If you wanted to win a bet with a friend and the two of you were at a Tigers game in the early 1990s, you could have suggested this wager:
“I bet you in his first at-bat, Rob Deer will either walk, strike out, or hit a home run.”
Your odds of winning would have been close to 50/50. In his career, Deer was one of the ultimate all or nothing players in baseball history. Nearly half the time, he either launched a ball over the outfield wall or failed to put the ball in play, either by walking, or more likely, by whiffing.
In fact, in all of baseball history, at the time of his retirement, no other player had struck out as frequently as Deer. He fanned once every 2.75 at-bats, a figure topped by three players since, among batters with at least 2,000 career AB’s.
Baseball statheads call it the “Three True Outcomes” – the home run, K, or walk. In his career, which started in 1984, Deer did one of those three things 49.7% of the time. In all, he hit 230 home runs, 71 in 2 1/2 seasons with the Detroit Tigers.
Deer was drafted by the San Francisco Giants, but it was with Milwaukee that he became a dangerous slugger. The outfielder hit 33 homers for the Brewers in 1986, a total that was impressive enough to make his team overlook the fact that the next year he set an American League record with 186 strikeouts. Deer never ever shortened his swing. He was like the beer bellied slugger on the company softball team – he was at the plate for one thing – to send the ball deep. He would either succeed utterly or fail utterly.
The Tigers signed him as a free agent in November of 1990, adding the right-handed slugger to a lineup that already featured Cecil Fielder, he of 51 homers and prodigious strikeouts of his own. Joining Deer on the 1991 Tigers were fellow newcomers Mickey Tettleton and Pete Incaviglia, two more sluggers who specialized in homers and whiffs. That spring, Sports Illustrated sent a crew to Lakeland to do a story and take photos of the modern Motown “Murderers’ Row” lineup. It was anticipated that the Tigers might set records in both home run and strikeouts.
The Tigers ended up hitting 209 homers, which was 32 more than any other team hit. They also struck out an amazing 1,185 times, an average of more than seven times per game. Many of those came from Deer, who whiffed 175 times. But Deer also set a major league record by hitting .179 – the lowest batting average in history by a batter who qualified for the batting title. This dubious achievement was surpassed in 2011 by Adam Dunn of the White Sox, who hit a paltry .159. Dunn is sort of the modern day Rob Deer.
In 1992, Deer had a better season, in fact he had the best season of his career. He clubbed 32 homers with a career high slugging percentage and batting average (a modestly respectable .247). He even cut his K’s to 131, which practically made him seem like a contact hitter. The Tigers again led the league in homers, strikeouts, and runs scored. But their reliance on the all-or-nothing approach failed to translate into wins, and the club won just 75 games.
The following season, the Tigers traded Deer to Boston. It was his last season in the big leagues, he was done at the age of 32. He surely could have hit more home runs, but who knows how frequently he would have struck out or how low his batting average would have plummeted? He was like an aging heavyweight fighter – he still had some sock in that right uppercut, but he couldn’t get out of the way of the jabs from his opponent.
For a brief time, about 2 1/2 seasons, Deer was part of an exciting Detroit offensive unit that hit a ton of homers, walked a lot, and struck out even more. The team didn’t win a lot, but they were a sight to see.