The 10 Best Seasons by a Detroit Tigers’ Pitcher

There’s been much debate about Justin Verlander and the Most Valuable Player Award this season. That debate will be settled in the off-season, but whether Verlander earns that hardware or not, his 2011 season ranks among the very best that a Detroit Tigers pitcher has ever had.

It’s difficult to compare pitchers across eras, and it’s also a chore to compare starters with relievers, but I’m up to the task. I looked at several factors to make my selections: stats, dominance, comparison to their own league, contribution to a winning team, and leadership.

I placed more weight on seasons that helped the Tigers to the post-season, but still five of the seasons on my list came when Detroit failed to play ball in the playoffs or World Series. So, here are my picks for the ten best seasons by a Tiger pitcher. Add your comments below and get in on the debate.

 

10. Denny McLain, 1969

The year after Denny won 31 games, he followed up with a pretty good encore. The fireballing right-hander led the AL with 24 wins, 41 starts, 325 innings, and nine shutouts. The shutouts remain a Tiger franchise record. He had two seven-game winning streaks and back-to-back shutouts in July. Often in and out of trouble, McLain won his second straight Cy Young Award in his last great season.

9. John Hiller, 1973

Less than two years removed from heart surgery, Hiller had an amazing season for the Tigers out of the pen. The Lefty saved a major league record 38 games, appearing in 65 games overall while fashioning a brilliant 1.44 ERA. This was a different era for closers – 23 of Hiller’s saves were more than one inning and seven of them were three innings or more! In 125 innings he allowed just 89 hits, and he also won 10 games, none of them of the “scavenger” variety. It remains one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in baseball history.

8. Willie Hernandez, 1984

The only reason Willie ranks ahead of Hiller is that he did it in a season when the Tigers won it all. His automatic performance out of Sparky Anderson’s bullpen spurred the Tigers to a 35-5 start that buried the American League East. He ended up 32 of 33 in save chances and carted off the Cy Young and MVP awards.

7. Denny McLain, 1968

According to WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the darling of SABR-geek stats, McLain’s 1969 season was better. But I have his ’68 campaign ranked higher based on the impact he had on the pennant race. On July 16th he shutout the Oakland A’s to improve his record to 18-2 while halting a three-game Tiger losing streak. A week later he stopped another three-game skid. He won his 20th on July 27th, ended August with 26 wins, and started September by pitching five straight complete game victories. he had two starts after he’d won 31 games, and lost them both 2-1. He pitched and won critical Game Six of the World Series on two days rest, tossing a complete game. He was the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner.

6. Bobo Newsom, 1940

If anyone was ever the undisputed ace of a Tiger staff, it was Newsom in 1940. After losing on opening day, the righty won 13 straight games, while the Tigers were 15-2 in his next 17 starts. “Buck” improved his mark to 17-2 by the end of August, as the rest of the team as under .500 when he didn’t start. Battling the Indians to the wire, Newsom hurled two innings of shutout relief on September 25th in the first game of a doubleheader to get a win, and came back in the night cap to pitch a complete game victory. In the World Series he won Games One and Five, and pitched on one days rest in Game Seven against the Reds. Unfortunately he lost a heartbreaker, 2-1 to Cincinnati’s ace, Paul Derringer.

5. Mark Fidrych, 1976

In the summer of ’76, Detroit was electrified by the antics and superb pitching of rookie Fidrych, an unlikely star. The floppy-haired Massachusetts-native joined Ralph Houk’s rotation in May, promptly firing a two-hitter at the Cleveland Indians. After a loss, he ran off right straight wins and found himself starting the All-Star Game in July. Whether talking to the ball or himself, Fidrych was a joy to watch, and fans packed the ballpark to see “The Bird” chirp. In September he shut out the vaunted Yankees, one of four shutouts he tossed that season. In all, he won 19 games, pitched 24 complete games in 29 starts, and led the league with a 2.34 ERA. He was named AL Rookie of the Year.

4. Hal Newhouser, 1946

Of the Tigers top ten pitching season based on WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Newhouser owns the top two spots. In 1946, with all the best players back from World War II, Newhouser was as good as ever, winning 26 games and pacing the league in ERA with a 1.94 mark. The southpaw was wicked good – he was 5-0 in May with a 1.47 ERA and 6-0 with a 1.15 ERA in July. He was 2-1 in head-to-head matchups with Cleveland’s Bob Feller, his rival as the best pitcher in the league.

3. Mickey Lolich, 1971

No other Tiger hurler has ever been more of a workhorse than Lolich. In 1971, the lefty from Oregon showed off his rubber arm with flair. He pitched a franchise record 376 innings(!) with 29 complete games in 45 starts. All three figures led the American League, as did his 25 wins and 308 strikeouts. He tossed eight straight complete games in July and August and finished August with 21 wins. His masterpiece came on September 18 in Tiger Stadium against the eventual league champion Baltimore Orioles. Lolich out-dueled Jim Palmer, winning 2-1 in a complete game in which he fanned ten Orioles. he finished second in Cy Young voting to Oakland;s Vida Blue.

2. Justin Verlander, 2011

As September winds down, Verlander is leading the American League in wins, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. Twice in 2011 the big right-hander has won at least nine straight games. On May 7th in Toronto he pitched his second career-no-hitter. He followed it up by taking a no-hitter into the 6th inning. Three times he’s entered the eighth without allowing a hit. Through September 5th, he’d won 14 games after a Detroit loss. Without Verlander’s amazing season, the Tigers would be looking up in the standings in the AL Central.

1. Hal Newhouser, 1945

In the middle season of an incredible three-year stretch of dominance, “Prince Hal” was at his best. He won the pitching triple crown – leading in wins (25), ERA (1.81), and K’s (212). Critics have cited that he was pitching against “inferior” competition because so many star players were in the service for World War II. True, the level of competition was lower during the war, but Newhouser dominated like few other pitchers ever have from 1944-1946, including the final year when the stars were back. In ’45, the Tigers were 59-54 in games Newhouser didn’t pitch, and 29-11 in games he pitched. Like Verlander in 2011, Newhouser was a losing streak stopper – he won 16 games after a Tiger loss. In the final five games of the season, Newhouser started three times, going the distance each time while tossing two shutouts. His win in the final game of the year against the St. Louis Browns clinched the pennant for Detroit. He won Game Five of the World Series and started and won Game Seven against the Chicago Cubs on two days rest to give Detroit their second World Championship.

7 replies on “The 10 Best Seasons by a Detroit Tigers’ Pitcher

  • Rick

    Offhand, I’d put Schoolboy Rowe’s 1934 season somewhere in there. Schoolie was 24-8 as he led the Tigers to their first flag in a quarter-century. He drew tremendous national attention for his 16-game win streak, which tied the A.L. record set by Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson. His prowess as a batter caused Mickey Cochrane to occasionally bat him higher than ninth in the order and to use him as a pinch-hitter. There also was the whole Edna Skinner storyline (his adoring girlfriend, who I believe was a schoolteacher back in Arkansas) for human interest. Anybody who remembers the craziness over The Bird in ’76 (and I certainly do) has a taste of what the town was like in ’34, especially when Schoolie was pitching. In the World Series that year, Rowe beat the Gas House Gang Cardinals in 12 innings in Game 2. He should have won Game 6 to close out the Series, but a blown call—one of the worst calls in Series history—caused the Tigers to lose by a single run. The following afternoon, of course, Dizzy Dean whitewashed the Tigers, 11-zip.

    I’ve talked to some old-timers who thought Dizzy Trout in his prime was tougher than Newhouser. In 1944, Trout won 27 games and led the entire majors in innings (352), complete games (33), ERA (2.12) and shutouts (7). Anyone who argues Trout did it against wartime players has to admit Newhouser did the same. Trout, like Rowe, also regularly pitched relief and was a big threat as a batter—factors I would take into consideration if developing a similar list (which I’m too lazy to do). But I’ve always liked multidimensional ballplayers, particularly pitchers.

    I guess I could make a case as well for Twilight Ed Killian, Wild Bill Donovan, and George Mullin from Bennett Park days, but I gotta go walk the dog. He looks like he wants to take a dump in the living room.

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  • Cecilia

    A nitpicky note here. I had heard that John Hiller had a heart attack while with the Tigers, but I have never heard that he had heart surgery.

    Reply
  • Dan Holmes

    Cecilia’s correct – Hiller had a heart attack not surgery. My aplogies.

    In regards to leaving off pitchers prior to 1940, it was not a conscious decision. I relied heavily on WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the current de facto standard for comparison across eras. Of the pitchers mentioned by Rick, only Trout (in 1944 and 1946) rank highly in single-season WAR for the Tigers.

    The numbers for Mullin, Killian, Siever, and Wild Bill Donovan from the Deadball Era don’t stack up. ERA’s were much lower then and each staff usually had 3-4 guys with sub 2.50 ERA’s and 15-25 wins. It was a different game, and none of the Tiger hurlers from that era were as dominant as the hurlers I chose.

    Reply
  • Chris Guyor

    10 years later… would you include Max Scherzer’s 2013 season on this list? 21-3, 240 strikeouts, a Cy Young award for a team that was essentially one inning from returning to the World Series?

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  • J.D. Danielewicz

    Since Denny McLain is the ONLY pitcher to win over 30 games in a season in almost 100 years (and will no doubt be the LAST to ever do so), I have to rank his 1968 season at the top of the list. Eras, mound heights, games started per season , etc. vary, but 31-6 will always be magical to me.

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