Top 5 debut seasons in Tigers history

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have enjoyed their share of first-season sensations, sometimes from rookie phenoms, other times from big-name acquisitions. Sometimes, like with Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, stardom is expected upon arrival. Other times, like with Mark Fidrych, it comes seemingly out of nowhere, making the fandom even greater.
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The Tigers have enjoyed their share of first-season sensations, sometimes from rookie phenoms, other times from big-name acquisitions. Sometimes, like with Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, stardom is expected upon arrival. Other times, like with Mark Fidrych, it comes seemingly out of nowhere, making the fandom even greater.

With that in mind, here’s one reporter’s opinion of the five greatest debut seasons in Tigers history. Please note, though, the difference between debut season and rookie season. Though Lou Whitaker and Justin Verlander won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1978 and 2006, respectively, they made their Major League debuts with the Tigers the year before. So at the risk of being too technical, we’re leaving them out of consideration for this list.

1. Mark Fidrych, 1976
Key facts: AL Rookie of the Year, ERA title, Cy Young runner-up, All-Star, 9.6 bWAR

Nobody had an immediate impact quite like Fidrych. Not only did The Bird earn AL Rookie of the Year in 1976, he became a cultural phenomenon with his lanky frame, big hair, aw-shucks personality and pitching antics. He patted down the mound each inning to make sure he wasn’t stepping into the opposing pitcher’s ruts when he pitched. He talked to the ball to calm himself down and keep his focus. He applauded his teammates whenever they made a good defensive play behind him.

All the eccentricities overshadowed the fact that the 21-year-old Fidrych, despite one full season of Minor League ball, could really pitch. After opening the season in the bullpen, Fidrych joined the rotation by winning eight consecutive starts, including six straight complete games — two of them going 11 innings — and he didn’t look back. He was the AL starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, tossed two innings, then came back three days later with an 11-inning shutout of the A’s. He led the AL with 24 complete games and had a Major League-best 2.34 ERA that year.

2. Willie Hernandez, 1984
Key facts: AL MVP, Cy Young, World Series title, 4.8 bWAR

For a relief pitcher to win a Cy Young Award is difficult, even in the current era when bullpens are more important than ever. For a reliever to win that and an MVP Award is a rarity. Not only is Hernandez one of just three to pull it off, he was a runaway winner in MVP voting from a dominant Tigers team that had no shortage of worthy candidates. He was that good for that year, even though he shared the closer role with Aurelio Lopez until midseason.

Hernandez had been an effective reliever but not a closer until the Tigers traded for him near the end of Spring Training in 1984. However, he had been a workhorse reliever, tossing 115 1/3 innings the previous season between the Cubs and Phillies. It’s not just that Hernandez converted 32 saves in 33 opportunities in ‘84 (35-for-37 if postseason is included). It’s that 21 of those 32 regular-season saves required more than three outs. 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.

3. Ivan Rodriguez, 2004
Key facts: All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, 10th in MVP voting, 4.5 bWAR

Pudge already had a Hall of Fame resume before he signed with the Tigers as a free agent just before Spring Training. Once he arrived in Detroit, he was an icon for the Tigers’ revival as owner Mike Ilitch invested in underappreciated free agents to fuel a rally from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in ’06. Once he got on the field, Rodriguez was a huge part of the rebound. Rodriguez hit .334 with an .893 OPS, 31 doubles and 86 RBIs in ’04. He hit .500 for the month of June.

4. Joel Zumaya, 2006
Key facts: 97 K’s in 83 1/3 innings, fastball clocked at 103 mph

Unlike Verlander, Zumaya hadn’t appeared in the Major Leagues before Jim Leyland put him in Detroit’s bullpen to begin the 2006 season. The result was a hard-throwing strikeout specialist and a rookie sensation who became a key part of the Tigers’ run to the World Series. The 21-year-old picked up six wins and a save out of the bullpen, gave up just 56 hits over 83 1/3 innings, and generally overpowered hitters with a fastball that topped out at 103 mph on the radar gun at the Metrodome.

5. Miguel Cabrera, 2008
Key facts: Led AL in home runs, total bases

The Tigers traded a half-dozen prospects for Cabrera the previous offseason to bolster their World Series chances. They came nowhere close to that in 2008, finishing last in the AL Central, but Cabrera lived up to his billing as a budding young slugger and superstar in the making. After a slow first half, he took off after the All-Star break, hitting 26 home runs from July 1 to the end of the season. His league-leading 37 home runs included two walk-off shots.

Honorable mention: Austin Jackson, 2010
Key facts: AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, 12 Defensive Runs Saved, 5.1 bWAR

The Tigers weren’t expecting Jackson to make the big leagues right away when they acquired the Yankees prospect in the Curtis Granderson trade the previous December. He had been good but not great in Triple-A the year before. Not only did Jackson become the everyday center fielder, he was the leadoff hitter, scoring 103 runs and playing standout defense in spacious Comerica Park. He had a very good case for Rookie of the Year, but lost out to Rangers reliever Neftalí Feliz.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

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