Over the weekend, Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation looked back at the best designated hitters in league history. The hook being, the designated hitter rule marked its 40th year in use on April 6. Most on his list are pretty well known for the vocation: Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, David Ortiz, etc.
There were no Tigers. This did not come as a surprise. It's really hard to come up with a player who, in his peak, could be associated with the position. Sure, there were players in their waning years filling it. There were mish-mashes of folks cobbled together to fill the spot. But could you name a truly great Tigers DH?
So I looked at Baseball-Reference this morning to see has spent time in a Tigers uniform at the DH spot, and if any of them were any good. My suspicions were confirmed.
Early on the Tigers used the DH as the pasture to which famed 1960s-era Tigers were put. The first season (and, indeed, the first at bat) was taken by Gates Brown. (He of the amazing 234 OPS+ in 1968.) 1974's DH? Al Kaline, in his final season in the MLB. You could argue it worked out OK. His OPS+ of 107 was the third-highest among regular players that year. In 1975-76 the Tigers introduced Willie Horton to the mix. His 106 OPS+ may not sound that impressive, but just keep in mind the team's leader had 107 that year.
Kirk Gibson played the most seasons as DH, at four. You can even quibble about those, as he never spent an entire season there. Heck he never even played a majority of the team's games there. It was more along the lines of being elected by 40 percent plurality. In 1983, Gibby started at DH 66 times. That led the Tigers. But he also played in left field for 54 games. He spent 76, 56 and 63 games as the Tigers' DH from 1993-95. In 1994 alone at least seven players started five games at DH. Gibson's best OPS at the position was .904 in 1994.
So: a different tack: games actually played by a Tiger. That would be 420 games by Rusty Staub. (That's just over two and a half complete seasons.) Staub held it down 1977-79, playing complete seasons there the first two years. He finished fifth in MVP voting in 1978 -- and as he was a DH with 117 OPS+ I'm not sure why. Maybe someone with a better historical perspective could weigh in.
You find several seasons like 1992, where 13 players took time as the DH and the leader among them was Cecil Fielder with 43 starts.
So that leaves us with Staub's 1977 season as the best by a "full-time" DH, with an OPS+ of 137 with 126 starts. Victor Martinez's 2011 season (131 OPS+, 112 DH starts) ranks high as well.
Worst seasons gives us a lot more to pick from -- and highlights how awful the 1990s were. In 1996 Eddie Williams had the most starts at DH, at 49 games. He had an OPS+ for the season of 45. Yes. 45. He was a designated hitter. I may never make fun of Delmon Young again. But that's not the only awful showing. Gregg Jeffries had an OPS+ of 49, leading the team with 43 starts at DH in 1998. Geronimo Berroa had an OPS+ of 71 in 32 games at DH a year earlier. (Yes, those 32 games were the most stared by any Tiger at the position that year.)
Looking through individual seasons, the team leader often had an OPS+ of 104-106. Slightly better than the average batter, but low for a player who, in theory, is only there to hit. But as I've shown, that's not the way the organization has used to rule. Rather than taking a great hitter who cannot play well in the field, Tigers GMs and managers have tended to use the position to give players a day off from the field. So for their 40 year history, the Tigers do not have a player who you can even associate with the team as a DH. Even Victor Martinez might not change that, as his contract is for just four years and one of those years has already been lost to injury.
Someday, there might be a Tigers player recognized for being a DH. (Prince Fielder may even end up spending time there, like his father, in the future.) But that won't change any time soon.