The Detroit Tigers, as a charter member of the American League (dating back to 1901), have no shortage of outstanding seasons by hitters.
That includes (among others): Two Triple Crowns — Miguel Cabrera and Ty Cobb; six AL MVP awards (won by four Tigers hitters) —Cabrera (2), Cobb, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg (2); 11 home-run crowns — Cabrera (2), Cobb, Cecil Fielder (2), Darrell Evans, Greenberg (4) and Rudy York; and, of course, 27 batting titles — Cabrera (4), Norm Cash, Cobb (12), Gehringer, Harry Heilmann (4), Al Kaline, George Kell, Harvey Kuenn, Heinie Manush and Magglio Ordóñez.
But who had the greatest seasons among all the Tigers? As noted, there are a lot of players to choose from (and that’s not even including Curtis Granderson’s 2007 — in which he became the third player ever with 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals — or Sam Crawford’s 1914 — in which he set the franchise record with 26 triples).
Here’s a look at our picks for the 10 Tigers — with apologies to Cobb, Cabrera and several others, they each get just one entry — with the greatest seasons at the plate (listed chronologically):
Ty Cobb, 1917
Cobb led the American League in batting average in 12 of 13 seasons from 1907-19, including this season with a .383 mark. Still, it’s only his seventh-best year for batting average, 11th-best for on-base percentage (.444) and fifth-best for slugging percentage (.570). So why choose this one over, say, Cobb’s Triple Crown year of 1909, when he led the AL in average (.377), RBIs (107) and home runs (nine)? (It was truly a different era.) Although Cobb’s numbers weren’t career bests across the board, no Tiger has ever been better than the competition, based on OPS+ — like OPS, but adjusted for park effects and set to 100 is “league average.”
Cobb’s OPS+ of 209 was 37 points higher than the No. 2 hitter, Cleveland’s Tris Speaker. And the majors were in the final years of the deadball era; teams averaged just 3.59 runs a game and the league as a whole accounted for 26,581 total bases. Cobb, by the way, finished with 151 singles, 44 doubles, 24 triples and six homers to account for 335 of those bases — a whopping 1.3% of the league total — and finished with 74 bases more than No. 2, teammate Bobby Veach.
Harry Heilmann, 1923
No Tiger has hit .400 since Helimann led the AL at .403 in 1923. The 28-year-old racked up 211 hits — 138 singles, 44 doubles, 11 triples and 18 homers — in 524 at-bats while also scoring 121 runs, driving in 115 and finishing with a .481 OBP and a .632 slugging percentage.
After a 1-for-8 performance in a Sept. 20 doubleheader dropped Heilmann’s average to .387, the right fielder finished the season on a hellacious tear: 26 hits in 47 at-bats (.553), plus 10 walks, over 15 games. Babe Ruth, meanwhile, couldn’t quite match Heilmann despite a strong finish of his own: 21 hits in 43 at-bats (.488) over 11 games to go from .388 to .393 and miss out on his best chance at the Triple Crown.
Despite the thrilling chase, Heilmann finished third in the AL MVP vote, behind runner-up Eddie Collins (who led the AL with 48 steals while hitting .360) and Ruth (who hit only 41 homers but was, y’know, Babe Ruth), in his only MVP campaign.
Hank Greenberg, 1937
Another Tigers legend with multiple seasons to choose from: Greenberg, a two-time AL MVP (1935, ’40), still holds the franchise’s single-season record for doubles (63, in 1934), home runs (58, in 1938), extra-base hits (103, in 1937), RBIs (184, in 1937) and total bases (397, in 1937). His 1937 benchmarks might have been the most improbable, considering a wrist injury limited him to just 12 games in 1936. He returned healthy in ’37 and hit .337/.436/.668 over 701 plate appearances, launching 40 homers and 49 doubles to go with 102 walks and 101 strikeouts.
Greenberg’s RBI mark remains No. 2 in AL history (behind Lou Gehrig’s 185 in 1931) and No. 3 in MLB history (behind Hack Wilson’s 191 in 1930). He cleared the rest of his AL competitors that season by 17 — New York’s Joe DiMaggio had 167 at age 22 — despite the Tigers finishing second in runs. The next-highest Tigers RBI total that season was Gee Walker’s 113, followed by Rudy Walker at 101. Greenberg was certainly helped by the Tigers hitting in front of him; Detroit’s on-base percentage of .370 led the AL. But he did the work, too — the 26-year-old hit .370 with runners in scoring position, including 25 home runs.
Greenberg only finished third in AL MVP voting in ’37, however, and didn’t even receive a first-place vote. DiMaggio received two of the eight, and Tigers teammate Charlie Gehringer, who led the AL with a .371 batting average and scored 133 runs, took six and the award. But Greenberg’s franchise RBI mark may be untouchable — which explains the audible gasp when the total was read aloud during the ceremony retiring Greenberg’s No. 5 at Tiger Stadium in 1983. In the nearly 90 seasons since Greenberg set it, just two Tigers have even reached 140: Rocky Colavito, with 140 in 1961, and Greenberg himself, posting 147 in 1938 and 150 in 1940.
Norm Cash, 1961
Cash broke out this year, his fourth big-league season and second in Detroit (after being traded twice, from Chicago to Cleveland and then from Cleveland to Detroit, during the 1959-60 offseason). Over 673 plate appearances, he hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs while scoring 119 runs. He led the AL in hits (193) and intentional walks (19) and led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage (.487) and OPS (1.148). (His OPS+ was 201, good for third in Tigers history.) And yet the 27-year old finished just fourth in AL MVP voting. Why?
Unfortunately for Cash and the Tigers, the events in New York overshadowed almost everything else in the majors, as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle put up a dual assault on Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 60 home runs (Maris broke it on the season’s last day) and the Yankees won 109 games, eight more than the AL runner-up: The Tigers (whose 101 wins were tied for the most in franchise history until the 1968 squad won 103). Cash, meanwhile finished behind Maris, Mantle (who led the majors in slugging at .687) and Baltimore’s Jim Gentile (who tied Maris for the AL lead in RBIs with 141).
Cash never again even topped .300, though he made three more All-Star squads and provided an all-time clip when he attempted to break up Nolan Ryan’s no-hitter against the Tigers on July 15, 1973, by bringing a table leg to the plate in the ninth inning. (Spoiler: It didn’t work.)
Al Kaline, 1967
Another longtime Tiger with multiple candidates for the franchise’s greatest season — it’s tough to overlook his batting title (.340) at age 20 in 1955, or his 1959 when he posted a .327/.410/.530 line to lead the AL with a .940 OPS — but we’ll go with ’67, the last in a streak of 13 straight All-Star appearances, in which he was the leading vote-getter in the AL (though a broken finger kept him from playing in the Midsummer Classic). At age 32, “Mr. Tiger” hit .308 with 25 homers, 94 runs scored, 83 walks and 47 strikeouts in 550 plate appearances over 131 games.
Those might seem like pedestrian numbers, but the AL (and the NL) was nearing an offensive cratering again; Kaline’s homers and runs ranked fourth in the AL, his walks fifth and his 78 RBIs stood eighth in the league, while his .952 OPS was fourth, behind only Yastrzemski (1.040 in his Triple Crown run), Baltimore’s Frank Robinson (.979) and Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew (.965). The No. 5 OPS in the AL, belonging to California’s Don Mincher at .854, was nearly 100 points lower than Kaline’s. And yet Kaline finished fifth in MVP voting, beaten out by Yastrzemski, Killebrew and even his own teammate, catcher Bill Freehan.
Willie Horton, 1968
If the shine of Kaline’s 1967 was dulled a bit by the Tigers’ finish, a game behind the Red Sox in the AL after losing two of their final three, 1968 was a brilliant response. As offenses continued to struggle, with AL teams averaging 3.41 runs a game, just three AL hitters mustering at least 35 homers and only one breaking the .300 mark, Horton stood out with a .285/.352/.543 line that included 36 homers and 85 RBIs. His success brought team success as well, as the Tigers stormed to their first World Series title since 1945.
The Detroit Northwestern standout, who the summer before had worked to maintain peace during the 1967 uprising, crushed 14 homers while hitting .317 over the first two months of 1968 as the Tigers fought off the rest of the 10-team AL in the final season without divisions. June brought just four homers, but Horton rebounded with eight blasts in July. Horton particularly punished the California Angels, with 11 homers and a .357 batting average over 18 games; he had just five homers against the second-place Orioles, but four of those came in just two games, two each on May 14 and July 27.
Horton wasn’t through, however, as his go-ahead homer against the White Sox on Aug. 22 pushed the Tigers to 7½ games up on the Orioles. Afterward, he laid out his plan for the season’s final five weeks: “I’ve got to keep pushing. That’s what you tell the kids at the recreation centers when you go out to talk to then — that they’ve got to give that little extra. Well, this is the point of the season when I’ve got to do it. Talking about it won’t get the job done.” Horton finished the year with a .310/.376/.531 line, including seven homers, over his final 29 games as the Tigers finished 22-14 for a then-franchise-record 103 wins.
Cecil Fielder, 1990
No season on this list may have been as unexpected as Fielder’s, his first as a Tiger. Well, his first as a DETROIT Tiger. After four nondescript seasons with the Blue Jays — a .243 average and 31 homers over 220 games — Fielder was sent to the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League, hitting 38 homers in 106 games and earning a ticket back to the U.S. on Jan. 15, 1990. The Tigers signed Fielder to a two-year, $3 million deal: a $1.5 million bonus (in three installments), $500,000 for the 1990 season and $1 million for 1991. “I think I’m going to get a chance to play,” Fielder said. “They wouldn’t have tried to sign me if they weren’t happy with what they thought I could do.” It’s arguably the most cost-effective bet the franchise ever made — Fielder went on to crush 51 home runs in that first season, second-most in franchise history.
Three months after signing his deal, on April 14, Fielder hit his first home run for Detroit, a blast to the upper deck in right at Tiger Stadium. Two days later, another one (this time to left-center), and another three days after that. A two-homer game on April 28, followed by a three-blast game on May 6, and by July 24 — with just 96 games in the Old English “D” — Fielder had topped his career homer total (on a third-inning shot vs. the Orioles that landed midway up the second deck in left at Tiger Stadium). He finished the season with one final party: Two homers in Oct. 3’s season finale at New York’s Yankee Stadium, both to deep left (in the fourth and eighth innings) to celebrate as MLB’s home-run champ, and its RBI champ, at 132. (Fielder was also the only American Leaguer to hit 40 homers, with the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg hitting 40 in the NL.) He finished second in MVP voting behind Oakland’s Rickey Henderson.
After the homer, Fielder admitted he’d felt the pressure to make the jump from 49 to 50 homers, telling reporters, “After No. 49, I really got caught up in this. It wasn’t me up there anymore. I was trying to please everyone and I became a different hitter.” But as the ball flew into the Yankee Stadium stands — 391 feet, the team estimated — Fielder took a different leap, hopping up and down out of the batter’s box. “”I didn’t mean to jump like that, but I couldn’t help it, man! I couldn’t help it!” And the next season? “I’m so juiced now, I almost want to go out there and do it all again,” he said. Indeed, Fielder led the majors in homers again in 1991, albeit with 44. In all, he hit 245 homers with Detroit, and 319 in the majors. (The same as his son, Prince, would, including a two-year stint of his own with the Tigers.)
Magglio Ordóñez, 2007
Unlike Fielder’s big year, Ordóñez’s epic season (his third as a Tiger) presented few smash highlights. Just a steady stream of singles (134), doubles (54 of those, tops in the majors) and homers (28) over 595 at-bats to finish with a .363 batting average — the second-highest mark for an AL right-hander in a full season since World War II (behind only Nomar Garciaparra’s .372 for Boston in 2000) — as the Tigers’ first batting champ since Cash in 1961.
How steady was Ordóñez’s attack? He had at least one hit in 124 of his 157 games, and never went hitless in more than two games in a row. In fact, he had just five two-game hitless streaks all season. Conversely, he had at least two hits in a game 61 times, at least three hits 25 times and at least four hits six times. After 70 games, Ordóñez’s average was up to .383 — sparking dreams of the first .400 season in more than six decades — but a rough start to the second half, in which Ordóñez hit just .263 from the All-Star break to the end of July, dropped him to .347. But there was more to come, as Ordóñez hit .393 in August and September: 81 hits in 201 at-bats, including a push over his final seven games — 15-for-26 (.577) with five doubles and a homer — to finish with a 12-point edge (ahead of Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki at .351).
Ordóñez’s success wasn’t just a win for the Tigers; it was an international triumph, as he became the second Venezuelan-born hitter to win a batting crown (after Colorado’s Andres Galarraga hit .370 in 1993; there have been four since, including Miguel Cabrera four times). Accordingly, after the Tigers’ celebration was over — Ordóñez was dunked in a bottle of Dom Perignon — the slugger received a phone call from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez: “He was really happy and really proud to have an American League batting champion,” Ordonez said. “It was really nice for me to get to talk to the president.” But Ordóñez didn’t forget about Detroit, either: “I want to thank the fans of Detroit,” he said. “They deserve the batting title.”
Miguel Cabrera, 2011-13
Do we really have to choose between Cabrera’s two MVP efforts? In 2012, his fifth season in Detroit, Cabrera hit .330 (four points better than Mike Trout) with 44 homers (one more than Granderson and Josh Hamilton) and 139 RBIs (11 more than Hamilton) to deliver the first Triple Crown in the majors since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Boston Red Sox in 1967. In 2013, Cabrera was even better, with a .348 average (tops in the AL), 44 homers (second behind Baltimore’s Chris Davis) and 137 RBIs (one behind Davis) — despite being slowed by an abdominal strain, dropping 10 points off his batting average in September.
Perhaps we can use his postseason work as a tiebreaker? Cabrera posted an .817 OPS in 2012 as the Tigers stormed to the World Series. His 2013 playoffs were a disappointment, with a visibly ailing Miggy posting a .716 OPS as the Tigers lost the ALCS in six games. But neither performance lives up to his 2011 postseason, when he had a .314/.489/.771 slash line. That followed a regular season in which he hit .344 with 48 homers — both MLB bests — and drove in 105 runs with a 1.033 OPS.
But Cabrera’s contributions probably shined the most down the stretch in 2013, when he was the most banged up. As manager Jim Leyland told reporters before Cabrera won his second MVP crown, “Some people say, ‘Well, his numbers were off because of the injury,’ and I think that’s even more reason why he should get it. To play through what that guy played through for his team, that’s what this guy is all about.”
Victor Martinez, 2014
Martinez’s eight-year Detroit tenure was filled with ups and downs — for example, a .330 average in 2011, his first season, was followed by missing all of 2012 with an offseason knee injury. By 2014, V-Mart was fully healthy and dominated at the plate with a .335/.409/.565 performance — at age 35 — that brought his only All-Star appearance as a Tiger, as well as a runner-up finish in AL MVP voting (behind Trout, who led the AL in runs, RBIs and strikeouts and received all 30 first-place votes).
Martinez led the AL in on-base percentage and led the majors in OPS (.974), thanks to 32 homers and 70 walks in 641 plate appearances. In some ways, it was a season out of another era: Martinez became the first player since 1992 with at least 30 homers, 550 at-bats and less than 50 strikeouts, and just the eighth since 1958.
The epic season earned Martinez a second contract in Detroit that didn’t go quite as well as the first — the DH produced a .262/.320/.397 line over his final 514 games, while earning approximately $68 million. But at the celebration of the contract, he and then-team owner Mike Ilitch were like family: “He’s exactly what you want a ballplayer to be,” Ilitch said. “He’s such a special person. I know he gets angry, but he never shows it. He’s cool as a cucumber, and his teammates think the world of him.”