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:


1901-1909

1910-1919

1920-1929

1930-1939

1940-1949

1950-1959

1960-1969

1970-1979

1980-1989

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


Pos

Player

From

To

G

PA

WAR

ABR

OPS+

C

Mickey Tettleton

1991

1994

570

2,343

15

88

135

1B

Cecil Fielder

1990

1996

982

4,252

17

126

126

2B

Lou Whitaker

1990

1995

695

2,801

23

92

129

SS

Alan Trammell

1990

1996

604

2,398

15

12

103

3B

Travis Fryman

1990

1997

1,096

4,792

28

38

106

LF

Tony Phillips

1990

1994

722

3,326

25

105

120

CF

Milt Cuyler

1990

1995

433

1,426

5

-38

72

RF

Bobby Higginson

1995

1999

671

2,755

11

56

116

UT

Tony Clark

1995

1999

586

2,483

9

47

118

Source:Baseball-Reference.com

 

Table 2: Tigers All Star Pitchers: 1990-1999


Pos

Player

From

To

G

IP

WAR

PR

ERA+

SP

Justin Thompson

1996

1999

101

647

13

52

119

SP

David Wells

1993

1995

66

429

10

37

122

SP

Brian Moehler

1996

1999

98

603

9

16

105

SP

Bill Gullickson

1991

1994

118

723

5

-31

91

RP

Mike Henneman

1990

1995

311

392

7

42

133

Source:Baseball-Reference.com




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 (StatHead.com).  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).

2 comments:

  1. ugh. after the 80s this is very depressing.

    milt cuyler!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, Milt Cuyler was pretty bad. The Fielder/Tettleton/Phillips trio was fun, but the pitching was awful.

      Delete

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