These were best rookie classes for the Detroit Tigers

The arrival of Riley Greene in Detroit has been a boost to beleaguered Tigers fans who’ve had to slog through another mediocre season.

Greene is a smooth center fielder with talent on the defensive and offensive side of the game. So far he’s been getting on base at a feverish clip, and in Arizona last weekend, the rookie made two eye-popping plays in the middle outfield position.

Just feats your eyeballs on this:

And then on Sunday he made a catch in left-center that made him look like a wide receiver in the NFL stretching out for a touchdown grab.

We haven’t seen a center fielder this good in Detroit since Austin Jackson.

Greene joins his buddy Spencer Torkelson as high-profile rookies in the 2022 Tigers. On Sunday, Greene hit cleanup and Torkelson hit fifth. That’s an unusual feat. The last time a Detroit rookie hit fourth was Tony Clark in 1996. How long ago was that? Clark is now retired with a grey beard, serving as president of the MLB Players Association.

The Best Tiger Rookie Duos Ever

Greene and Torkelson have Tiger fans thrilled about the future. Even with little MLB experience, the rookies are seeing their jerseys selling very well in Detroit and Michigan:

Spencer Torkelson #20 Detroit Tigers Men’s Nike® Home Replica Jersey >

Riley Greene #31 Detroit Tigers Men’s Nike® Home Replica Jersey >

But they have a long way to go to match the best rookie duos in team history.

1978: Sweet Lou, Trammell, Parrish and Morris

This just wasn’t the most fruitful rookie crop in Tigers history, it’s the greatest ever by any team. All four of these players went on to be All-Stars, three were Gold Glove winners, and they formed the core of a World Series title team.

Whitaker and Trammell played a combined 19 years in Detroit, and Morris was in the Old English D for 14 seasons, winning more games in the 1980s than any other pitcher in baseball. Parrish was his batterymate, a slugger who at one time held the single-season record for home runs by a catcher. When he hung up his mask, Parrish had caught more games than all but five catchers.

Only one other time in baseball history has a team had two rookies who ended up going on to the Hall of Fame: the 1925 Athletics (Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove). It’s possible that Whitaker (who was named Rookie of the Year) will one day also be elected to the Hall, giving this rookie class three future Hall of Famers.

1976: Fidrych and Thompson

1976 was the summer of “The Bird” in Michigan, as rookie phenom Fidrych captured the hearts of fans across the state with his enthusiastic play. With his curly mop of hair, bending, boney-kneed body, and electric right arm, Fidrych won 19 games and was named Rookie of the Year.

Fidrych sold out ballparks across the American League that season, and started the All-Star Game. He was an All-Star the next season too, but an arm injury ended his career and halted what might have bene one of the best and most beloved careers by by a Detroit athlete.

Many people forget Thompson, but he smacked 17 homers and had 54 RBI in 123 games as a rookie in The Year of The Bird. The following season he was an All-Star.

1963: Freehan and Lolich

The Tigers spent a lot of man-hours getting Bill Freehan to sign a professional contract. The Detroit native was a two-sport star at the University of Michigan, but baseball was his first choice. The Tigers hounded and scouted Bill for years, and thanks to a great relationship between scout Ed Katalinas and the Freehan family, the young athlete inked a deal with his hometown team in 1961.

Two years later, Freehan was a rookie catcher in Detroit, and one of the pitchers he caught was a big-eared, hard-throwing lefty from Oregon named Mickey Lolich.

Lolich grew up as a Yankees fan. His favorite player was Whitey Ford. He hoped to be signed by New York, but when Detroit offered him a deal and money for college, he became a Tiger. In 1963 at the age 22, Mickey was in Detroit facing the Yankees (his first start came against Whitey Ford).

In 1964, Lolich won 18 games, the first of 12 straight seasons he won at least 14. In 1968, the likable southpaw won three games in the World Series, the final one on two days rest. When he recorded the final out, Lolich leaped into the strong arms of Freehan. The duo spent 13 seasons as teammates for the Tigers.

Lolich and Freehan still hold the all-time record for starts as a battery, a record that’s under assault by Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina in 2022. But, for Tiger fans no catcher/pitcher combo can eclipse the greatness of these two.

1933: Greenberg, Rowe, and Fox

We go back a ways here, but it’s worth it. Hank Greenberg was a gangly, impossibly large young man in 1933, just 22 years old. He was a powerful hitter from New York, but the Yankees passed on him because well…they had Lou Gehrig.

Greenberg challenged or broke many of Gehrig’s records. In 1935 he won the home run and RBI crowns and was named MVP. That year the Tigers won their first World Championship.

Also a rookie in 1933 was pitcher Schoolboy Rowe, a hard thrower from Texas by way of Arkansas. A downhome, homespun character, Rowe liked to wave to his beautiful wife while he was pitching, and he enjoyed jabbering with his teammates and even opposing players. He was good at his job too: he won seven games in a partial season as a rookie; then 62 games over the next three seasons, pacing the Detroit rotation.

Pete Fox isn’t remembered by many people today, but he was a good-hitting corner outfielder with speed. He batted .288 as a rookie, but that was just a preview: the Indiana native hit .298 over his 13-year career, eight of which were with Detroit.

2006: Verlander and Zumaya

As my generation cherishes 1976, the next one remembers fondly 2006. That season, the Tigers surprised many with a season for the ages, improving by 24 wins to make the playoffs.

A large part of the success for the ’06 team was young pitching. Manager Jim Leyland didn’t care if the best talent was untested and young, he just wanted the best talent at his disposal. In former first round pick Verlander he had an ace in the making, and with Zumaya he has baseball’s best fastball.

23-year old Verlander won 17 games in 2006 and made 30 starts. He even started Game One of the World Series. For his fine season, JV became the third Tiger to win Rookie of the Year, joining Harvey Kuenn, Mark Fidrych, and Lou Whitaker.

Zumaya used a 100 to 102 mile-per-hour fastball to mow down enemy batters. The reliever had a ten-game stretch in May/June when he did not allow a run, while striking out 21 batters in 15 innings. In the AL Division Series against the Yankees, “Zoom Zoom” pitched two hitless innings in two outings, with three K’s.

1977: Rozema and Kemp

One year after Mark Fidyrch stole the headlines, the Tigers had another rookie pitcher who had an excellent season.

Dave Rozema was raised in Grand Rapids. He was a wide-hipped, tall hurler with a mid-range fastball. But his most effective pitch was his changeup, a nasty pitch that nearly caused some batters to throw out their backs swinging too early.

Rozema won 15 games and had a nifty 3.09 ERA in 28 starts. He wasn’t as wacky as Fidrych, but Rosy was a nut off the field, with a great sense of humor and a playful demeanor. He finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, the top pitcher. He went on to play eight seasons in Detroit and was a member of the 1984 World Champions.

In left field in 1977 was the hard-swinging Steve Kemp, a former first-round pick who had starred at USC. Kemp adjusted to the big leagues quickly: in ’77 he hit 18 home runs and drove in 88. He also walked 71 times and had 29 doubles. He was far from overmatched, Two years later Kemp topped 100 RBI for the first of two times as a Tiger and clubbed 26 homers.

1954: Kaline, Tuttle, and Bolling

Clearly the gem here was Kaline, who was only 19 years old, but still managed to hit .276 in his first full exposure to big league pitching. He was already the best outfielder on the team, and that throwing arm was something to marvel at. The following year he won the batting title, propelling himself to a 22-year Hall of Fame career.

Bill Tuttle was a decent outfielder who played alongside Kaline in center field for four seasons. He typically hit about .270 with 10-12 homers, and he was an excellent defender.

It’s rare for three everyday position players to come up as rookies in the same season, but in 1953 the team also had second baseman Frank Bolling. The Alabama native was mostly known for his slick glove: a few years later he won his first Gold Glove. He spent six years as the Tigers starting second baseman.

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