The Five Greatest Starting Pitchers in Detroit Tigers History

Justin Verlander, Mickey Lolich, Tommy Bridges, Jack Morris, and Hal Newhouser.

Justin Verlander, Mickey Lolich, Tommy Bridges, Jack Morris, and Hal Newhouser.

The Tigers have been well known for their great hitters (no other team has won more batting titles). As a consequence, the great pitchers in franchise history have been somewhat overshadowed. Detroit has never had a 300-game winner, but they have had several MVPs on the mound, more in fact than any other franchise. Five Detroit pitchers have been named Most Valuable Player and six have won Cy Young awards.

I only chose a five-man rotation here and no account was made for left or right-handedness. The best five were chosen. A few who missed out but are worth mentioning: George Mullin, Hooks Dauss, Wild Bill Donovan, Earl Whitehill, Dizzy Trout, Virgil Trucks, Jim Bunning, Denny McLain, Frank Tanana, and Max Scherzer. All were very good but just missed making this star-studded rotation of Bengal hurlers.

#5. Tommy Bridges (1930-1943, 1945-1946)

Bridges was short and unassuming on the mound but he had an intense competitive fire when he took the ball. He won 20 games three times for the Tigers in the 1930s and is one of only two players to play in four World Series for the team (Hank Greenberg is the other). Tommy won 194 games in a Detroit uniform and anchored the rotation for the Tigers in 1934 and 1935 when they captured back-to-back pennants and their first World Series title. Bridges was famous for almost throwing no-hitters – he took a no-no into the ninth inning on several occasions.

#4. Justin Verlander (2005-present)

Under contract for at least five more years as a Tiger, the fastball-throwing righty has an excellent chance to claim the all-time record for wins in franchise history, held by Hooks Dauss with 223. Verlander is only 71 away and would need to average 14-15 wins per year to get it. Verlander already has two no-hitters, and ranks in the top three in strikeouts by a Tiger pitcher, trailing only Mickey Lolich and Jack Morris as he entered 2015. He’s the only Tiger to have pitched at least 1,200 innings and average as many as eight K’s per nine innings pitched. If he keeps progressing and he stays a Tiger, he could be #1 on this list someday.

#3. Mickey Lolich (1963-1975)

Though he’ll forever be remembered as the pitcher who started and won three games in the 1968 World Series (and deservedly so), Mickey Lolich was no one-trick pony. The hard-throwing lefty struck out 2,679 batters as a member of the Tigers, by far the most in franchise history. In fact, no other southpaw has ever struck out more batters in American league history. Lolich was a workhorse, completing more than 40% of his starts. He logged 300 or more innings in four consecutive seasons, including an incredible 376 in 1971 when he won 25 games and struck out 308 batters. The Tigers should do the right thing and retire Lolich’s #29 while he’s still very much alive to enjoy the ceremony. He won 207 games as a Tiger, third all-time.

#2. Hal Newhouser (1939-1953)

Allow me to take a moment to explain why neither of the pitchers who rank first and second all-time in wins for the Tigers made this list. Both Hooks Dauss and George Mullin pitched for the Tigers more than 100 years ago, when starters got 45+ starts a season. As a result they often won 20 games a season, on their way to 223 and 209 wins respectively. But though they were very good pitchers, neither of them match the five listed here for quality. Dauss and Mullin were good pitchers on very good Tiger teams in an era when it was easier to rack up victories. And as we have learned in the last few decades, wins are not a very good way to measure the value of a starting pitcher. Quality starts, ERA adjusted to their era, and baserunners allowed are better measures.

Now, a few words about Hal Newhouser. He was a great pitcher, one of the best of the 1940s, right up there with Bob Feller, whom he frequently battled head-to-head with much success. Newhouser won two MVP Awards, and then finished second for the award in a three-year stretch that was as good as any three years any pitcher has ever had. He went 80-27 over those three seasons (1944-1946) with a 1.99 ERA. He was the best player on the 1945 World Series winning team, and he was deservedly elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. The lefty known as “Prince Hal” won an even 200 games as a Tiger.

#1. Jack Morris (1977-1990)

Our dream five-man rotation has a real ace at the top. Morris was a fiery competitor, winning 254 games, 198 of them for Detroit. He won more games, started more games, pitched more innings, struck out more batters, and completed more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s. He was the #1 starter on three World Series winning teams, including the ’84 Tigers. He was at his best in the Fall Classic, winning four games and posting a 2.96 ERA with three complete games in seven starts. Hall of Fame voters have made a serious mistake by not electing him but he will get a second chance on the veterans ballot in years to come.

8 replies on “The Five Greatest Starting Pitchers in Detroit Tigers History

  • George Mullin Appreciation Society

    I’m amused–and amazed–whenever one of these “All-Time Greatest” lists include The Next Big Thing (in this case Justin Verlander) at the expense of a proven performer like George Mullin, whose only sin seems to be that he was one of the game’s most consistently successful pitchers in an era bereft of TV cameras and ESPN-style hype. Hey, Verlander may very well turn out to be one of the greatest hurlers of all-time—or he may flame out like a few other young studs from the Tigers’ past: Eddie Summers, Schoolboy Rowe, Denny McLain, to name just a few. Only time will tell. I wish him luck.

    For the hell of it, let’s compare Mullin (so casually dismissed here, as is the team’s all-time wins leader, Hooks Dauss) with Verlander. Verlander has 94 wins with a 3.64 ERA; Mullin’s record was 209-179 with a 2.76 ERA. Mullin remains the team’s career leader in complete games (an astonishing 336; Verlander has 14 CG in 183 starts) and innings pitched. As far as being a well-rounded ballplayer, there’s no comparison. Mullin came out of the bullpen between starts; Verlander has never pitched a game in relief. Mullin batted .261 as a Tiger, knocking in 116 runs, stealing 17 bases, and regularly being used as a pinch-hitter. He even played 11 games in the outfield. Verlander, in his limited opportunities at the plate, has gone hitless in 20 career at-bats. For all I know, Mullin swept out the clubhouse after games, mowed the lawn at Bennett Park, and painted Wahoo Sam Crawford’s kitchen between starts. The guy could do it all. He was definitely worth every penny of the $1,200 the Tigers paid him in 1904.

    Mullin performed marvelously in the limelight. For a decade he started practically every opening day in Detroit, compiling a 5-3 record while completing every start (including four extra-inning affairs). An argument made here and elsewhere is that Mullin and other pitchers from baseball’s Cro-Magnon Age got more chances to slay dinosaurs than today’s pampered stars. But it’s what you DO with those chances that count. In an era of workhorses, Mullin was one of the workingest (or horsiest…you decide). For the better part of a decade he regularly finished among the top five pitchers in games, innings, complete games, decisions, etc.

    In World Series play, Verlander has been a bust. He lost both starts in the 2006 Series vs. St. Louis and racked up a 5.73 ERA. The Tigers won a collective total of just four games in the 1907-08-09 World Series—an abysmal performance—but steady, dependable Mullin won three of them. Overall, Mullin was 3-3 with a 1.86 in Series play. He finished all six of his starts.

    As far as no-hitters—OK, Verlander has two. But, hey, so did Virgil Trucks, and you notice he’s not anywhere in this conversation. Anyway, Mullin did toss one no-hitter, and he did it in typical style, hurling it at Navin Field on July 4, 1912—his 32nd birthday and our country’s 136th. Anyway, who really cares about no-nos? To win is the thing, whether it’s a 12-hit, 6-walk performance or a perfect game. You don’t get any extra credit in the standings for pitching a no-hitter. (For what it’s worth, Mullin also recorded at least one one-hitter during his career.)

    Versatile, blessed with a rubber arm and a heart made of oak—that was George Mullin. And the very first game at Tiger Stadium (then known as Navin Field)? Yep, Mullin started and went the distance, knocking in the winning run himself in the bottom of the 11th inning.

    Despite my fondness for ol’ George, I agree with the choice of Morris as the top Tigers pitcher. He was the top money pitcher of his era, the guy you gave the ball to in the big game. But Newhouser at #2 is a joke. Aside from the three seasons (1944-46) he pitched during the World War II era, when he was competing against 4F’s and minor leaguers and the baseballs being used were about as lively as a bucket of bricks, Newhouser was a mediocre pitcher, winning just one more game than he lost over the course of a dozen other Tiger seasons. It’s telling that few, if any, of Newhouser’s contemporaries ever spoke of him as a future Hall of Famer. That’s because the term back then still meant something, I guess. It took some heavy-duty politicking for the Veterans Committee to finally get him into Cooperstown, a mistake that ranks with the selections of Chick Hafey, Jesse Haines, and Rick Ferrell (and a few others I can’t remember off hand) as one of the worst HOF choices ever.

    But, hey, this is America, not Iran or Syria. Everybody has an opinion and is free to offer it, whether it’s on something as meaningless as sports or as important as the national debt. (I believe George Mullin was a Bull Moose kind of guy.) So, happy Independence Day! Too bad baseball no longer celebrates such holidays with a doubleheader. I’m sure George would’ve pitched both ends.

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  • Steve Thomas

    I agree with you, George Mullin Appreciation Society. And I’d like to add one more thing: I predict that Justin Verlander will peter out long before any serious numbers are compiled — not because he lacks talent — but because by the time he is approaching something meaningful, the $200 million+ he has been paid by that time will create a perverse incentive for him to slow down rather than bear the pain and agony such numbers require. He will inevitably put himself before his team and his teammates. One serious injury — just one — will give him the incentive to coast out into the sunset a rich, somewhat healthy man with more money than he could ever spend in 10 lifetimes. That is why, in my opinion, it is way premature to list a current player like Verlander on an All-Time greatest list.

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  • Don Mossi Appreciation Society

    When will the “Five Handsomest Pitchers in Detroit Tigers History” be listed? Just wondering……

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  • Dan Holmes

    Thanks for the debate on this list, that’s a big reason that I wrote them – to drive debate. First, let me say I’m a big fan of Tiger history and baseball history in general. In fact, I’ve written one book myself (Ty Cobb: A Biography) and contributed to two others on the Dead Ball Era (Deadball Stars of the American League and Deadball Stars of the National League). No one loves that era more than I do.

    However, we shouldn’t let our imagination clud our judgment. George Mullin was a good major league pitcher, but he wasn’t great. His greatest asset was his durable right shoulder and (as the first comment mentions) his post-season success. But I could name ten Tiger starters who were better than “Wabash George” over their careers and at least a dozen other Tiger pitchers who were, at their peaks, considerably better than Mullin. (Just off the top of my head: Dizzy Trout, Jim Bunning, Bobo Newsom, Frank Lary, Jim Perry, Dan Petry, and George Uhle).

    Mullin’s career winning percentage as a Tiger was .539, while the rest of the Tiger team was .518. Compare that to Verlander, who has a .631 winning percentage, while the rest of the Tigers have come in at .490 during his career. Winning games isn’t the only measurement of a starting pitcher, however, in fact it’s not necessarily the best yardstick. ERA+ is pretty good. That’s the figure at which a pitcher performs above his league in ERA, adjusted for the ballpark he pitches in. An ERA+ of 100 means the pitcher’s ERA was right at league average. 110 is 10% of above average and so on. The higher the number the better the ERA+. A mark of 120 or higher is the sign of a star pitcher, and many great pitchers go above 140 or 150.

    Mullin was never a great pitcher. The numbers just don;t show any evidence that he was. His highest ERA+ was 128 in his second season, and again in 1914 when he was pitching in the Federal League. Most seasons, in what should have been Mullin’s prime, his ERA+ was just a shade above 100. For his career, spanning 14 seasons and nearly 500 games, Mullin’s ERA+ was 102. That’s right, just a tick above average. This is bore out in his won/loss record, whereas the first comment mentions his 209 wins as a Tiger, he neglects to note that George lost 179 games in a Detroit uniform. Year in and year out, Mullin hovered around .500, in fact he was 21-21 one year that he won 20 games, went 10-20 another year (for a pennant winning Tiger team), and lost at least 15 games seven times in his 14 years with Detroit.

    In contrast, though admittedly Verlander is still young (he’s about half way through a Sandy Koufax length career), he’s established a much, much dofferent level of performance than Mullin. Verlander’s ERA+ in his five full seasons are: 126, 125, 93, 132, 121. He’s at 161 so far in 2011, a level that’s Cy Young Award territory. His career ERA+ is 120. A mark of 120 is very, very good. Barring injury, there’s little reason to believe that Verlander won’t continue his glittering performance. He has been a much better pitcher than Mullin ever was, and should continue to be.

    Mullin was in the Tiger rotation for a long time – more than a decade. He was fortunate enough to be on the club when Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Donie Bush, and others formed the most esciting offense in baseball and won three pennants. Mullin contributed, to be sure. He was 29-8 in 1909, but even then his ERA+ was just 114. He was a good pitcher who stayed healthy and grabbed some wins in an era when the starters almost always won 15-20 games. Saying he’s the best starter in Tiger history would be silly. It would be like saying Brandon Inge is the best Tiger third baseman because he played the most games at that position for the franchise (which he may soon have on his stat ledger).

    Hooks Dauss, by the way, had an ERA+ of 102, also. There were two Tiger starters of that era who were much better pitchers than Mullin and Dauss: Ed Killian and Ed Siever. Neither of them made the Best Five, and Dauss and Mullin don;t deserve it either.

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  • Dan Holmes

    To correct a typo: Mullin was 20-20 in 1907, not 10-20. My point was to show that he FREQUENTLY was a .500 pitcher, even for good or even great teams.

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  • Dan Holmes

    To Steve’s point: I disagree. I see fire in Verlander (not just from his right arm). This guy wants to be GREAT. This season he’s learning how to be a great PITCHER.

    I would bet that Verlander will win at least 200 games, and he has a chance to win 250. Power arms last longer than finesse arms. He has three OUTSTANDING major league pitches and one other pitch that’s very good. No Tiger starter has ever thrown as hard as Verlander. His curve is probably the best from a Tiger since Newhouser. His slider is unhittable at times. This kid has more talent than Jack Morris ever had.

    As Steve points out, it will take attitude and drive to lift him to the level of greatness. I think he has that drive.

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  • Dan Holmes

    One last point (FINALLY!) … to George Mullin Appreciation Society: the argument that Newhouser racked up his stats against inferior players due to the war is a common one, but it’s been refuted many, many times successfully. Newhouser was a peer of Bob Feller. Anyone who goes back and looks at the press coverage of the 1940s (even after the war) will see that Prince Hal consistently ranked with Feller as the toughest pitcher to face by opposing batters. Newhouser had a winning record against Feller, and he was amazing in 1946, when all the WWII players were back in the big leagues. Newhouser shouldn’t be penalized because his career stradled WWII. He was a great pitcher, and he deserved his HOF election. Mr. Feller even told me so several times.

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  • Joe

    Sorry, no way in the world Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame. Hall of very good, yes, Hall of Fame, no. He would have the distinction of having the highest ERA of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. And let’s just be honest, Jack Morris (like Andy Pettite) played on very good teams that scored lots of runs behind him. Hence, the inflated win total. ERA is a better indicator of the quality of pitcher Morris was.

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