Tiger Pitchers, 1901-1954by Chris Jaffe
February 09, 2009
Some teams in baseball have been blessed with a multitude of splendid pitchers. Take the Braves, for instance. They spent the 1990s with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz as a terrific trio. Before that, Phil Niekro anchored their rotation for the better part of 20 years. Niekro's first year with the team was the final season Warren Spahn spent with them. Going further back, the Braves also had Kid Nichols and John Clarkson, for a half-dozen 300-game winners. Not bad.
At the other extreme are the Tigers. That club, in its 100+ years of existence, has virtually never had a truly first-rate, all-time starting pitcher. Even its best arms had some sort of qualifier. The best pitcher in franchise history might only quality as the sixth- or seventh-best for the Braves, for instance.
No pitcher has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA for his work with the Tigers, and only a pair with notable experience in Motown were selected by the VC. One of that pair wears another team's cap on his plaque while the other didn't get in until he'd been retired for nearly 40 years.
Well, really, it's not fair to say Detroit is "at the other extreme" from the Braves, because some squads (darts a quick glance at the Pittsburgh Pirates) have possessed fewer truly first-rate pitchers. But the Tigers have achieved something genuinely special though. They combined a couple features that rarely go together.
First, the team's overall quality remained quite good despite lacking a clear immortal. In fact, in an answer to one of my favorite trivia questions of all time, Detroit was the only pre-expansion to never finish last in the first half of the 20th century. They only came in next-to-last five times in 50 seasons. Prior to the hiring of Buddy Bell as manager, their only consecutive sub-.450 seasons came in 1952-54 and 1974-75 (and they were over .440 in 1954 and 1974).
Second, while Detroit rarely ever had an obvious Hall of Famer, the team featured an abundance of Hall of Very Good arms. They were like a student with a report card full of Bs but nary an A. Though they lacked a clear franchise ace, they have an inordinate number of quality workhorses.
Finally, Detroit not only had numerous B pitchers over the course of the franchise's existence, but the team had the uncanny ability to place at least one in the starting rotation almost every year for 90 straight seasons. Even teams with great pitching traditions have trouble matching that. What is more: these B pitchers weren't just earning their quality reputation virtually every season with the franchise.
In honor of Detroit's majestic achievement, a look back at the history of the team's most important arms:
1902-1912: the Mullin-Donovan years
In 1901, Detroit had no quality starting pitchers who amassed impressive career totals. Few of the team's rooters would be alive when that next happened to the franchise.
In 1902, George Mullin joined the team, and he proved to be one of the great workhorses in his 11 full seasons with Detroit. He threw 300 innings in a season six times from 1902 to 1912, more than any other American League pitcher in that span. He tossed over 3,300 innings; among other pitchers, only Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, and Cy Young topped 2,900 IP at that time. Mullin became the only pitcher in AL history to win and lose 20 games in a season on two occasions.
Unfortunately, Mullin was not as good as he was durable. Though not a bad pitcher, he was usually only a bit above average, ending his career with an ERA+ of 101. Well, that underrates him for two reasons: 1) ERA+ doesn't adjust for defense, and Detroit had the worst defense of any quality franchise in the deadball era, and 2) incredibly, his OPS+ was nearly as good: 100.
In 1903, the Tigers added Wild Bill Donovan, who remained a generally dependable pitcher for the team through 1911. He once went six consecutive seasons with either 15 or 16 losses.
He broke that stretch in spectacular fashion in 1907, achieving a gaudy 25-4 winning record for Detroit. However, that record overstates his value. Even though the league scored 3.66 runs per game, the Tigers averaged over six in Donovan's starts. Adjusted for league and park factor, his run support was 60 percent above average, one of the greatest totals in baseball history. (That support was even more impressive when you realize that Donovan never benefited from having George Mullin's bat in the lineup when he pitched.)
Detroit had one interesting flameout in those years: hurler Ed Sumners, who went 24-12 with an ERA of 1.64 at age 23 in 1908. Though he soon faded out (arm injury, I assume), that season overstated his value. Over half the runs he allowed were unearned, the next-to-last time anyone who qualified for an ERA title could make that claim. (The last time, if you're curious, was Smokey Joe Wood in 1910.) Typically, even when a Tiger pitcher appeared great, there was less than meets the eye.
1913-1923: the Hooks Dauss era
In early 1913, Detroit sent Mullin to Washington. They could afford to spare him because Hooks Dauss was enjoying his first full year in the rotation.
Dauss was a poor man's Mullin. Though he never pitched the huge innings of Mullin, he was dependable enough to start at least 25 games and notch 210 or more innings a year for 11 straight seasons, 1913-23. In that span, he tossed nearly 2,900 innings. Only Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander and Wilbur Cooper threw more than 2,415 in that spell.
Like Mullin, Dauss used quantity to make up for what he lacked in quality, as his career ERA+ of 102 was far south of what one would want for an ace. Though he wasn't quite the hitter Mullin was, Dauss posted a quite good OPS+ of 54.
Random Hooks Dauss fact: in 1920, he allowed 51 unearned runs, the most by any pitcher since 1914.
Detroit had some other memorable arms in these years. Harry Coveleski posted three straight 20-win seasons for them for from 1914 to 1916. Unfortunately for him, he won fewer than 20 games in the rest of his career. He made a name for himself in 1908, though, by repeatedly beating the Giants down the stretch, forcing a replay of the Merkle game.
They also had Howard Ehmke. Though he only went 75-77 for Detroit, he was one of the great cult baseball players of all time.
With the Red Sox he came achingly close to tossing consecutive no-hitters. After pitching a no-no on September 7, 1923, he threw a one-hitter in his next start—and many attending the game thought it should've been ruled an error. From 1923 to 1924 he went 39-34 for a team that otherwise went 89-144 (.382). At the end of his career, he set a World Series record by striking out 13 Cubs in Game 1 of the 1929 Fall Classic.
Ehmke wasn't worth much for Detroit, but he was still worth a mention.
1924-1932: the Earl Whitehill experience
In 1924, Dauss went down with injury (likely brought on by setting career records with 50 games, 39 starts, and 316 innings the 1923). Dauss recovered with a respectable 1925, but the torch had already been passed, as Detroit had yet another workhorse emerge in the rotation: Earl Whitehill.
Whitehill was a classic Detroit pitcher. Durability was his main strength. In nine years as a Tiger starting pitcher, he threw over 200 innings eight times (and lodged 196 innings the other time). Only five men topped 2,100 IP in 1924-32 (none of whom topped 2,200): Earl Whitehill and a quartet of immortals—Ted Lyons, Burleigh Grimes, Dazzy Vance and Lefty Grove.
Despite that, he never won 20 games in a season as a Tiger (in fact, he never won 18 for them), and only once did he have an ERA+ over 113. Given that Detroit constantly finished in the middle of the pack, Whitehill was an appropriate ace for the franchise in these years.
1933-1939: the Tommy Bridges heyday
Even as Whitehill's tenure began winding down, a new pitcher rose up in the Motor City. Unlike the previous main guns, this one was more than just a quantity king: he was the first really talented pitcher to spend a considerable chunk of time in Detroit: Tennessee native Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges.
He emerged as a promising 25-year-old pitcher in 1932, going 14-12 with a 3.36 ERA (meanwhile teammate Whitehill went 16-12 with a 4.54 ERA). His starring turn made Whitehill expendable, and the Tigers traded the vet to Washington (where he promptly had a career year, helping the Senators claim their final pennant).
Bridges stuck around, and Detroit would be the only team he ever pitched for. He posted three consecutive 20-win seasons in the mid-1930s, helping guide Detroit to its first pennant in a quarter-century in 1934 and its first-ever world championship the next year. He twirled a pair of complete game victories in the latter contest, doing his part to bring glory to Detroit.
Shortly afterward, he began to falter, but he remained team ace until the early 1940s, when a new day dawned for Detroit's starters.
Detroit's second-best pitcher in these years was Schoolboy Rowe. He was one of many who might have had a terrific career if his arm had been a little stronger. He went 62-31 from 1934 to 1936, but then he blew his arm out, winning exactly one contest from 1937 to 1938.
1940-1952: the rise and fall of the golden era
On September 29, 1939, something unprecedented happened: a truly great pitcher took the hill for the Detroit Tigers. His name was Hal Newhouser. A local kid only 18 years old, Newhouser was destined to become the greatest pitcher in Tiger history.
There is a tremendous amount I could say about Newhouser (a column specifically focusing on him is on my to-do list for this site), but for now let's stick with the basics. He combined Tommy Bridges quality (amplified it, actually) with George Mullin's durability.
With this combination, he won 80 games in three years, which I believe is the most by any AL pitcher since Walter Johnson. More importantly, in one of my favorite factoids of all time, Newhouser won more games before his 30th birthday than any live ball pitcher, as the chart below (which lists all those who won 150 games by then by post-1920 arms) demonstrates:
Name Wins Hal Newhouser 188 Catfish Hunter 184 Robin Roberts 179 Bob Feller 177 Wes Ferrell 175 Don Drysdale 170 Waite Hoyt 161 Mel Harder 159 Dwight Gooden 157 Bert Blyleven 156 Lefty Gomez 153 Milt Pappas 152 Jim Palmer 152 Ken Holtzman 151 Greg Maddux 151 Vida Blue 150
The chart also demonstrates the central problem for Newhouser: all those innings hurt the long-term prospects of a pitcher. Only one name on that list ever won 300, and many—including Newhouser—collapsed in their early 30s.
Naturally, as a Detroit pitcher, his overall quality has been minimized by historical circumstances. First, his peak mostly came during World War II, tainting his accomplishments. Second, his arm fell off shortly after the war ended. People wondered if he was so good, how come he had trouble replicating his age-23 performance once the real players came back. Still, 1946 demonstrates that he was more than some one-term fluke.
Furthermore, the golden era of Detroit pitching was more than Newhouser. During the war, Newhouser's main pitching partner was Dizzy Trout. In 1944, they combined for 56 wins in 74 starts and 22 relief appearances totaling over 660 innings. Though both faltered after the war, each remained a starting pitcher for the squad into the early 1950s.
Finally, during the war the club debuted Alabama native Virgil Trucks, who went 30-18 in two seasons before the draft board came a-calling for him. For a brief while, Detroit's pitching staff contained Trout, Trucks, and Bridges, which sounds less like a pitching staff and more like a country music song. If Newhouser's last name was "Beer" their rotation would've sounded like every country song.
Upon Trucks' return from the war, he remained a solid pitcher for them until the early 1950s. In 1952, he had one of the strangest seasons of all time, posting a 5-19 win-loss record despite tossing two no-hitters. The club carelessly traded him away after that year, ending the golden age of Detroit's pitching.
In 1952, Detroit finally finished in last place, posting a 52-102 record. They traded Dizzy Trout in midseason that year in a futile effort to improve their squad. After rashly dumping Trucks in the offseason, Newhouser was their only remaining great pitcher. However, Newhouser was only capable of tossing 21.7 innings (with a 7.06 ERA) in 1953, which proved to be his final season with Detroit.
In 1954, Frank Lary debuted for Detroit, but he threw fewer than four innings. As a result, the 1953-54 period marked the first time since the 1901 inaugural season in which the Tigers failed to field one of their franchise stalwarts in the regular rotation.
Their best pitcher was Ned Garver, who had an impressive claim to fame for himself: in 1951 he won 20 games for the last-place 52-102 St. Louis Browns. However, Garver spent only three seasons as a regular starter for Detroit; he was notably good in only one of them. He was frankly a more talented pitcher than Mullin or Dauss, though he would never win as many games as they did. (Thanks to some dreadful offensive support, Garver ended his career with a 129-157 record despite a 112 ERA+.)
It's a testament to the overall strength of Detroit's best pitchers that Garver had the least impressive career counting stats for their aces in a half century. It would be nearly a quarter century before Detroit had one less impressive.
That covers roughly the first half of their existence. The next column will handle the rest.
References and Resources
The factoids about Smokey Joe Wood and Ed Sumners came from a Play Index search at baseball-reference.com.
The list of lively ball era 150-game winners can be found at Hal Newhouser's bullpen page on b-ref, but I feel a bit awkward referencing that, since I'm the one who added that there.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.