The Tigers have such a rich history that they could honor an all-time team made entirely of current or future Hall of Famers. But what about an all-time team based on the best single seasons by Tigers players? Do some of the best one-year wonders beat out others whose career seasons were part of Hall of Fame careers? It’s a good debate, and to get it started, here’s one reporter’s look at the top seasons at each position:
C: Bill Freehan, 1968
Key facts: AL MVP Award runner-up, World Series champion, Gold Glove Award winner, third among AL position players in bWAR
Freehan is the only Tigers catcher to register 6.0 bWAR or better in a season, and he did it back-to-back seasons. After recording his first 20-homer season in 1967 to go with 74 RBIs, Freehan topped himself in ’68, setting career bests with 25 homers, 84 RBIs and a 145 OPS+ during the Year of the Pitcher. In addition to the wear and tear of 138 games caught, Freehan sustained an AL-leading 24 hit-by-pitches. He hit just 2-for-24 against the mighty Cardinals in the World Series, but one of those hits was an RBI double off Bob Gibson for a key insurance run in Game 7. Only teammate Denny McLain’s 31-win season denied Freehan the AL MVP Award.
1B: Hank Greenberg, 1935
Key facts: AL MVP Award winner, World Series champion, AL HR and RBI leader
This one’s a good debate, and not necessarily for the first candidate that comes to your mind. Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown and MVP Award seasons came when he was a third baseman, but Norm Cash’s 1961 season is worth an argument. Cash’s 9.2 bWAR that year is tied for seventh best among position players in Tigers history, and is a win and a half better than Greenberg’s best season. Still, Greenberg’s season was no less impressive for the era, and he did so on a Tigers team that was defending its pennant and ended up winning the World Series. Greenberg’s 168 RBIs were 38 more than anyone else in the Majors. His 36 homers tied Jimmie Foxx atop the AL. His 46 doubles were one off the league lead, and his 16 triples were good for third. Nobody came within 50 total bases of Greenberg in the AL that year.
2B: Charlie Gehringer, 1937
Key facts: AL MVP Award winner, led league with .371 average
Though Lou Whitaker had outstanding seasons, you can take your pick among Gehringer’s seasons from the late 1920s through the mid-30s. His consistency for a decade helped him earn the nickname The Mechanical Man and a place in the Hall of Fame. He finished in the top 10 in AL MVP Award voting for seven consecutive seasons. His ’37 season was the one year he won the honor, thanks to a .371 average that topped Lou Gehrig by 20 points. The 34-year-old Gehringer didn’t put up the raw offensive totals he boasted earlier in his career, in part because he missed 10 games at the end of May. Still, his .978 OPS and 144 OPS+ were both the second best of his career, helped by a career-best .458 on-base percentage.
SS: Alan Trammell, 1987
Key facts: AL MVP Award runner-up, Silver Slugger Award winner, career-best 8.2 bWAR
The fact that Trammell lost out to Toronto’s George Bell for the MVP Award this season remains a sticking point for many Tigers fans old enough to remember this year. Trammell moved from table-setter to the cleanup spot and produced the best offensive numbers of his career. He became the first Tiger to post 200 hits and 100 RBIs in a season since Al Kaline in 1955; no Tiger would do it again until Magglio Ordonez in 2007. Moreover, Trammell shined down the stretch in the AL East race, batting .417 with seven homers and 20 RBIs in September and October to lead Detroit past the Blue Jays for the division title.
3B: Miguel Cabrera, 2012
Key facts: AL batting Triple Crown, AL MVP Award winner
Cabrera spent two seasons at third base for the Tigers, and they turned out to be his peak offensive seasons. He actually had some better numbers in 2013 (.348 average, 44 HR, 1.078 OPS), but his ’12 season was historic in its dominance. No Major League hitter had won a Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs) since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera won the batting title in 2011, but his power and run production moved from All-Star level to elite. His 44 home runs included 11 over the final month to push him just past Josh Hamilton and Curtis Granderson. He also had 30 RBIs during that stretch, which turned a Triple Crown from inconceivable to reality over the season’s final couple of weeks.
LF: Rocky Colavito, 1961
Key fact: Led team with 45 home runs and 140 RBIs
Greenberg could warrant a spot here as well, having won AL MVP Award honors in 1940 after moving from first base, but it’s a good chance to recognize a sometimes-overlooked Tiger. Colavito’s ’61 season was overshadowed around the league by the Maris-Mantle home run chase, and also overshadowed a bit in Detroit by Norm Cash’s breakout season. Even so, Colavito’s 7.6 bWAR that year was easily the best of his career and the best by a Tigers left fielder, topping even Greenberg’s ’40 season. Colavito’s 45 homers and 140 RBIs were career bests, as were his 113 walks.
CF: Ty Cobb, 1911
Key facts: Led AL in average, singles, doubles, triples, RBIs, stolen bases and OPS; won Chalmers Award as AL MVP
Cobb owns the top five seasons by bWAR of any Tigers position player, and nine of the top 10 seasons of any Tigers center fielder, with only Granderson’s 2007 campaign breaking the string. Cobb’s 1911 season featured the best batting average of his career at .419 and his highest RBI total at 127, but also AL-leading totals in nearly every other major offensive category. He only fell shy in home runs, and even there, his eight homers tied for second behind Home Run Baker’s 11.
RF: Al Kaline, 1955
Key facts: Youngest-ever AL batting champion, AL MVP Award runner-up
The Tigers have enjoyed a plethora of great seasons from right fielders, from Cobb’s early years to Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann to Kaline to Magglio Ordonez’s batting title in 2007. Kaline’s 1955 season will always be special, marking the maturation of a promising teenager into a budding star and Hall of Famer. Kaline’s .340 average that year topped his closest competitor by 21 points. After four home runs and 43 RBIs in his first full season in ’54, Kaline broke out with 27 and 102 in those respective categories. He finished the season one day younger than Cobb was when he won his first batting title in ’07.
DH: Victor Martinez, 2014
Key facts: AL MVP Award runner-up, led AL with .974 OPS
The history of great seasons by designated hitters obviously doesn’t go back far, but V-Mart’s season was incredible for many reasons. He was 35 and two years removed from major left knee surgery that cost him an entire season, and his 2013 campaign was good but not great, leading some to wonder if his best years were behind him. Instead, Martinez produced the only 30-homer season of his career — slugging 32 — and his final 100-RBI season, with 103. His .335 average placed him second behind fellow Venezuelan Jose Altuve. Martinez struck out just 42 times in 641 plate appearances while drawing 70 walks, 28 of them intentional. His .974 OPS was good for a 172 OPS+.
SP: Justin Verlander, 2011
Key facts: Won AL pitching Triple Crown with 24 wins, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. AL Cy Young and MVP Award winner, tossed second career no-hitter
The raw statistics were eye-popping. No AL pitcher had won a Triple Crown since Johan Santana in 2006; no Tiger since Hal Newhouser in 1945. No AL pitcher had won that many games in a season since Bob Welch in ’90. No AL pitcher had as strong of a combination of stats in the Triple Crown categories since Vida Blue in ’71. But beyond the numbers was a summer of dominance in which every Verlander start felt like a no-hit bid in the making. He no-hit the Blue Jays on May 7, falling a walk shy of a perfect game, held the Royals hitless for five innings five days later, took a no-hit bid into the eighth against Cleveland a month after that, then did it again against the Angels on July 31. He’d had good seasons before, but this was the year Verlander became Verlander.
RP: Willie Hernandez, 1984
Key facts: AL Cy Young Award and AL MVP Award winner, led league with 80 appearances and 68 games finished, third in AL with 32 saves
John Hiller’s 1973 season was more valuable by bWAR, but Hernandez’s dominance at the back end of games allowed manager Sparky Anderson to leverage the rest of his pitching staff. It’s not just that Hernandez converted 32 saves in 33 opportunities, or 35-for-37 if postseason is included. Twenty-one of those 32 regular-season saves required more than three outs, and six of them lasted three innings or longer. With a screwball and a cutter, Hernandez finished with 140 1/3 innings that year, just 28 fewer than fourth starter Juan Berenguer, and still dominated. He allowed just 96 hits, including six home runs, and walked just 36 batters. He then recorded the final outs of the AL Championship Series and World Series.