS+ and 5.2 WAR.  He also contributed 4.9 WAR in 1992 and 3.9 in 1995.

George Kell is typically written down as the Tigers top third baseman when people put together a Tigers all-time all-star team (unless they allow Cabrera to be included), but there really is no clear cut winner.  Some people are surprised to find out that Travis Fryman is the Tigers all-time WAR leader among players who primarily played third base:

Travis Fryman 28
George Kell 23
Brandon Inge 19
Ray Boone 16

Marty McManus 13

Defense is tricky especially for old time players, so let's look at Offensive WAR (OWAR):

Travis Fryman 25
George Kell 21
Ray Boone 18
Nick Castellanos 14
Pinky Higgins 13

Note that, while OWAR does not include fielding performance, it does adjust WAR for the position that a player plays  Thus, Fryman gets about three extra wins for his time at shortstop just by being a shortstop which isn't really fair for this exercise.  If we remove that, he drops to about 22 WAR which puts him on a level with Kell.

A statistic like OPS+ gives us a clue about peak offense:

Ray Boone 130
Ed Yost 127
George Kell 119
Nick Castellanos 111
Travis Fryman 106

This list shows that Boone was a better hitter at his peak than either Kell or Fryman.  Yost only played two years with the Tigers, so we'll leave him out of this discussion.  

Kell and Fryman are very close in terms of offensive career value and they were both good, although unspectacular, defenders.  You can make a case for Fryman at #1.   You could also make a case for Boone given his superior offense over four years.

It is tempting to be a contrarian and not go with Kell, but I think Kell beats Fryman by enough on peak offensive value and Boone in career value to win by a hair.

LF Tony Phillips

The switch hitting Tony Phillips batted .281/.395/.405 from 1990-1994.  Yes, that's a .395 on base percentage!  That is the best Tigers on-base percentage for any player with at least 1,000 plate appearances in a Tigers uniform in the last 60 years (  Only the great Miguel Cabrera was ahead of that pace until he dropped to .392 the last couple of years.  

In a time when many still undervalued on-base-percentage, some observers did not fully appreciate Tony's skills.  He was in the top ten in Major League Baseball during that period and his .443 OBP in 1993 was second to John Olerud of the Blue Jays, yet he never played in an all-star game.

Phillips was more than just an on-base machine though. He was invaluable defensively playing every position on the field but catcher and first base.  He didn't just make token appearances at second, third, short and all three outfield positions.  He played them all frequently and played each position with average to above average skill.

When you add up everything Phillips did in all facets of the game, you can see why manager Sparky Anderson loved him so much.  He consistently put up all-star level Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers during his Tigers tenure:

1990 4.8
1991 5.2
1992 5.1
1993 5.6
1994 4.7

The most memorable Tiger of the period was mammoth first baseman Cecil Fielder, but Phillips was a better all around player. Tony The Tiger finished among the top three Tigers in WAR each year and topped Fielder every year except 1990 (the year Big Cecil hit 51 home runs).  In fact, Phillips led the Tigers in WAR each year from 1992-1994. 

CF Milt Cuyler

There is not much from which to choose in center field.  The only real options are Chad Curtis, Milt Cuyler and Brian Hunter, none of which were all star caliber.  Curtis was the best hitter of the three in his brief time in Detroit, but was not a good center fielder nor good base runner given his speed.  He was an even worse human being, later going to prison for sexually assaulting teen girls.  

Cuyler and Hunter were excellent fielders and base runners. but could not hit.  I am going with Cuyler, who had the most single-season WAR, cumulative WAR and games played of the three center fielders. Cuyler had a solid rookie season in 1991 with an on base percentage of .335, 41 stolen bases and stellar defense.  He looked like the Tigers center fielder of the future but did not pan out batting .227 as a part-time center fielder over the next four seasons.    

RF Bobby Higginson

Because he never played for a winning team and faded badly late in his career many fans do not remember Higginson fondly.  However, he had a very solid career reaching 3+ WAR four times and 2+ WAR six times in all.  The Philadelphia native hit .299/.377/.521 with a 130 OPS+ between 1996-1998. 

When I say Higginson never played for a winning team, that goes way back including 11 years in the majors, 3 years in the minors and 4 years at Temple University.  That is 18 years of losing.  It wasn't his fault, but it's a remarkable string of bad luck.    

UT Tony Clark

Tony Clark was the second overall pick in the 1990 amateur draft and played seven seasons for the Tigers.  He was regarded as a disappointment by many fans due to his advance billing and misfortune of being one of the better hitters on some very bad teams.  He posted an OPS+ of 120 or better five times and hit 30 or more round trippers three times.

Tigers fans knocked Clark because "he never did anything when it counted".  However, a look at his splits in his time with the Tigers indicate that he batted .280 with runners in scoring position and .265 with the bases empty.  "But he did all his hitting in blow outs" they said.  In at bats when the score was either tied or the margin was one run, Clark batted .287.  When the the margin was four runs or more, he batted just .246.  So, this Tony the Tiger did seem to hit better when it counted.  

Fans tend to blame the best players on their favorite team when the team loses and for the late 90s Tigers that was Higginson and Clark.     

SP Justin Thompson

The Tigers development of pitchers was disaster in the 1990s, but one bright light was Thompson.  The Texas southpaw appeared headed to stardom after his sophomore season in 1997 when he had a 152 ERA+ in 223 innings.  He had another strong season in 1998, but things unraveled after that.  He was eventually traded to the Rangers in 1999 and then suffered a torn rotator cuff in 2000 effectively ending his career.  

SP David Wells

Boomer Wells pitched for nine team major league teams including three seasons with the Tigers.  The Tigers acquired him as a free agent in April, 1993 and he was the best staring pitcher on a terrible staff each year from 1993-1995.  He had a 123 ERA+ in 111 innings during the strike shortened 1994 season.  The left-hander was off to a sizzling start in 1995 going 10-3 with a 159 ERA+ in 130 innings.  

Wells was dealt to the Reds at the trade deadline in 1995 for pitchers CJ Nitkowski and Dave Tuttle and a player to be named later (infielder Mark Lewis).  He then went on to have a lot of success with several teams, finally retiring in 2007 at age 44. 


SP Brian Moehler

Brian Moehler was a constant in the Tigers rotation from 1997-2000.  His best season was 1998 when he won 14 games with a 121 ERA+ and led all Tigers pitchers with 4.2 WAR.  The right hander gained national media attention in 1999 when he was caught scuffing a ball versus the Devil Rays and was suspended for 10 games.  

SP Bill Gullickson

The Tigers signed Gullickson as a free agent in December, 1990 and he became the Tigers first 20-game winner since Jack Morris in 1986.  Gullickson had a 108 ERA+ in 35 starts that year and benefitted from a powerful Bengal offense.  It would take 20 years before another Tigers starter would win 20 games - 2011 Cy Young and MVP winner Justin Verlander.  

The Marshall, Minnesota native had a successful 14-year major league career despite struggling with Type I Diabetes.  He would later inspire a young athlete with diabetes when he spoke with 12-year-old Sam Fuld, who would grow up to be a major league outfielder (Roger Mooney, Tampa Tribune, April 4, 2011)

RP Mike Henneman

Mike Henneman is best known for his 1987 season when he was the linchpin of the Tigers bullpen as a rookie and helped lead them to a division title.  The Missouri-born right hander also had plenty of success for the hard hitting Tigers of the early 1990s.  In 1991, he had a a 146 ERA+ in 84 innings and finished second in the American League with 4.1 Win Probability Added.  He also had a 164 ERA+ in 1993 and 208 ERA+ in 1995 before being traded at the deadline to Houston for third baseman Phil Nevin.  

Mike and his sister were adopted by Bill and Shirley Henneman as babies.  Some 56 years later he took a DNA test and discovered that he had five bothers and another sister.  He united with his family for the first time shortly thereafter and they now have become close (The Sporting News, October 5, 2020).


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