Why hard-hitting Detroit Tigers from 30 years ago would be perfect for today’s baseball

Detroit Free Press

When Mickey Tettleton settled in the batter’s box 30 years ago — standing upright, front shoulder tucked, hands resting near the Old English D on his uniform, his big stick pointing in a 45-degree angle toward the netting behind the plate — he didn’t have a lot on his mind.

“We never heard of launch angle or spin rate coming off the bat or exit velocity, whatever it was,” the retired catcher said with a hint of sarcasm. “My main objective was to hit it hard somewhere, whether it was hard on the ground, hard on a line, or hard into the bleachers.”

Grip it and rip it. It was the philosophy adopted by Sparky Anderson’s lineup of hackin’, free-wheelin’ big-boppin’ clubbers of the early 1990s. Those Detroit Tigers, set up like a row of wind turbines, eschewed the station-to-station baseball favored by the establishment back then — preferring instead to slug their way to victories. Tettleton, Cecil Fielder, Travis Fryman, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Rob Deer were there to bludgeon the baseball. Sacrificing, bunting and stealing were deemphasized. Taking big cuts was encouraged by an organization that deferred to a clubhouse full of veteran hitters.

“We weren’t moving the guy over too much,” Fielder told the Free Press earlier this month, chuckling under his breath. “We were swinging away.”

Long before baseball became defined by its binary code of Ks and HRs, the Tigers took an approach to hitting that drew skepticism at the time but would now earn appreciation in this analytics-driven era.

[ Why Javier Báez’s 2022 has been catastrophic for Tigers: ‘I’m just struggling’ ]

The stat geeks, after all, don’t like small ball either, decrying its inefficiencies. Instead, they love homers, approve of walks and are unfazed by strikeouts — the three outcomes synonymous with the go-for-broke style Tettleton, Deer and their Tigers teammates embraced when they went to plate.

“All that sabermetrics is trying to do is win more games,” said Ben Baumer, a professor at Smith College who once worked for the New York Mets as a statistical analyst. “Which on the offensive side means scoring more runs. So the proof is there. (Those Tigers) led the league in that category.”

Anderson’s bunch aimed to pound opposing pitchers, taking advantage of their creaky old ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull that had a short fence down the lines, an overhang in right field and an upper deck that wrapped around the field.

“I never did hear Sparky … or the players talk about hitting fly balls,” former first base coach Gene Roof told the Free Press. “But in the summertime, the ball really flew there.”

These days, the same can’t be said at Comerica Park, which houses one of the most punchless clubs in baseball.

The 2022 Tigers are last in the league in runs, homers and slugging percentage. They have been shut out four times and failed to score more than once on eight other occasions.

Their futility has raised the question of whether the Tigers’ batting order 30 years ago would be better equipped to compete in this age of baseball than the one now occupying the dugout at the corner of Montcalm and Brush.

[ Why the Tigers’ hopes for 2022 grew even dimmer in their first game in Cleveland ]

“I think we would be right there with today’s lineups,” Tettleton said.

“We knew we were good,” Fielder added. “And everybody else did, too. So, if we were coming into town or we were going into their town, they knew they had to step up their bats because we were swinging. … We had guys who could rock.”

Those who came out to watch saw the baseball equivalent of heavy metal. From 1991-1993, when the Tigers finished only two games above .500 and never higher than second in the AL East, they  became a statistical outlier with a boom-or-bust style that entertained fans but rankled purists who questioned how a team could survive with a collection of all-or-nothing hitters propping up a pitching staff that curdled on a nightly basis. During that three-year period, they topped MLB in runs, homers, strikeouts, walks, on-base percentage and OPS — leading some of those categories by wide margins.

Yet they drew scorn and ridicule by some who thought the game should be played a different way.

“The Detroit Tigers have set baseball strategy back a half-century this summer,” one out-of-town reporter wrote in 1991. “There are few bunts, few steals and little subtlety. It’s just crash, boom, bang. … Send Detroit your overweight guys, your whiff kings and your obscenely priced hitters and Motown will make heroes of them.”

Anderson at least made sure they were valued.

He defended them publicly and supported them privately.

He once pulled Fielder aside, telling him that if he could hit 30 home runs and manufacture 100 RBIs then Anderson would be satisfied.

“So that was what we were aiming for,” Fielder said.

Strikeouts be damned — and there were a lot of them.

In 1991, four of the 10 MLB batters tagged with the most Ks that year played in Detroit.

Among them was Tettleton, who never feared the wrath of Anderson if he went down swinging. In the manager’s eyes, the risk was worth the bountiful reward that came from depositing the ball in the outfield seats.

Anderson, after all, had co-opted the philosophy espoused by his one-time contemporary Earl Weaver, who championed the benefits of the three-run homer.

“He just kind of knew that he had a good offensive team and he was going to take the good with the bad,” Tettleton said. “A lot of games there was a lot of good and in some games there wasn’t.”

As Tettleton alluded, the results weren’t always pretty.

In 1992, when the Tigers finished 75-87 and tumbled to sixth place in the division, their feast-or-famine lineup was blanked nine times. But by and large the Tigers lost games because of their subpar pitching, which blunted the impact of a lineup that dug the long ball.

Detroit’s 4.62 ERA from 1991-93 was the worst in baseball. Among the 10 MLB starters who conceded the most home runs during that period, four spent at least one season with the Tigers. Bill Gullickson, the de facto ace, surrendered the most — 85.

“No matter what offensive firepower you have,” Tettleton said, “you’ve got to get people out.”

The Tigers didn’t do that nearly enough, which is why the most explosive team from that era fizzled out.

All that is left is an interesting legacy and the question of whether Anderson’s bunch was ahead of its time, subtly influencing a sport now defined by its zero-sum outcomes.

Back in 1991, when Detroit’s bats were in full swing, Vada Pinson had a sneaking suspicion his stacked lineup was onto something as it powered through the competition. The Tigers were on their way to becoming the fourth club in MLB history to smack at least 200 home runs and surpass at least 1,000 strikeouts — a pair of benchmarks reached by 24 teams in 2019 alone (and another 13 last year).

“Maybe people will see that it doesn’t take hit after hit to be a successful offensive club,” Pinson, the veteran hitting coach, said then. “A rally on this team may be a walk and a two-run home run. But it counts just as much as a few doubles and singles. … Maybe the book is going to be rewritten after this year.”

The words seem prescient now. But Tettleton wouldn’t know. Baseball is part of his past, and it’s going to stay that way.

“Honestly,” he said. “I don’t even watch it.”

If he did, he may find the game looks and sounds a lot like the one he and his teammates played all those years ago. Crash. Boom. Bang. And whiff.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin.  

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