The Pyramid Rating System’s All-Time Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera might be the best Detroit Tiger of all-time. (via Keith Allison)

Paul Moehringer’s Pyramid Rating System & All-Time Teams

Aug. 27, 2015: The Pyramid Rating System: JAWS on a Career Scale

March 15, 2016: The Pyramid Rating System: The Results

Aug. 12, 2016: All-Time League and Baltimore Orioles

Sept. 2, 2016: Boston Red Sox

Sept. 28, 2016: Texas Rangers

Oct. 19, 2016: Brooklyn Dodgers

Nov. 30, 2016: Cincinnati Reds

Dec. 15, 2016: 2016 Season Update

Dec. 20, 2016: Seattle Mariners

Jan. 25, 2017: Milwaukee Brewers/Braves

Feb. 2, 2017: Cleveland Indians

Mar. 15, 2017: Los Angeles Dodgers

May 15, 2017: Houston Astros

June 30, 2017: Philadelphia Phillies

Aug. 2, 2017: Kansas City Royals

Oct. 24, 2017: Pittsburgh Pirates

Nov. 29, 2017: Montreal Expos

Apr. 4, 2018: 2017 Season Update

July 2, 2018: Arizona Diamondbacks

August 28, 2018: Washington Nationals

The latest installment of the Pyramid System’s All-Time Team series takes us to Detroit and one of the most talent-laden teams this series will feature.

With a history that stretches back to 1901, and with 11 pennants and four World Series titles, the Tigers’ all-time team is stockpiled with perennial All-Stars and surefire Hall of Famers from top to bottom.

Players such as Cecil Fielder and Willie Horton, who would be good enough to challenge for the starting job on some teams, aren’t even on the 40-man squad. Franchise greats like Norm Cash and Lance Parrish will struggle to get playing time; on this team, they are little more than big fish in a deep ocean of history filled with sharks and whales.

Franchises Included:

Detroit Tigers (AL): 1901-Present

Hall of Famers on the 25-man roster: 9

Manager: Jim Leyland

Leyland is the third choice for the Tigers. But with the first option Sparky Anderson already managing in Cincinnati, and second choice Hughie Jennings on the Baltimore Orioles’ 25-man roster, the duties fall to Leyland.

In 2006, Leyland took over a Tigers team that had just suffered its fifth straight 90-plus loss season, and its 12th  consecutive losing season. At 61 years old, and six years out of the game, Leyland wasn’t given much of a chance, but it was under him that the franchise would experience a revitalization and a return to a competitive level not seen since the days of Sparky Anderson.

In just his first season, Leyland guided the team to 95 wins, the most for the franchise since 1987, and the Tigers’ first American League pennant since 1984, the year of the storied 35-5 start. In his eight years with the Tigers, he would lead the team to another American League pennant in 2012, and three straight division titles from 2011 to 2013. Advising Leyland as the bench coach will be the man who guided the 1968 Tigers to their thrilling seven-game World Series title over the Cardinals, Mayo Smith.

Best Overall Player and Hitter: Ty Cobb

On a team loaded with Hall of Famers, most of whom spent virtually their entire careers in Detroit, Cobb’s status as the greatest Detroit Tiger in history remains undisputed, even nearly a century after he  last suited up for the Tigers. The reason should be obvious to anyone who looks at Cobb’s stats. He won 11 batting titles, had an incredible 20 years during which he was in the top 10 in the league in on-base percentage, and had eight seasons in which he led the American League in slugging.

All  this added up to a player who led the American League in OPS 10 times during his career. Only Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams have led the league as often in the category.

Cobb’s hitting prowess alone would be enough to argue that he was one of the best players in the game, but his accomplishments do not stop there. Cobb finished in the top 10 in the American League in stolen bases 15 times, including six years during which he led the league. Regarding defense, while I have no reason to expect Cobb to contend for the Gold Glove, I don’t think he will be a liability either. Cobb had seasons among the league leaders in fielding percentage and with 22 seasons of history to pull from, I don’t know how Cobb could rank as any worse than a below-average fielder.

Even in a league as loaded as this one, Cobb would be the best leadoff hitter any team could feature. I would expect him to be a significant threat to lead the American League in batting, on-base percentage, stolen bases and runs scored just as he did throughout his career. Time will tell if Mike Trout is able to dethrone Cobb for the title of best center fielder in the American League, but for now, I would consider Cobb a near given to start there for the All-Star team, and be an MVP candidate.

In addition to all of this, Cobb will be the table setter, and the backbone of this dominating team.

Best Pitcher: Justin Verlander (Honorable Mention: Hal Newhouser)

The Tigers have never been at a loss for great pitching, but the best in the team’s history, in my opinion, is the best pitcher the American League has seen since Pedro Martínez: Justin Verlander.

Verlander’s rise coincides with the Tigers return to prominence: he went 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA in his Rookie of the Year season in 2006. Verlander would not experience any signs of a sophomore slump, posting nearly identical numbers in 2007, 18-6 with a 3.66 ERA and a 3.99 FIP in his his first of eight consecutive 200+ inning seasons.

After a step-back year in 2008, which saw Verlander lead the American League in losses and post an ERA and FIP in the fours, peak Verlander would begin to emerge, with a 19-9 record en route to a third-place Cy Young voting finish in 2009.

From 2009 through 2013, no pitcher in the majors produced more WAR, threw more innings or had more strikeouts. In all five seasons, Verlander finished in the top 10 in FIP and was an All-Star. I think Verlander’s most recent comeback, in Houston, has all but solidified his eventual place in Cooperstown. In a league such as this one, Verlander is worthy of a No. 1 starter role.

Nearly equal to Verlander is the man who previously held the distinction of greatest starter in Tigers history, Hal Newhouser. He was the backbone of the Tigers’ 1944 club, going an incredible 29-9 in 312 innings and winning the first of two straight MVP awards.

In 1945, Newhouser was even better, leading the American League with a microscopic 1.81 ERA, as well as leading the league in innings pitched, strikeouts and FIP for the World Series champions. His dominance continued in the first post-war year, 1946, when he went 26-9 with a 1.94 ERA and pitched almost 300 innings. Unfortunately, the toll of pitching so many innings each year would soon catch up to him. By the age of 30, he was finished as a top pitcher, though he wouldn’t retire for five more seasons. In his 20s, though, Newhouser had already supplanted Bob Feller as the preeminent pitcher in the American League.

Combined, Verlander and Newhouser should make for as fearsome as a 1-2 combo as there will be in either league.

Best Player Not on the Roster Due to the One-Team-Only Rule: Chet Lemon/Nobody

Lemon would have been good enough to make the 40-man squad for the Tigers. But with Ty Cobb firmly entrenched in center field, and two other Hall of Famers patrolling the corners, Lemon’s presence would be wasted on this team.

The Tigers have always been a team that valued homegrown talent, and because of this approach, they don’t miss out on any significant player in team history, enabling Detroit to carry the full weight of their 100-plus year history in a way that few teams can.

Tigers Coaching Staff
Position Coach
Manager Jim Leyland
Bench Coach Mayo Smith
First Base Coach Gee Walker
Third Base Coach Davy Jones
Hitting Coach Johnny Bassler
Pitching Coach Billy Muffett
Bullpen Coach Chief Hogsett
Starting Lineups
DH vs. RHP DH vs. LHP
Pos B T Name Pos B T Name
CF L R Ty Cobb CF L R Ty Cobb
1B R R Hank Greenberg 3B R R Miguel Cabrera
LF L L Sam Crawford C R R Bill Freehan
DH R R Harry Heilmann DH R R Harry Heilmann
3B R R Miguel Cabrera RF R R Al Kaline
SS R R Alan Trammell SS R R Alan Trammell
2B L R Charlie Gehringer LF L L Sam Crawford
RF R R Al Kaline 1B R R Hank Greenberg
C R R Bill Freehan 2B L R Charlie Gehringer
vs RHP vs LHP
Pos B T Name Pos B T Name
CF L R Ty Cobb CF L R Ty Cobb
1B R R Hank Greenberg 3B R R Miguel Cabrera
2B L R Charlie Gehringer  C R R Bill Freehan
LF R R Harry Heilmann LF R R Harry Heilmann
3B R R Miguel Cabrera RF R R Al Kaline
SS R R Alan Trammell SS R R Alan Trammell
C L R Bill Freehan 2B L R Charlie Gehringer
RF R R Al Kaline 1B R R Hank Greenberg
P R R Justin Verlander  P R R Justin Verlander

 

Expanded Roster
Pos B T Name
C R R Lance Parrish
1B L L Norm Cash
MI L R Dick McAuliffe
3B/SS R R Travis Fryman
SS S R Billy Rogell
OF L L Kirk Gibson
OF R R Austin Jackson
OF L R Bobby Veach
SP R R Schoolboy Rowe
SP R R Denny McLain
SP R R Frank Lary
SP R R Virgil Trucks
RP R L Hank Aguirre
RP L R Doug Brocail
RP R R Hal White

Strengths

Top to bottom this is as strong and as fearsome as any all-time team featured in this series.

For most every team, I’ve made a point of identifying the platoons I would use to maximize offense. With the Tigers, there is no need to do any of this. Every player in Detroit’s starting nine is either a multi-time All-Star or a surefire Hall of Famer. With that in mind, there is just no way to screw up this lineup. You could pick the batting order out of a hat and regardless of what you drew, it would still rank among the best in the American League.

With three lefties and six righties in the lineup, the Tigers are well-balanced against both left- and right-handed pitching and should be mostly immune from any situational matchup. Even Walter Johnson will have a hard time solving this lineup.

I would expect Cobb to be the best leadoff hitter in either league, and it doesn’t get much easier from there. Every hitter finished in the top 10 in the league in home runs and batting average at some point during his career, and all played at least 10 years with Detroit, meaning the Tigers get almost full credit for their career totals.

With regards to pitching, the Tigers are almost the AL’s equivalent of the Los Angeles Dodgers with the balance they have in starters and relievers. Lolich, Trout and Morris were all workhorses during their careers, but with the bullpen, there will be no need for any of them to go much longer than six innings in any outing. Closing things out for Detroit is maybe the most underrated relief pitcher in baseball history, John Hiller.  He was a key contributor to the 1968 squad, but it wouldn’t be until 1972, coming back after  a heart attack that cost him the entire 1971 season, that Hiller’s greatness would begin.

That season, Hiller posted a 2.03 ERA in 44.1 innings after joining the team in July, helping the Tigers to a division title. The following season would be Hiller’s best, as he went 10-5 with 38 saves in 125.1 innings. His ERA on the season was a microscopic 1.44. Hiller had the rare distinction that year of placing equally well in the MVP voting as he did in the Cy Young voting, coming in fourth. He also won the American League’s Fireman of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year awards.

Although Hiller would never equal his 1973 season, he was still about as dominant a reliever as there was in the game, posting a 2.45 ERA in 341.2 innings between 1974 and 1976. His 125 save total may not seem like much compared to counterparts such as Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle, but  Hiller is very much in this class of relief pitcher, which is why he is the closer for the all-time Tigers.

The fact that a former MVP winner Willie Hernández is being used as a lefty specialist should give some indication of just how deep and formidable this bullpen is. Even the middle relief doesn’t offer much of a reprieve, with former closers Mike Henneman and Aurelio Lopez handling the bridge roles. All this adds up to a pitching staff that will challenge for the American League’s ERA title.

Weaknesses

There are a few defensive weaknesses, such as Miguel Cabrera at third and Sam Crawford in left field, but these are nitpicky issues on a near bulletproof team. Some may suggest picking Crawford in the DH spot, but this is where I’m hoping the man who’s arguably the second-best hitter in Tigers history will shine.

Heilmann is probably in the top five best hitters most fans have never heard of; the numbers are staggering. From 1921-1927, Heilmann finished no lower than third in the American League in OPS. Nicknamed “Slug” for his lack of speed, Heilmann was one of the worst defensive outfielders during the 1920s. But with the DH, the four-time batting champion can now focus entirely on mashing, as would likely have been the case had the DH been around in the 1920s. Short of Babe Ruth, you will not find a more fearsome American League hitter from the 1920s than Heilmann. Except for Ted Williams of the Red Sox, you likely won’t see a better full-time DH in this league.

The bench is not particularly strong, but with a “set it and forget it” starting nine, I don’t see the point in adding someone like Kirk Gibson to the 25-man roster when there’s no reason to start him barring an injury. This rationale also explains the inclusion of Tony Phillips, who would be a backup at multiple defensive positions. With Phillips’ ability to play both left and third, he should have plenty of opportunities to come in as a defensive replacement and a pinch runner.

Conclusions

Along with the Red Sox, I think the Tigers present the best challenge to the Yankees for supremacy in the American League. There is no easy way to attack this team, nor is there much a pitching staff could do other than slow down the offensive onslaught. With a deep rotation and bullpen to boot, the Tigers can win a slugfest just as easily as they could come out ahead in a 2-1 pitcher’s duel.

It would be fun to watch this lineup go up against the deep pitching staffs of Chicago and Cleveland. I expect those three teams to battle for the division title all the way to the final day of the regular season.

The Tigers rank as one of the top five teams this series will feature. There are no weaknesses to be found on this club and barring an injury bug, they look to be be a 90-plus win team, even in a league as deep and talented as this one. Whether they could win a World Series in this league will forever remain a mystery, but this is a dream team that any baseball fan would be interested in seeing live.


Paul Moehringer is a data analyst, a SABR member and inventor of the Pyramid Rating System; originally from Mount Olive, NJ, now living in Westwood, MA. Follow him on Twitter @PMoehringer.
newest oldest most voted
Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Great article! Reading this was like tearing into a 32 oz medium rare prime rib. The depth and breadth of the roster is so good that many of these players make other famous (or infamous rosters) as well:
1. Mickey Lolich – all time family team (Ron Lolich)
2. Hank Greenberg – all time Jewish team
3. Norm Cash – all time “pay as you go” team
4. Denny McLain – all time ex con team
5. Again, McLain and Lolich – all time overweight team
6. And finally, Dick McAuliffe – all time odd batting stance team.

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

you missed Gates Brown and Ron Leflore on the all time ex-convict team

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

au contraire! i only included players from Paul’s list. Otherwise, each category could have merited its own article.

PC1970
Member
PC1970

starting pitcher? Denny McClain!

CoachLindsay
Member
CoachLindsay

Austin Jackson? Huh?

PC1970
Member
PC1970

Yeah, Chet Lemon on the 40 man would be a much better choice than A-Jax. If he is on the White Sox, than I think Curtis Granderson or even Ron LeFlore would be a better choice than Austin Jackson.

bobr
Member
Member
bobr

Would you consider replacing Donie Bush with Travis Fryman? Then, at least vs. lefties, you could put Cabrera at 1B, Greenberg in LF and Fryman at 3B. I think it would improve the defense at 3B and at least retain similarly lesser defenders in LF and 1B, overall a defensive upgrade if not a very dramatic one. Given the powerful lineup, I don’t think it hurts that much vs. Lefties to play Fryman over Crawford. It leaves plenty of firepower in the lineup and strengthens the bench if you want a late inning pinch hitter from the left side. An… Read more »

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

Miguel Cabrera at third is going to be a defensive adventure. I am not saying it is inappropriate – third base is not exactly a strength historically for Detroit – but let’s hope Trammell is at the top of his game and there are not a lot of bunts. Related, where does George Kell fall into all of this? His Hall of Fame induction is dubious, but he was a good player with a good defensive reputation. Cabrera is the sort of player begging for a defensive replacement platoon. Tony Phillips played almost 300 games at shortstop, albeit mostly early… Read more »

PC1970
Member
PC1970

Bush had much more substantial career with Detroit, though (1871 games vs 826 for Kell) & can also play shortstop. Tony Phillips is more useful than Kell for his versatility (& for averaging 5 WAR a year during his 5 years in Detroit).

I’ll guess it’s between Fryman & Kell for the last spot..& again Fryman can play SS & had a longer career in Detroit (at least as a player..Maybe we can get Kell in the broadcasting booth with Ernie Harwell?)

KalineCountry
Member
KalineCountry

Paul as a lifelong Tigers fan (since 1954), I want to thankyou for this great time taking task of The Detroit Tigers Pyramid Rating System. What a labor of love. I see many old time Tigers who have been long forgotten until this incredible work you have given us. The under rated great Bobby Veach, who I was told years ago was a terrific defensive LF’er, and part of two of the all-time great Outfields in ML history; with Cobb and Crawford, and Cobb and Heilman. Another name from the past, maybe the original ‘Walking Man’ before Eddie Yost, Johnny… Read more »

Colin
Member
Member
Colin

Since you’re done more than one of these, you might think about putting links to the others. It’d be fun to be able to jump around and compare.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
Member
Member
GoNYGoNYGoGo

Nice article in this great series Paul. Sorry to see one of my childhood favorites Ron LeFlore couldn’t make it, even for pinch running purposes. Very understandable however, just sad.

Silver King
Member
Member
Silver King

Thanks, this is a really interesting approach to considering being ‘peaky’, and being present, in a baseball career. Some of the math is beyond me. I like the assumption of ‘value in a season is value in a season’, rather than downgrading long-ago seasons’ accomplishments. I enjoy discussion of comparing performances throughout history. And it feels right to me that there’s a lot of value toward pennants (toward good seasons in general for the team) in peaky performances. (I guess there have been other approaches to this too? I sorta recall something called ‘pennants added’, for example.) A couple of… Read more »