It’s not easy to select a quintet of Tiger designated hitters for our Best Five. The franchise has had many, many players in that role, and for many years they shuttled in regular position players at DH for days off from playing the field. But there have been a few players who were used regularly as a DH. Two of the best were the first two Tiger DH’s (Horton and Staub), who filled the role after the rule was instituted in the American League in 1973. The years listed are the seasons the player appeared in at least one game as a DH for the Tigers.
#5 Gary Sheffield (2007-2008)
Sheffield was a perfect DH — he was late in his career and was no longer an effective outfielder, but still had his famous quick bat. In 2007, the 38-year old hit 25 homers and drove in 75 while scoring 107 runs for the Tigers. A smart baserunner, he was also a 20-20 man, stealing 22 bases. The next season his average sank to .225, but he still delivered 19 homers and 57 RBI in 114 games. He was pretty much done as a major leaguer, but in his two seasons as a Tiger he was a dangerous presence in the lineup.
#4 Dmitri Young (2002-2006)
The switch-hitting Young was the Tigers primary DH for four+ seasons. He was tailor-made for the role. Dmitri made nearly every flyball hit to him in the outfield an adventure. But at the plate he was in his element. He hit 29 homers in 2003 and made the All-Star team for the Tigers’ club that lost 119 games. The next season he hit 18 (in just 104 games), and in 2005 he hit 21 homers. Personal problems curtailed his career, but “Da’ Meat Hook” was a .292 career hitter in 13 seasons.
#3 Willie Horton (1973-1977)
When the DH rule was passed for the 1973 season, it was perfect timing for Willie Horton. The Tiger veteran had already spent a decade in left field for the club and in recent years gad missed significant playing time with injuries. The pampered life of a professional hitter was suited for Horton. Manager Ralph Houk was the first to install Willie as a full-time, exclusive DH, in 1975. Willie responded by setting career highs in games played, at-bats, and hits. He socked 25 homers and drove in 92 runs. He spent two more years in the role for Detroit, and later was a very successful DH for Texas, Oakland, and Seattle.
#2 Rusty Staub (1976-1979)
We’ll never know who would win a footrace between Rusty Staub and Gerald Laird, and it’s a shame, because the two sloths would probably put on a good show. But good thing For Staub he didn’t have to beat out that many infield hits: he was usually lining singles to the outfield. Rusty was a great hitter everywhere he went (he’s the only player to collect at least 500 hits with four different teams). He was at his best when runners were on base: the redhead drove in 100 runs twice for the Tigers and he averaged 106 RBI for his three full seasons with the team. With a sweet, short, level, left-handed stroke, Staub was a .277 hitter as a Tiger. In 1978 he finished fifth in AL MVP voting while playing every game at DH.
#1 Victor Martinez (2011-present)
In his three years with the Tigers through 2014 (he missed all of 2012 with a hip injury), Victor Martinez has been the best designated hitter in baseball. Better than even David Ortiz of the Red Sox. Martinez had his best year as a Tiger in ’14 when he challenged for the batting title and hit .335 with a career high 32 homers and league-leading .409 on-base percentage. He finished second in MVP voting and eanred himself a four-year contract that will most likely mean he will end his career in a Detroit uniform. For his Detroit career VMart is averaging .321 with 36 doubles, 19 homers, and 96 RBI per season. Not only is Martinez the best pure designated hitter the Tigers have ever had, he’s also the best switch-hitter in franchise history.