Tuesday, August 07, 2012

All-Time Teams #10: Detroit Tigers

This is part of an ongoing series where I'm naming an all-time team for each of the current 30 MLB franchises, and using this as a vehicle to discuss their greatest eligible player who is not in the Hall of Fame.

This team is loaded in the outfield, with four Hall of Famers who each played at least 15 years and earned 59 or more WAR in Detroit. Three of them played primarily in right, so one had to be shifted to left and one relegated to the bench.

Third base is definitely a weakness, especially in comparison to the rest of the starting lineup, which includes five Hall of Famers and two borderline cases.

Willie Horton's number is retired by the Tigers. I'm assuming this is due more to the fact he was a fan favorite and bravely attempted to calm the 1967 Detroit riots than because he was a great player. I was originally going to leave him off this roster in favor of Chet Lemon (the team needs a backup center fielder, after all), but then I had a change of heart.

I decided the 25th man on the roster would be a good place to honor a player who may fall a little short sabermetrically speaking, but who represents something to the franchise and its fans beyond what the advanced statistics tell you about his career.

Besides, Al Kaline is perfectly capable of serving as Ty Cobb's backup in center.

Franchise History
Detroit Tigers (1901- )

An asterisk (*) denotes a Hall of Famer.

C - Bill Freehan (1961, 1963-1976)
1B - Hank Greenberg* (1930, 1933-1941, 1945-1946)
2B - Charlie Gehringer* (1924-1942)
SS - Alan Trammell (1977-1996)
3B - Travis Fryman (1990-1997)
LF - Harry Heilmann* (1914, 1916-1929)
CF - Ty Cobb* (1905-1926)
RF - Al Kaline* (1953-1974)

Hal Newhouser* (1939-1953)
Tommy Bridges (1930-1943, 1945-1946)
Dizzy Trout (1939-1952)
Justin Verlander (2005- )
Mickey Lolich (1963-1975)

John Hiller (1965-1970, 1972-1980)

C - Lance Parrish (1977-1986)
1B - Norm Cash (1960-1974)
2B - Lou Whitaker (1977-1995)
IF - Dick McAuliffe (1960-1973)
OF - Sam Crawford* (1903-1917)
OF - Bobby Veach (1912-1923)
OF - Willie Horton (1963-1977)

Bill Donovan (1903-1912, 1918)
Jim Bunning* (1955-1963)
Frank Lary (1954-1964)
Jack Morris (1977-1990)

Hughie Jennings* (1907-1920)

This was a tough decision between Jennings and Sparky Anderson. For the first time in evaluating managers for this series, I decided to compare the team's won-loss record under each to their Pythagorean expected won-loss record during his years managing. Jennings was at +17 over 14 seasons, while Anderson came in at -6 during his 16 full seasons, meaning Jennings' teams overachieved by a little better than a win per year, and Anderson's teams slightly underperformed.

But mainly, I chose Jennings because he led the team to three straight AL pennants in his first three years as manager, following a period in which two third-place finishes were all they had to show for their first six years of existence. Of course, this also happened to coincide with Ty Cobb's first full season in the majors, so maybe that's the more relevant factor here, in which case I'll fall back on the fact Jennings' teams were 23 runs better relative to their Pythagorean expectation. I'm not really sure if I'm convinced by that argument, but it's kind of a tossup otherwise.

Greatest Eligible non-Hall of Famer

This is really a tough call between Whitaker and Trammell. Seriously, is there one factor that really separates these guys? I'm tempted to go with Whitaker, since his total lack of support (i.e. one-and-done ballot status) seems almost irresponsible on the part of the voters. At least Trammell has received enough votes to remain on the ballot for 11 years and counting, with a peak of 36.8% this past year.

That number is actually a little more than twice his level of support from just three years earlier. If that pace continues, he'll be damn close to getting in in year 14. So, I'll stick with my support of Alan Trammell as this franchise's most deserving player on the outside looking in at the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

Alan  Trammell
Alan Trammell [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

The traditional statistics don't really do Trammell justice: 1231 runs, 2365 hits, 185 HR, 1003 RBI, 236 SB, .285 BA. Nothing that really jumps off the page. I'll admit I didn't use to think of him as a Hall of Famer. Most people, myself included, have a tough time evaluating players who didn't do one thing historically great, but instead did a lot of things very well.

Why is this? The ultimate compliment when evaluating prospects is to refer to one as a five-tool player. Then why are there so many one-dimensional players in the Hall of Fame? How many "tools" did Harmon Killebrew possess? Or Willie McCovey, or even Reggie Jackson? And these guys aren't even the worst Hall of Famers. They're deserving, in my opinion, but other than hit home runs and walk pretty frequently, they really didn't do anything else well. Sure, Reggie had a strong arm, but it sure didn't translate to all that many outfield assists.

It seems no one really gets that a player could be very good at several things and actually be a better player than someone who had one phenomenal skill, but was average or worse in several other areas of his game. That is, until WAR, for those of us who are willing to look beyond the age old stats that only measure part of a player's game, and don't always do a very good job at that.

Trammell was one of those players who didn't have a real weakness in his game. He played shortstop at a time when it was primarily a defensive role—beginning his career a few years before Cal Ripken revolutionized the position—and certainly lived up to the defensive expectations of the position. His four Gold Gloves are backed up by his rank of 34th all-time in defensive WAR.

But, of course, defense wasn't entirely what Trammell was about. He hit for average (.300 or better seven times), he got on base (.370 or better OBP seven times), he added a little power (12 or more homers eight times) and a little speed (10 or more steals 13 times, and favorable WAR base running metrics). There wasn't a single aspect of his game that was lacking.

I guess the question is, does being good at everything add up to being great overall? I say it's certainly better than being great at one thing, average at two and below average at yet two more. Peruse some of your power-oriented Hall of Famers to see how many of them fit the latter description.

The clincher is that Trammell racked up 67.1 WAR over a career that spanned 20 seasons. But, he didn't get to 67 WAR because he stuck around 20 years. In fact, if we take away his age-19 season and his final three years, we get 68.2 WAR from 1978-1993, an average of 4.26 over 16 seasons. That, of course, passes, with flying colors, my 4 WAR/year for 15 years test.

Of course, expecting his vote total to double again in another three years is unrealistic, especially considering the pool of voters needing to be convinced is getting smaller. His increase over the past three years represents about 1/4 of those who voted no in 2009. If the same fraction of current no-voters changes their mind in the next three years, that will raise his total to a little over 50%. Given the spate of new candidates coming on the ballot in the next few years, I'd say even that's a little optimistic.

It's a shame, but I suspect Trammell—and Whitaker, but in his case I hope—will have to wait for the Veterans Committee to have a realistic chance of induction.

Next Up: Houston Astros


  1. "This team is loaded in the outfield", he says about a team with Alan Trammell, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Whitaker, and Norm Cash.

    The awesome thing about the Tigers is how long their players stayed with them. 6 position players have had 60+ WAR for the Tigers (Ty Cobb / Charlie Gehringer / Harry Heilmann / Al Kaline / Alan Trammell / Lou Whitaker). The Yankees are next with five.

    1. Don't forget Hank Greenberg. Everyone loves to talk about how much time Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Willie Mays lost to the war. Greenberg lost almost four years.

      You're right, though. This team is just plain loaded.

  2. Great team. I'm glad Crawford and Heilmann are both on the team and one is starting (although I would have chosen Crawford- personal preference) because- believe it or not- I actually saw an all-time Tiger team without either one!

    Also sucks for Whitaker: his double play partner gets to start but not him, and then you chose Trammell as the best non-HOF of the two (can't really complain). You're right though, these guys are almost impossible to separate.

    1. Thanks Anon. Yeah, Crawford and Heilmann are virtually interchangeable. I just think Heilmann edges him out. I think I may have seen the all-time Tiger team you're talking about that left them both off. Was it the same one that said Bobby Veach was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937?

  3. "Third base is definitely a weakness, especially in comparison to the rest of the starting lineup, which includes five Hall of Famers and two borderline cases. "

    They left a spot for one of their all-time greats, Miguel Cabrera! He has acquit himself well fielding the postion and his hitting is nonpareil.

    1. Cabrera's definitely working his way up to that spot, if he's not there already. I hope to revisit each of these teams once I'm done with the first go-'round.

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