Early 20th Century outfielder Sam Crawford accumulated 64 WAR in his Tigers career.
(Photo credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
Today, I am presenting the list of top ten right fielders in Tigers history. Other installments in this series can be found at the following links.
In the previous articles, I discussed the criteria for my rankings in detail. Let’s review the ground rules here:
- A player must have played at least half their games with the Tigers as a right fielder or played center field more than any other position.
- A player must have played at least two full seasons as a right fielder with the Tigers.
- Only games played with the Tigers are considered.
- If a player played other positions with the Tigers besides right field, his hitting performance in those games does count.
I will start by looking at the Baseball-Reference.com Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leader board for Tigers right fielders:
Al Kaline 93
Harry Heilmann 68
Sam Crawford 64
Kirk Gibson 28
Jim Northrup 21
Vic Wertz 16
Roy Cullenbine 15
Magglio Ordonez 14
JD Martinez 13
Pete Fox 11
Pat Mullin 11
To get information about offense only, we can use Adjusted Batting Runs (ABR) described in the link for first basemen above:
Harry Heilmann 513
Al Kaline 506
Sam Crawford 405
Kirk Gibson 158
JD Martinez 97
Magglio Ordonez 94
Vic Wertz 94
Roy Cullenbine 87
Jim Northrup 73
Pat Mullin 46
By this measure, Heilmann was the most productive offensively. Kaline is just seven runs behind, but he had over 3,000 plate appearances. Crawford is a distant third, but still among the top five Tigers ever which says a lot about the strength of the position.
In order to compare the batting excellence of players with different career lengths, we can use OPS+:
Harry Heilmann 149
JD Martinez 146
Sam Crawford 144
Champ Summers 143
Al Kaline 134
Roy Cullenbine 134
Kirk Gibson 125
Vic Wertz 125
Magglio Ordonez 123
Torii Hunter 115
Jim Northrup 115
Martinez and Champ Summers move up near the top of this list. Summers doesn’t qualify because he was only a regular for one season, but I wanted to mention him because he was a personal favorite.
1. Al Kaline (1953-1974 93 WAR 506 ABR 134 OPS+)
Al Kaline joined the Tigers straight out of high school in 1953 at age 18 and has been with the organization in some capacity for seven decades or more than half the team’s existence. He led the league in batting (.340) and accumulated 8.2 WAR at the age of 20 in 1955 and appeared headed for super-stardom. That turned out to be arguably his best season, but he was really good at every facet of the game for a long time with 2+ WAR for 18 consecutive years. Mr Tiger finished in the top 10 in WAR 11 times and in MVP voting 9 times.
2. Harry Heilmann (1914-1929 68 WAR 513 ABR 149 OPS+)
In 1913, according to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, et al, Harry Heilmann was a 19-year-old bookkeeper for a San Francisco biscuit company. On the way home from work one day, he ran into a friend who asked him to fill in for a sick player on a local semi-pro team. A scout for the Class B Northwestern League’s Portland Colts was in the crowd that day and signed Heilmann to a professional contract (with a bonus of a spaghetti dinner) two days later. At the end of the season, Detroit purchased his contract and he was on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Like Kaline, Harry was a long-time Tiger as a player and broadcaster staying with the organization through 1950. Slug was slow in the field and on the bases, but he was a gifted hitter batting .342 with a 148 OPS+ lifetime. He had an incredible stretch from 1921-1927 batting .380 with a 167 OPS+ including four batting titles (all in odd numbered years):
3. Sam Crawford (2003-2017 64 WAR 405 ABR 144 OPS+)
In the early 19th Century’s Dead Ball era, triples which were far more common than home runs and were considered an indicator of power hitting. Sam Crawford led the league in triples six times including totals of 26, 25, 23 and 22. As a slugger, Wahoo Sam played in the wrong era and Bill James estimated in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that he would have hit 494 home runs had a played 20 years later. Crawford was also a fine athlete with great speed and a strong arm and I suspect WAR might be underestimating his base running and defense. I was tempted to place him second ahead of the one dimensional Heilmann, but Harry had a little too much of an edge offensively which is the one thing we can accurately measure. Crawford could certainly hit though posting an OPS+ of 150 or better seven times as a Tiger.
4. Kirk Gibson (1979-1987, 1993-1995 28 WAR 158 ABR 125 OPS+)
Manager Sparky Anderson said in his book Bless You Boys “When he walks through that clubhouse door, everyone knows he’s there. There’s just that something about a player like Gibson..He’s a man. He comes to play day after day.” Gibson was a tremendous athlete who was an All American wide receiver at Michigan State prior to signing with the Tigers and often played the game like a football player. Gibby certainly had a flair for the dramatic whether it be bowling over an umpire, a catcher and almost another base runner all on the same play or hitting his second most famous home run off Goose Goosage in the final game of the 1984 World Series. From 1984-1987, Gibson averaged 4.6 WAR and a 137 OPS+. He was also post-season hero in 1984 winning the playoff MVP and continuing to hit during the World Series.
5. Jim Northrup (1964-1974 21 WAR 73 ABR 115 OPS+)
Jim Northrup was never a star but was a steady performer both offensively and defensively in his 11 years as a Tiger. During his prime years 1966-1969, Northrup averaged 4.1 WAR and a 125 OPS+. Like several Tigers, the Michigan native had his best season in 1968 accumulating 5.9 WAR and posting a 129 OPS+. Northrup was famous for grand slams in 1968 hitting two in one game versus the Indians in June as well as one in the World Series.
6. Magglio Ordonez (2005-2011 14 WAR 94 ABR 123 OPS+)
Signed as a free agent in February, 2005, Magglio Ordonez became a fan favorite for his batting and for his long hair which was somewhat of a rarity for Tigers stars over the years. His walk-off blast versus the Oakland Athletics in the 2006 American League Championship Series to give the Tigers their first pennant in 22 years was the second most memorable hit in Tigers history. Number one (even though most of you were not around to remember it) was Goose Goslin’s walk-off single which secured the Tigers first world championship in 1935. Magglio’s fantastic 2017 season was one of the Tigers five best seasons in the past 50 years. He batted .363/.434/.595 with a 166 OPS+ and 7.3 WAR that year.
7. Vic Wertz (1947-1952, 1961-1963 16 WAR 94 ABR 125 OPS+)
Vic Wertz is probably best known as the Cleveland Indians batter who hit the long fly ball resulting in Willie Mays’ famous catch and throw in game one of the 1954 World Series. Nothing that memorable happened during his nine years with the Tigers, but did have some good seasons at the plate and in the field. He finished in the American League top ten in both WAR and OPS+ in both 1950 and 1951.
8. JD Martinez (2014-2017, 1954 13 WAR 97 ABR 146 OPS+)
JD Martinez signed as a free agent with the Tigers in March, 2014 following an apparently failed career with the Astros. After averaging an 88 OPS+ with the Astros from 2011-2013, he exploded in Detroit with the help of a retooled swing into one of the American League’s better sluggers. His ranking here was hurt a bit by his injuries, but he had some eye popping numbers when healthy. His OPS+ with the Tigers were:
And then he was traded to the Diamond Backs in mid-season 2017. JD, We hardly knew ye.
9. Roy Cullenbine (1938-1939, 1945-1947 15 WAR 87 ABR 134 OPS+)
Roy Cullenbine drew a walk in 17.8% of his plate appearances throughout his career which puts him seventh on the MLB all-time list (Fangraphs.com). In his career with the Tigers, his percentage (19.1%) was even better which contributed to a .412 OBP. In his final three seasons, all with the Tigers, the switch-hitting Cullenbine had 5.4, 5.0 and 4.3 WAR.
10. Pat Mullin (1940-1953 11 WAR 46 ABR 115 OPS+)
Pat Mullin is tough to evaluate because he missed four seasons in his prime (ages 24 to 27) serving in World WAR II from 1942-1945. What’s difficult is that he didn’t play enough before and after those years to get a really good handle on what he would have done if he didn’t miss any time. He first became a regular in 1941 and batted .345/.400/.509 but in only 54 games. When he returned from the war in 1946, he not surprisingly struggled to hit. However, he posted 126 and 127 OPS+ in 1947 and 1948 (the only year he played more than 110 games). He could arguably go as high as #6 on this list, but there is not enough information.
Note: Most of the data for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com