Newhouser is best Tigers’ pitcher ever, but several right-handers are bunched together after that

Tommy Bridges, Dizzy Trout, Jack Morris, and Justin Verlander.

Tommy Bridges, Dizzy Trout, Jack Morris, and Justin Verlander.

Just how good is Justin Verlander when measured against the greatest Detroit Tigers’ pitchers?

If you were going to name two starting pitchers to an all-time Tiger franchise team, one would be an easy choice. Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, a southpaw, is clearly at this point the best man ever to take the mound for the Tigers. But who is the best right-hander?

It’s not easy to tell, for two reasons: the candidates are closely matched, and it’s very difficult to compare starting pitchers across different eras.

Many of the traditional measures of excellence for starting pitchers no longer are meaningful. Starters don’t routinely pitch nine innings anymore, so we can throw complete games and shutouts right out the window. For the curious, George Mullin is the franchise’s all-time leader for complete games (336), and Mickey Lolich — clearly the second-best left-handed Tiger starter ever — pitched the most shutouts, 39.

Wins and losses have never been a reliable measure of a pitcher, either, since they are so team dependent, and they are even less meaningful now that most games get turned over to bullpens sometime after the fifth or sixth inning. It’s rather amazing, nonetheless, that over a century plus, the Tigers haven’t come close to having a 300-game winner. In fact, they’ve only had four with 200 wins, and barely that: Deadball Era pitchers Hooks Dauss (223) and George Mullin (209); Lolich (207); and Newhouser (200). Next on the wins list are Jack Morris (198), Tommy Bridges (194), and Dizzy Trout (161).

Earned run average is extremely era dependent. The top ten franchise leaders in ERA, topped by Harry Coveleskie at 2.34, are all Deadball Era hurlers except for John Hiller, who sneaks in at seventh place (2.83) and was a reliever for most of his career. Nobody thinks any of these ten are among the best Detroit pitchers ever.

Strikeouts may be the best “counting” statistic for a pitcher, but they are skewed in the opposite direction; certainly the Deadball Era pitchers are not well represented here, because batters put most pitches into play then. And these days, K totals keep rising each season, for a variety of reasons. Lolich, with a whopping 2,679, is by far the franchise leader in whiffs, followed by Morris with 1,980, Newhouser with 1,770, Bridges with 1,674, and Verlander with 1,671.

Watch out for that last guy. He already ranks very high by some measurements. Verlander, ninth in franchise wins with 137, is second in winning percentage among Tigers with at least 1,000 innings, at .640, behind only Denny McLain’s .654.

Among those 1,000-innings hurlers, Verlander is tops in strikeouts-to-walk ratio, with more than three times as many whiffs as free passes allowed — and in terms of another more modern stat, WHIP (essentially baserunners allowed per inning), Verlander’s 1.19 is third, behind only McLain’s 1.12 and Coveleski’s 1.13.

It’s hard to sort out these contradictory stats. The history of Tiger pitching is so multifaceted that you see a different name atop almost every career leaderboard, depending on the stat. Today, though, most analysts would agree that two new metrics are by far the most meaningful for pitchers: ERA+ and WAR (Wins Above Replacement).

ERA+ adjusts for the disparities among different baseball milieus over time by calculating how a pitcher’s earned run average compares to his peers. Preventing runs is clearly the key job of any pitcher, and ERA does a pretty good job of measuring that skill, particularly when adjusted for the era. An ERA+ of 100 is league average. This handy measuring stick yields this interesting leaderboard: Newhouser 130, Verlander 127, Bridges 126, Trout 125 (stats with Detroit only) — a ranking that conforms pretty closely both to the well-informed and intuitive judgments of longtime Tiger fans. (FYI — Jim Bunning and Frank Lary come in at 116, McLain at 110, Morris at 108, Lolich at 105, and Dauss and Mullin are just above league average at 102)

If you then employ career WAR to add in the missing key factor of longevity, here’s the fascinating result, according to Baseball’s WAR figures: Newhouser 59.0, Bridges 52.5, Lolich 47.5, Trout 45.2, Verlander 40.7, Morris 39.7, Dauss 35.2, Mullin 35.1. These rankings seem just about right to me: I’ve already pegged Prince Hal as the best Tiger hurler ever and Lolich as clearly the second-best lefty. Among other starters, Bridges and Trout are usually considered neck-and-neck behind Newhouser, and our two most best metrics bear that out. But they also say that Verlander is on pace, barring injury, to catch and surpass each of them.

Here’s how it might play out if JV keeps up the good work (without the glitches of the middle four months of the 2013 season): This season JV should easily pass first Bridges and then Newhouser in career strikeouts, and before the All-Star Game in 2015 he might pass Morris too. Lolich is not out of reach, but he’s still about five seasons ahead.

Measuring by ERA+, Verlander is already at least the equal of Bridges and Trout. In his eight full seasons, Verlander has been about a three-win player on average. If he continues to have roughly that kind of value, by the end of 2015 he’ll pass Trout in career WAR, in 2016 he’ll surpass Lolich, and by the time the 2017 season is done, he’ll be right there with Bridges.

At that point, if his health holds up and his skills don’t significantly erode, you could put Verlander’s name in ink as the all-time No. 1 Tiger right-handed starter, and he might then start an exciting stretch drive to challenge Newhouser as the best Detroit pitcher ever. That’s all a bit premature, however. Today, Bridges still edges out Trout and JV. But Tommy and Dizzy have a thoroughbred breathing down their necks.

10 replies on “Newhouser is best Tigers’ pitcher ever, but several right-handers are bunched together after that

  • Brian Beebe

    Loved that Lary guy. Pulling for JV now. Once again it seems like Morris comes up short. Ball park had some to do with the lack of success pitchers found in the old hitter friendly Navin/Briggs/Tiger stadium. The new ballpark helps even the score.

  • Pat

    Interesting analysis. One thing you don’t consider is peak, which is quite pertinent when you’re talking about who is the best. When you compare ERA+ for Verlander to Trout and Bridges, you neglect to recognize they each pitched about 1,000 more innings and so their decline is reflected in their career ERA+, an edge in their favor over Verlander. However, Verlander’s WAR, which is a counting stat, is nearly their equal in about 1,000 fewer IP, a BIG edge in his favor.

    So then look at peak, as reflected in individual seasons. Verlander has led the league twice in ERA+, as well as IP and K’s three times. Bridges never led in ERA+ or IP, though he did lead in K’s twice. Trout led in ERA+ and IP once, as well as shutouts once. Probably a bit of an edge to Verlander on peak.

    WAR? 8.4, 7.8, 5.6 are Verlander’s top three. Trout goes 9.6, 7.4, 5.2, while Bridges 6.3, 5.6, 5.1 (which he did twice, better than either Verlander’s 4th best at 4.6 and Trout’s 4th best at 3.9). I’d say flip a coin for best peak between Trout and Verlander, in terms of WAR, with Bridges clearly trailing.

    Verlander has actually been a 5 WAR player on average, not 3. Going forward it appears, as you note, he’ll easily surpass Trout; I think he’s already passed Bridges and is pretty well equal with Trout. I don’t see him trailing him in any way other than longevity.

  • mike

    What B.S. “Wins and losses have never been a reliable measure of a pitcher”. Why is the hall of fame filled with big winners. Newhouser the best? Even more misguided. He won 200 games one quarter of those came in the war depleted years of 1944-45. Throw in 1946 when he was facing scores of players fresh off fighting the war you have a total of 86 wins. SO for the total of his career he won 120 games in 14 years. So facing players ready and able for major league pitching, less than ten wins per year. per year. Mc Lain, Lolich, Morris and Mullins were the four best I would make Newhouser the fifth starter.

  • J.D. Danielewicz

    Because MOST of Prince Hal’s wins came during the war years when MLB talent was watered down due to so many star players serving in the military, I strongly question whether Newhouser was UNDENIABLY the BEST Tiger pitcher ever.

  • Alec Rogers

    If you believe that wins and losses are a reliable indicator of pitching greatness, certainly you believe that Cy Young, baseball’s losingest pitcher, has no place in the Hall of Fame.

    Besides 1965, 1968 and 1969, McClain was a below average pitcher every single year of his career.

    As Newhouser there’s little doubt that he was bolstered by his war time years. 1942, 1944 and 1945 were his best. However, look at 1946 – 1949, which were all superb as well if not quite up to those years.

    If you exclude the “war years,” his ERA+ from 1946 onward is 128 – only slightly down from his career ERA+ 130.

  • John B

    It’s hard to pick a “best” because there were so many. I wish I could jump into a time machine and go back to see Newhouser, Bridges, and Trout pitch. Frank “The Yankee Killer” Lary was a favorite of my father’s. I like them all, but if I had to pick one guy to pitch in the BIG GAME, it would have to be Mickey Lolich.

  • mike

    You use Cy Young, the winningest pitcher in history to devalue wins as a barometer of pitching. Clueless. By the way “tiger fan” Alec, it is Mc Lain not Mc Clain.

  • MSG

    John Hiller WAS one of the best ever. His 38 saves in ’73 was a major league record at the time, and a Sports Illustrated article a few years back named that as the best season ever for a relief pitcher. Hiller’s saves were rarely the start the inning with a lead kind; he would often enter the game with runners on base in the 7th or 8th, get out of a jam, and then finish the game.

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