Tigers Pitchers, 1955-2008

As noted in last week’s piece, the first half of the century was in many ways the real glory days for the classic Detroit pitcher. They never finished last place in that entire time, even though they never had an inarguably great pitcher. Heck, they never had an especially good pitcher until Tommy Bridges showed up a third of the way through the century. Hal Newhowser was their only great one, but his brilliance was diminished by peaking during the war and ruining his arm immediately afterward.

Still, the franchise retained its seemingly uncanny ability to retain at least one noteworthy pitcher as franchise mainstay for almost the rest of the 20th century, whether it be George Mullin, Hooks Dauss, Earl Whitehill, Tommy Bridges, or Virgil Trucks. The second half of the century saw this trend continue.

1955-1963: Lary and Bunning

After the team’s pitching downturn in 1953-54, a new day dawned when Frank Lary joined the regular rotation in 1955. Though he went only 14-15, his 3.10 ERA better revealed his talent. The next year he won 21 games while leading the league in innings and starts. Behind Lary’s pitching, Detroit, scarcely removed from a 102-loss season, posted an 82-72 mark in 1956, the team’s best in several years.

While never the most brilliant pitcher, Lary proved to be a high quality workhorse. From 1955 to 1961, he sported a 120 ERA+ while tossing 1799.7 innings, over 150 more than any other AL pitcher. If he could have kept that pace up much longer, Lary might have had a chance at Cooperstown.

Alas, it was not to be. After a sparkling 23-9 campaign in 1961 allowed Detroit to tie a franchise record with 101 victories in a season, Lary quickly collapsed. He won only 11 more games in his career, just six of which came for the Tigers.

Though Lary was lost, the team still had an ace in the future senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning. Possibly the most famous pitcher to ever log a considerable number of innings for Detroit, Bunning is one of only two (along with Hal Newhouser) who won election to Cooperstown. Whereas Newhouser never seriously threatened to win election from the BBWAA and had to wait until nearly the end of his life for induction, Bunning once won over 74 percent of the BBWAA vote and was swiftly granted the game’s highest honor by the Veterans Committee.

Bunning emerged in 1957, just a year after Lary’s 21-win campaign, with a 20-win season of his own. (In fact, it proved to be the only 20-win season of Bunning’s career.) He remained a high caliber arm for Detroit until he was traded to Philadelphia after 1963.

Though Bunning is the most widely renowned pitcher the Tigers employed during his prime, he really was not close to their best. Over his entire career, his value arguably trumps all comers (though personally I’m partial to Newhouser), but only half his career came in Detroit.

Bunning threw 1,867.3 innings for the club, 11th most in franchise history. His 115 ERA+ as a Tiger was far below that of Tommy Bridges, let alone Newhouser. Bunning’s value to the Motor City was comparable to Lary’s, actually. Lary is 10th all time in innings pitched; both had a 115 ERA+ for the club. Bunning won 118 games, Lary 123.

However great his career, solely as a Tiger Bunning was another Hall of Very Gooder.

One other pitcher from this period deserves a mention: Billy Hoeft. He was good enough to become a full-time starter at age 21. Two years later, in 1955, he went 16-7 with a 2.99 ERA, sixth best in the league. At age 24, he won 20 games. It was all downhill from there. Like many great young pitchers, he never fulfilled his potential as he devolved into a forgettable and injury-plagued journeyman reliever.

1964-1975: enter the fat man

In keeping with Detroit’s franchise tradition, as they got rid of one ace pitcher, a new one emerged. In 1964, 23-year-old southpaw Mickey Lolich enjoyed his first full season as a starter, and it was an enjoyable season, as he went 18-9.

Over the next dozen years, he became one of the most reliable arms in Tiger history. Alongside George Mullins and Hooks Dauss, Lolich was one of only three men to toss over 3,300 innings for the franchise (none threw 3,400). While those two each had a 102 ERA+ for the Tigers, Lolich had a mark of 105. Yup, that’s typical Tigers for you—all their quantity kings were barely above average in terms of quality.

That is a bit unfair to Lolich, as he had his moments with the team. Most notably, under Billy Martin‘s “care,” Lolich won 25 games with an insane 376 innings pitched in 1971. That was the most by any American League pitcher in over a half-century, helping Lolich come second in the Cy Young Award voting behind wonderkid Vida Blue. The workload apparently didn’t hurt him too much, as he went 22-14 the next year and threw over 300 innings a year each season from 1972 to 1974.

Lolich had a few other interesting points worth mentioning. First, he was unique in pitching off the side of the rubber. Umpire Ron Luciano once noted MLB used that as a reason to get rid of a balk lines project they attempted to enforce in the 1970s.

Lolich also belongs to an incredibly select fraternity: men with more World Series home runs than regular season ones. Though he never went deep in 1,017 pre-October plate appearances, he made a trip around the bases in Game 2 of the 1968 World Series. He also won three games that October, ensuring Detroit would win the world title.

My favorite Mickey Lolich tidbit is an incredibly obscure one though, as he had one of the worst send-offs any player ever received from his long-time team. The Tigers traded him after a disappointing 1975 season in which he led the league in losses with 18. Lolich was not to blame for all those losses though.

Detroit posted some historically dreadful offensive support for him down the stretch. Here are the Tigers’ runs scored totals in Lolich’s last 15 appearances (out of over 500) for the squad: 2, 0, 2, 0, 1, 4, 0, 0, 3, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, and 5. In all, that was 19 runs in 15 games. Throw out the last game, where Detroit belatedly remembered which end of the bat was which, and they averaged barely a run per game—despite playing in one of the best hitter’s parks in a league that averaged 4.30 runs per contest.

Years ago I spent far too much time looking up offensive run support, and that was easily the worst stretch of that length any pitcher ever endured that I came across. Lolich suffered through more shutouts in two months than Dizzy Dean did in his entire MLB career.

While Lolich had the best career in this period, the man with the most raw talent was unquestionably Denny McLain. He won back-to-back Cy Young Award seasons, famously winning 30 games in 1968. Then, rather infamously, he blew his career through a combination of arm troubles and off-field ethical wrongdoings. Despite that, he’s still 13th on the team’s all-time win list.

1976-1978: false messiah

Once Lolich left, it seemed Detroit once again had the uncanny knack to develop another memorable pitcher just as their previous one left. In the bicentennial season, 21-year-old Mark “the Bird” Fidrych took the baseball world by storm. He went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and became a fan sensation. The Tiger rooters so hated to see him leave the game that manager Ralph Houk let him finish 24 of his 29 starts that season.

Though he missed the first quarter of 1977 with an injury, he appeared to be himself once he returned to the mound. In June, he won six straight starts—all complete games—with an amazing ERA of 1.33.

Then the bottom fell out. He soon became ineffective, and by mid-July was shutdown for the season. He tried in each of the next three seasons to return, but he could only amass four victories total. The great hope was now over.

Bill James argued rather persuasively that even without an injury, Fidrych’s career was doomed to disappointment. Young pitchers without many strikeouts virtually never succeed in the long term and Fidrych fanned fewer than 100 men in 1976. He was not built to last.

1979-1990: Jack Morris: the ultimate Tiger pitcher

Unlike Fidrych, Jack Morris could handle hefty workloads without suffering any damage.

To mention Jack Morris is to invite a debate. His supporters believe he’s a deserving Hall of Famer and his critics think his selection would be a bad joke. As many have noted over the year, Morris was the winningest pitcher of the 1980s.

However, in the classic tradition of Tiger twirlers, his strong point was endurance. He struck out his share of batters, but usually he didn’t do much more than that. Then again, he also allowed his share of walks and home runs.

Personally, I think his supporters badly overestimate his total value. Instead of being the winning pitcher, he was frequently the pitcher of record when the offense won games. Detroit had a great core of position players in the 1980s, and Morris was the team’s most durable pitcher.

Still, while I’m not a Morris fan, I’m not entirely comfortable with his detractors either. Morris was not brilliant but by God he was consistent. If he wasn’t going to win too many games, he’d keep the team in them pretty damn often. Durability plus consistency has a value that is tough to quantify.

Also, in his prime, Morris really was quite good. He threw 2,236 innings with an ERA+ of 116 from 1979-87. Among pitchers within 900 innings of that mark, only Dave Stieb had a superior ERA+. Admittedly, Detroit’s team defense helped Morris’ mark, but he was inner circle Hall of Very Good.

Morris had teammates who had their moments, most notably Dan Petry, who put together a terrific stretch in the first half of the 1980s. They all paled in comparison to Morris’ overwhelming Detroitness, though.

Morris was the pinnacle of Detroit’s starting pitcher tradition. Sure Newhouser and others were superior, but that’s why Morris was the perfect Detroit pitcher. He was good, but not too good. Once Detroit acquired Morris, there was nowhere for its historic hurler legacy to go but down.

And that is exactly what happened.

1991-2008: all good streaks must end

Detroit seemingly always had at least one very-good-but-virtually-never-great workhorse for nine straight decades. But since Morris left, they have had trouble landing any.

They had some possible successors in the early 1990s. Bill Gullickson arrived when Morris departed in 1991, looking like the next perfect Detroit pitcher. Despite an ERA of 3.90, scarcely better than league average, Gullickson went 20-9 that year. George Mullin and Hooks Dauss would be proud.

Gullickson possessed the perfect resume for a Detroit hurler. From 1981-91, he was a steady workhorse (well, if you overlook his missing two years with injury) whose ERA+s never strayed far from 100.

That’s the problem: his days as archetypal Detroit hurler were in the past. He was already 32 in his Tiger debut season, and shockingly enough it turns out mediocre pitchers in their early 30s are not good bets to last long. He survived a few years, but then floundered.

The Tigers had another pitcher in 1991, who was in some ways an even better Detroit-er than Gullickson: Frank Tanana. He’d been with the team since 1985, consistently taking his turn on a regular basis, never appeared very good but never being that bad either.

Alas, Tanana was not only older than Gullickson, he was more ancient than Morris. Shortly after Morris left, so did Tanana.

With the veterans departing, a new hope laid waiting in the wings: David Wells. Coming to town in 1993, he could have been the next classic Tiger hurler. Over his career, Wells would prove to be one of the most durable pitchers of his or any other generation—just want Detroit looks for in is starters. Alas, Detroit refuted 90 years of heritage by sending him to Cincinnati for C. J. Nitkowski and a few even less notable players.

Since then, there have been no True Tigers on the mound. They have had workhorses, such as Brian Moehler, but it is an insult to the Earl Whitehills of the world to put Moehler in that not-quite-rarefied air. The team has had highly touted prospects as well, such as Jeff Weaver and Justin Verlander, but that misses the point. Detroit pitchers weren’t normally great.

Most importantly, Detroit pitchers stuck around. Nowadays, none of them do. Since 1990, the most starts anyone has had for the team is 163 by Jeremy Bonderman, but that is only 26th most in franchise history. Obviously free agency plays a role, but from 1976 to 1990, Morris, Petry, Tanana, Milt Wilcox, and Walt Terrell all started 190 games for the team.

Besides, to date, Bonderman’s Detroit ERA+ is 94. Nate Robertson, who has 162 starts, has a 92 ERA+. Mike Maroth, in third place with 143 starts since 1990, posted a 91 ERA+. Tiger twirlers aren’t supposed to be great, but they were at least adequate.

There is still hope. Perhaps Bonderman can regain some of the glow that once made him a highly touted prospect. Not too much glow, but just enough to make Frank Lary proud. Or maybe Justin Verlander will find a happy medium between the potential he showed in 2006-07, and the disappointment that marked his 2008 campaign.

As it is, Detroit has gone almost two decades without one of their traditional mainstays.

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