Detroit Tigers All Stars: 1970-1979

Tiger Tales

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych grooming the mound during his remarkable rookie season in 1976.

(Photo credit: New York Times)



This week, I present the Detroit Tigers All Star team for the 1970-1979 decade.  All Star teams for previous decades are found below:


1901-1909

1910-1919

1920-1929

1930-1939

1940-1949

1950-1959

1960-1969

Detroit Stars: 1919-1930


In each decade, I select nine position players, one for each position on the field plus one other hitter.  This ninth player could be a designated hitter, a multiple position player who didn’t fit neatly into one position and/or the best hitter who didn’t get selected as a position player.  I refer to this final hitter as the utility player.  Then I select five pitchers: four starters and one reliever.  In earlier decades when relievers were not frequently used, it will just be the fifth best starting pitcher.  


Some further general rules are as follows:

  • A player must have played at least half of his games with the Tigers at a given position or played that position more than any other position.  In rare cases, I might cheat a little bit if none of the players qualifying at a given position are any good at all and there is a superior player who played a good number of games at that position. 
  • A player must have played at least two full seasons with the Tigers, preferably at the assigned position. 
  • Only games played with the Tigers are considered. 
  • If a player played other positions with the Tigers besides his assigned position, his hitting performance in those games does count. 

Many statistics and sometimes, especially for fielding evaluation, anecdotal information will be considered.  For hitters, some of the statistics I consider are:

  • Games Played (G)
  • Plate Appearances (PA) 
  • Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference WAR), 
  • Adjusted Batting Runs (ABR
  • Adjusted On Base Plus Slugging (OPS+)
The follow are among those I use for evaluating pitchers:

While I first became a fan of baseball and the Tigers in 1968 at the age of five, I became more aware of what was going on during the 1970s and fell in love with the game.  So, the decade teams now become part of my experience as well as Tigers history.  It was a decade of Big Hair and Plastic Grass (See Dan Epstein), zany characters, the “three-year” designated hitter “experiment” and more expansion.  Most importantly it was the decade where the long-lasting management and player union battle finally changed sports forever.  The reserve clause came to a historic end and “Catfish” Hunter signed the first free agent contract after the 1974 season.  


For the Tigers, it was a decade of transition.  The aging version of the 1968 championship team had winning seasons from 1971-1973 including a playoff appearance.  In the strike-shortened 1972 season, they finished 86-70 just a half game ahead of the Boston Red Sox.  They ultimately lost to the world champion Oakland Athletics in a close five-game series. 


The Tigers then suffered four consecutive losing seasons from 1974-1977 including a hapless 102-loss team in 1975 that suffered nineteen consecutive defeats that summer.  They did have some bright spots including the epic comeback of reliever John Hiller, the rag to riches story of outfielder Ron Leflore and the magical 1976 season of Mark Fidrych. The late 1970s saw the emergence of several young stars including Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and Dan Petry which resulted in winning records in 1978 and 1979. 


The team WAR leaders were


Mickey Lolich 33

John Hiller 27

Bill Freehan 20

Joe Coleman 16

Ron Leflore 14


The decade All Star team is listed in Tables 1 and 2 below and player profiles follow.


Table 1: Tigers All Star Position Players: 1970-1979


Pos

Player

From

To

G

PA

WAR

ABR

OPS+

C

Bill Freehan

1970

1976

807

3,134

20

34

111

1B

Jason Thompson

1976

1979

579

2,392

12

39

115

2B

Dick McAuliffe

1970

1973

502

2,041

9

0

100

SS

Eddie Brinkman

1971

1974

630

2,272

3

-90

65

3B

Aurelio Rodriguez

1971

1979

1,241

4,649

9

-133

76

LF

Steve Kemp

1977

1979

444

1,892

9

56

122

CF

Ron Leflore

1974

1979

787

3,559

14

50

108

RF

Al Kaline

1970

1974

608

2,347

11

61

123

UT

Willie Horton

1970

1977

780

3,102

9

74

123

Source:Baseball-Reference.com

 

Table 2: Tigers All Star Pitchers: 1970-1979


Pos

Player

From

To

G

IP

WAR

PR

ERA+

SP

Mickey Lolich

1970

1975

241

1,833

33

59

108

SP

Joe Coleman

1971

1976

203

1,407

16

-14

97

SP

Mark Fidrych

1976

1979

49

368

12

42

139

SP

Dave Rozema

1977

1979

72

525

11

47

130

RP

John Hiller

1970

1979

426

911

27

115

144

Source:Baseball-Reference.com



Player Profiles


C Bill Freehan


Freehan was a powerful and durable catcher who was excellent both offensively and defensively.  He was the top catcher in the game during the 1960s peaking with two fantastic seasons in 1967 and 1968 and still had a lot left in the 1970s.  He was the Tigers top position player in 1971, 1972 and 1974 reaching 120 OPS+ and 4 WAR each season.    

 

The slugging catcher is 15th among MLB catchers in career WAR and some argue that he should be in the Hall of Fame.  Bill James ranked him the #12 catcher in the New Bill James Historical Abstract.   


A Detroit native, Freehan grew up in suburban Royal Oak where he started catching at a young age.  During one Little League All Star game, he was bowled over at the plate by future Tigers teammate Willie Horton (Trey Stecker, SABR.org)   


1B Jason Thompson


Jason Thompson hit 17 home runs in 123 games as a 21-year-old rookie in 1976.  He was an American League all star in 1977 hitting 31 round trippers and slugging .487.  He also acquired the nickname “Roof Top” when he hit the ball over the roof in Tigers Stadium twice that year.  He made the all star team again in 1978 with 26 home runs, a .364 OBP and 131 OPS+.  The left-handed power hitter struggled in 1979 batting .246 with a 98 OPS+.  He was traded in June, 1980 to the Angels for outfielder Al Cowens.  Thompson went on to have quite a bit of success with the Angels and Pirates. 


Why did the Tigers trade a 25-year old slugger who seemed destined to be their first baseman for the next several years?  In an interview on No Filter Sports long after his career was over, Thompson claimed that manager Sparky Anderson wanted him to be a pull hitter while Thompson felt he was more suited to using the whole field. That could explain his struggles in 1979 and early 1980. After hitting .214 in 36 games with the Tigers in 1980, he batted .317 in 102 games for the Angels that season.         


2B Dick McAuliffe


I ranked McAuliffe as the Tigers third best second baseman ever behind Charlie Gehringer and Lou Whitaker.  McAuliffe often looked awkward both at the plate and in the field, but was a steady performer for 14 seasons in Detroit.  Like a few others on this decade team, McAuliffe peaked in the 60s, but also made contributions in the 1970s. 


In 1970, the Tigers starting second had 3.2 WAR thanks to a .358 on-base percentage and steady fielding.  In 1973, his final season with the Tigers, he reached base at a .366 clip and posted a 121 OPS+ in 106 games. 

 

McAuliffe was best known for two things: 

  • He was a scrapper who wasn’t afraid to mix it up with opponents.  In one famous fight, he charged the mound after pitcher Tommy John narrowly missed his head with a pitch. He roughed up John who left the game with a separated shoulder.

  • He had an unusual batting stance imitated by every kid in Michigan in the 60s and 70s.  As Bill James described it. “he tucked his right wrist under his chin and held his bat over his head, so it looked as if he were dodging the sword of Damocles in mid-descent.  He pointed his left knee at the catcher and his right knee at the pitcher and spread the two as far apart as humanly possible, his right foot balanced on his toes…He then whipped his bat in a violent pinwheel” (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract).



SS Eddie Brinkman


Brinkman was acquired from the Washington Senators in October, 1970 as part of a eight-player deal which was famously lopsided in favor of the Tigers.  The Tigers received Brinkman, Aurelio Rodriguez, Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan for Denny McLain (who was damaged goods at that point), late career Don Wert, Elliott Maddox and Norm McRae.  The Cincinnati native was a weak hitter, but a strong fielder.  In 1972, he set American League records with 72 consecutive games and 331 chances without an error.  He also made just seven errors in over 150 games, also a record.  


As a kid, Brinkman played with Pete Rose on a youth league team which advanced to a regional tournament game and both players slugged homers in the game.  Brinkman and Rose also played on the same high school team.  Brinkman was considered the bigger star as a pitcher and power hitting third baseman (Andrew Sharp, SABR.org)     


3B Aurelio Rodriguez


Rodriguez was the Brandon Inge of the 1970s, a good field no hit third baseman.  He was an even weaker hitter than Inge but also a more elite defender (134 Fielding Runs according to the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia).  He was arguably the top defensive third baseman in the league during his prime with one of the best arms the game has ever seen at the hot corner.  He played more games at third (1,235) than any other Tiger.


According to Sparky Anderson, “He (Aurelio Rodrguez probably had as good a pair of hands on him as anybody, and a great arm – the only two arms I’ve seen like that, (Travis) Fryman and him.  This guy was a great third baseman.”


LF Steve Kemp


The first pick in the 1976 amateur draft out of the University of Southern California, Kemp made his Tiger debut in 1977 after just one season in the minors. Over the next four years, Kemp batted .291 with a 132 OPS+ and it looked like he and Thompson would anchor the Tigers line-up for years to come.  However, Thompson was traded in 1980 and Kemp was dealt in 1981 to the White Sox for centerfielder Chet Lemon.  


As much as the Thompson trade was perplexing from a Tigers fan perspective, the Kemp trade looked favorable from day one.  Lemon had been just as productive as Kemp and was a much better defensive player.  Looking back on it, I am not sure how Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell pulled it off.   Kemp’s career was derailed by injuries, while Lemon became a star on the great Tigers teams of the 80s.      


CF Ron Leflore


Ron Leflore did not begin playing baseball until he was 22 and in the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, a maximum security facility where they send the worst criminals.  He was so talented that a fellow prisoner with connections to Tigers manager Billy Martin helped get him a try out.  According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, et al, Leflore was a given a tryout at Tiger Stadium while on a 48-hour furlough in June, 1973.  


A year later, the speedy Leflore was in the majors and he soon became one of the more exciting players in the game.  In 1976, he batted .316 including a 30-game hitting streak and stole 58 bases.  The Tigers center fielder then led the league with 68 steals in 1977.  He was 3+ WAR each season from 1976-1979, but was traded to the Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder after 1979 because manager Sparky Anderson regarded him as a clubhouse problem.  


RF Al Kaline


Al Kaline joined the Tigers straight out of high school in 1953 at the age of 18 and remained with the organization in some capacity until his death in 2020.  That amounted to 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.  That turned out to be arguably his best season, but he had a lot of other great seasons in route to the Hall of Fame. 


Mr Tiger was at the end of a long glorious career in the 1970s, but was still among the team’s leading hitters.  He batted .292 with a 138 OPS+ from 1970-1972.  In his final year in 1974, the 39-year-old designated hitter became the second Tiger after Ty Cobb to reach 3,000 hits.     


The reserved Tigers legend once said: “I was very, very shocked about Cooperstown.  I thought my chances were fairly good, but I tried to stay low key about it, not too high and not too low.  That was the way I played, too (BrainyQuote.com). 


 

DH Willie Horton


Born and raised in Detroit, Willie Horton was a home town favorite for his performance both on and off the field.  On the field, he was a top slugger for many years finishing in the top ten in home runs five times and slugging four times.  Off the field, Horton helped to restore order during the 1967 riots by climbing onto a truck and pleading with fellow African Americans to stop looting and committing violence. 


In a familiar story, Horton peaked in the 1960s, but was still a productive hitter in the 1970s despite numerous injuries.  He finished seventh in the league with a .496 slugging average in 1971.  In 1973, he batted .316 and slugged .501.  Horton was one of the few bright spots in the Tigers horrible 1975 season,  finishing eighth in the league with 25 homers.  On a sad day in April, 1978, the long-time Tiger was traded to the Rangers for reliever Steve Foucault.


Horton’s most heroic moment of the decade happened in on Memorial Day, May 30, 1970 in Milwaukee in the bottom of the first inning.  Brewers second baseman Roberto Pena hit a deep smash to right center where outfielders Al Kaline and Jim Northrup collided and Pena circled the bases for an inside-the-park grand slam.  Kaline did not get up and was choking.  Horton raced over from left field and saw Kaline’s condition.  The former Golden Gloves boxer instinctively compressed Kaline’s chest, grabbed the back of his jaw, pried open his mouth and pulled his tongue out of his throat.  He kept Kaline’s mouth open until the trainer arrived.  Horton saved his teammate’s life and still has the scar on his hand to prove it (Bill Dow, Detroit Free Press, June 20, 2020, via USA Today).  



SP Mickey Lolich


Lolich, remarkably for his era, pitched 300 or more innings each season from 1971-1974.  In 1971, he accumulated 8.5 WAR in 376 innings!  Yeah, Billy Martin liked to abuse pitchers.  Not only was Lolich a workhorse, but he was also effective especially in 1971-1972.  In 1971, he led the American League in wins (25) and strikeouts (308) and was tenth in ERA (2.81).  In 1972, he was third in wins (22), second in strikeouts (250) and again was tenth in ERA (2.80).  The portly left hander is the Tigers all-time strikeout leader with with 2,679.    


Lolich had an unconventional post-game routine which he claims allowed him to work so many innings: “I never used ice. I would stand in the shower after a game and soak my pitching arm under hot water for 30 minutes,” Mickey explained. “The water was scalding hot. After 30 minutes [my arm] would be red, but it would feel fine and I’d be throwing on the sidelines in two days. I never had a sore arm.” (Dan Holmes, SABR.org)


SP Joe Coleman


Mickey Lolich was exhibit number one of Billy Martin pitcher abuse.  Coleman was exhibit number two and it took its toll on him more so than Lolich.  Lolich and Coleman formed a formidable one two punch in the early 1970s.  Coleman averaged 285 innings, 5.1 WAR and a 114 ERA+ from 1971-1973.  Unfortunately, he was pretty much ruined as a pitcher at the age of 27. 


Coleman was the second of three generations of Colemans who pitched in the majors.  His father Joe Sr pitched ten seasons for the Athletics, Orioles and Tigers from 1942-1955.  His Son Casey pitched four seasons with the the Cubs and Royals from 2010-2014. 

 

SP Mark Fidrych


The Bird had only one great season in 1976, but it was the most exciting individual pitching season I have witnessed as a Tigers fan.  His combination of dominating, crafty, quirky and folksy captured the baseball world by storm like nothing I have seen since.  Fidrych’s WAR of 9.6 in 1976 was the second highest of any Tiger other than Newhouser (11.3 in 1945).  One season or not, Fidrych needed to be on this all star team. 


As the story goes, Fidrych injured his knee in spring training the next year and then tore his rotator cuff overcompensating for the knee.  However I have long believed the real reason for the shoulder injury was over use in his rookie season where he pitched 250 innings and 24 Complete Games at just 21 years old.    


It’s been said that he was not enough of a strikeout pitcher and that 1976 was a fluke, but his statistics when he did pitch in 1977-1978 were just like those in 1976 – impeccable control, stingy with home runs and even a somewhat increased K rate.  He may not have managed a long career without the strikeouts, but I think he had more great years in him had he stayed healthy.  


SP Dave Rozema


Rozema’s best season was his rookie year at the age of 21 in 1977.  His second best season was his sophomore year in 1978.  He pitched over 200 innings each year and showed excellent control for a youngster with 1.6 walks per nine innings.  Fans imagined a one-two punch of Rozema and Mark Fidrych once The Bird got healthy.  Fidrych never got healthy and Rose never approached 200 innings again.  Rozema lost his signature change-up by his third season, but still had some good years left as a swingman.  


Rozema was known to be a party boy off the field and was not always wise on the field either.  He severely injured his knee attempting a karate kick during a brawl in 1982 and required surgery.      


RP John Hiller


Hiller was one of baseball’s greatest comeback stories, remarkably recovering from multiple heart attacks in January, 1971 to become one of baseball’s elite relievers two years later (Larry and Rob Hilliard, Society for American Baseball Research).  


Like many players in those days, Hiller did not take good care of himself and his unhealthy lifestyle contributed to the early heart attack (Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1971 via Newspapers.com). His recovery started with experimental intestinal bypass surgery designed to help him lose weight (Earl McRae, The Ottawa Citizen via Newspapers.com).  Hiller also underwent several lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, cutting down his drinking and eating healthier.  Finally, he worked out harder than he ever had in his life.

The Canadian southpaw  was on a mission to get back to the majors, but even after the doctors gave him the OK to try it, the Tigers were reluctant to give him that chance.  After Hiller missed the entire 1971 season, the Tigers offered him a job as a minor league pitching instructor and later as a batting practice pitcher in 1972.  Hiller took those positions because he needed the money, but he had other ideas.  He continued to work on his strength and his pitches on the side in hopes of returning to the mound. 

Billy Martin, perhaps the only manager who would have been bold enough to give Hiller an opportunity, let him pitch in July, 1972 less than two years after his attack.  The determined southpaw went on to post a 2.03 ERA in 44 innings as a starter and reliever.  He also came out of the bullpen to win game four of the playoffs versus the Athletics. 

What came next was one of the most amazing seasons any reliever has ever had.  Mr. Hiller saved 38 games in 1973, a major league record which would stand for ten years.  He also posted an ERA+ of 286 in 125 innings over 65 games and accumulated 35 Pitching Runs, the fourth highest total ever for a reliever.  Because he was generally used in high-stress situations and was so successful, Hiller’s Win Probability Added (WPA) of 8.4 was also the second highest ever.  The only one better was attained by another Tigers reliever – Guillermo Hernandez with 8.7 in 1984.




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