The Tigers have been well known for their great hitters (no other team has won more batting titles). As a consequence, the great pitchers in franchise history have been somewhat overshadowed. Detroit has never had a 300-game winner, but they have had several MVPs on the mound, more in fact than any other franchise. Five Detroit pitchers have been named Most Valuable Player and six have won Cy Young awards.
I only chose a five-man rotation here and no account was made for left or right-handedness. The best five were chosen. A few who missed out but are worth mentioning: George Mullin, Hooks Dauss, Wild Bill Donovan, Earl Whitehill, Dizzy Trout, Virgil Trucks, Jim Bunning, Denny McLain, Frank Tanana, and Max Scherzer. All were very good but just missed making this star-studded rotation of Bengal hurlers.
#5. Tommy Bridges (1930-1943, 1945-1946)
Bridges was short and unassuming on the mound but he had an intense competitive fire when he took the ball. He won 20 games three times for the Tigers in the 1930s and is one of only two players to play in four World Series for the team (Hank Greenberg is the other). Tommy won 194 games in a Detroit uniform and anchored the rotation for the Tigers in 1934 and 1935 when they captured back-to-back pennants and their first World Series title. Bridges was famous for almost throwing no-hitters – he took a no-no into the ninth inning on several occasions.
#4. Justin Verlander (2005-present)
Under contract for at least five more years as a Tiger, the fastball-throwing righty has an excellent chance to claim the all-time record for wins in franchise history, held by Hooks Dauss with 223. Verlander is only 71 away and would need to average 14-15 wins per year to get it. Verlander already has two no-hitters, and ranks in the top three in strikeouts by a Tiger pitcher, trailing only Mickey Lolich and Jack Morris as he entered 2015. He’s the only Tiger to have pitched at least 1,200 innings and average as many as eight K’s per nine innings pitched. If he keeps progressing and he stays a Tiger, he could be #1 on this list someday.
#3. Mickey Lolich (1963-1975)
Though he’ll forever be remembered as the pitcher who started and won three games in the 1968 World Series (and deservedly so), Mickey Lolich was no one-trick pony. The hard-throwing lefty struck out 2,679 batters as a member of the Tigers, by far the most in franchise history. In fact, no other southpaw has ever struck out more batters in American league history. Lolich was a workhorse, completing more than 40% of his starts. He logged 300 or more innings in four consecutive seasons, including an incredible 376 in 1971 when he won 25 games and struck out 308 batters. The Tigers should do the right thing and retire Lolich’s #29 while he’s still very much alive to enjoy the ceremony. He won 207 games as a Tiger, third all-time.
#2. Hal Newhouser (1939-1953)
Allow me to take a moment to explain why neither of the pitchers who rank first and second all-time in wins for the Tigers made this list. Both Hooks Dauss and George Mullin pitched for the Tigers more than 100 years ago, when starters got 45+ starts a season. As a result they often won 20 games a season, on their way to 223 and 209 wins respectively. But though they were very good pitchers, neither of them match the five listed here for quality. Dauss and Mullin were good pitchers on very good Tiger teams in an era when it was easier to rack up victories. And as we have learned in the last few decades, wins are not a very good way to measure the value of a starting pitcher. Quality starts, ERA adjusted to their era, and baserunners allowed are better measures.
Now, a few words about Hal Newhouser. He was a great pitcher, one of the best of the 1940s, right up there with Bob Feller, whom he frequently battled head-to-head with much success. Newhouser won two MVP Awards, and then finished second for the award in a three-year stretch that was as good as any three years any pitcher has ever had. He went 80-27 over those three seasons (1944-1946) with a 1.99 ERA. He was the best player on the 1945 World Series winning team, and he was deservedly elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. The lefty known as “Prince Hal” won an even 200 games as a Tiger.
#1. Jack Morris (1977-1990)
Our dream five-man rotation has a real ace at the top. Morris was a fiery competitor, winning 254 games, 198 of them for Detroit. He won more games, started more games, pitched more innings, struck out more batters, and completed more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s. He was the #1 starter on three World Series winning teams, including the ’84 Tigers. He was at his best in the Fall Classic, winning four games and posting a 2.96 ERA with three complete games in seven starts. Hall of Fame voters have made a serious mistake by not electing him but he will get a second chance on the veterans ballot in years to come.