How do you define the success of a player's career? Hall of Fame talents are easy; regardless of their team's performance, they outshine their peers in every phase of the game. Otherwise, our memories of players are tinted by the successes or failures of the teams that they played for. Unfortunately for Bobby Higginson, his entire career was spent playing for the Tigers during their worst stretch in franchise history. The team sported a 712-1,050 record during Higginson's career, which included three 100-loss seasons. Higginson enjoyed plenty of personal success during that stretch, however, accumulating 17.8 WAR and hitting 25+ home runs on four occasions. A fan favorite to some and a symbol of the dismal era in which he played to others, 'Higgy' is the #52 player on our countdown.
Robert Leigh Higginson was born on August 18th, 1970 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A product of Temple University, Bobby was selected by the Tigers in the 12th round of the 1992 draft. He made quick work of the Tigers' farm system, hitting .308/.358/.464 in 246 plate appearances at the Double-A level as a 22 year old in 1993. He spent all of the 1994 season at Triple-A Toledo, where he hit .275/.343/.492 in 530 plate appearances. He likely would have made his MLB debut that September if not for the strike-shortened season.
Instead, Higginson debuted in 1995. He started off well, hitting .246/.351/.472 with 10 home runs and 28 RBI in the first half. However, he was playing for an aging Tigers team that fell ten games back of first place as early as June 7th. While they fought back into the race by mid-July, they hit a major slump, finishing with a 23-51 second half record. Higginson was not immune to the struggles, hitting .204/.306/.318 after the All-Star break.
The poor finish to 1995 did not deter him, though. Higginson got off to a red-hot start the next April, hitting .263/.372/.450 with nine extra base hits and more walks (14) than strikeouts (13). However, a few days into May, Higginson was placed on the disabled list, and he missed nearly a month of action. He hit like a man possessed when he returned, batting .342/.423/.625 with 22 home runs and 64 RBI in 391 plate appearances. He finished the year with a .982 OPS and .257 ISO, both career bests. His .415 wOBA and 141 wRC+ were also career highs, and he amassed 3.6 WAR. Despite the solid numbers, the Tigers would go on to lose 109 games, a franchise record at the time.
The losses would become a pattern throughout Higginson's career. Despite the solid numbers he was putting up -- which were admittedly being overshadowed by an unprecedented number of sluggers in the era -- the Tigers kept losing. They finished under .500 in each of Higginson's 11 seasons, and lost at least 90 games in eight of those 11 years. Their last winning season (at the time) was in 1993, two years before Higginson was called up. The year after Higginson retired, the Tigers won 95 games and made it to the World Series.
Higginson's numbers took a slight step back in 1997, but he surpassed the 100 RBI barrier for the first time in his career. He also hit a then-career-high 27 home runs, four of which came in a two day stretch. On June 30th, Higginson hit three home runs in a 14-0 victory over the New York Mets. The first, a two run shot to right field, came off starter Matt Clark in the bottom of the first inning. Clark walked Higginson his next two times up at the plate as the Tigers jumped out to a 6-0 lead.
With Higginson walking up to the plate with two runners on in the bottom of the sixth, Mets manager Bobby Valentine went to his bullpen for left-hander Joe Crawford. The move backfired, and Higginson launched a three-run bomb to right, extending the Tigers' lead to 9-0. With the game well in hand in the bottom of the seventh, Higginson added to his tally with a second homer off Crawford. Higginson ended the day with three home runs in three at-bats, two walks, and six RBI.
Higgy wasn't done with the Mets, though. The next day, Brian Hunter led off the bottom of the first with a leadoff single to left field. Higginson stepped in against Mets starter Bobby Jones and launched the first pitch he saw to deep right-center field for a two-run homer. Thanks to the walks the day before, Higginson had homered in each of his previous four at-bats. It is a feat that has only been accomplished 38 times in major league history, the latest by Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies in 2012. Higginson was unable to stretch his streak to five at-bats, as Jones struck him out looking in the bottom of the third inning.
Higginson's bat remained potent in 1998, as he hit 25 home runs and drove in 85 runs in 686 plate appearances. One of those home runs would eventually become the most famous plate appearance of his career, but not entirely because of him. On the final day of the regular season, the Tigers faced off against Toronto Blue Jays rookie right-hander Roy Halladay. Making his second career start, the 21-year-old Halladay made quick work of the Tigers' lineup through eight innings. How quick? Tony Clark reached base on an error by second baseman Felipe Crespo in the top of the fifth inning. No hits. No walks.
With Halladay one out away from a no-hitter, Tigers interim manager Larry Parrish sent Higginson up to the plate as a pinch hitter. Halladay caught too much of the plate with a fastball, and Higginson went opposite field for his 25th home run of the season.
After missing nearly two months in 1999 due to a toe injury, Higginson returned to put up the best season of his career in 2000. He hit .300/.377/.538 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI, and he stole 15 bases in 18 attempts. His .389 wOBA and 131 wRC+ were among the best of his career, and he appeared in 154 games for just the second time. This resulted in a career-high 4.3 WAR. The team would go on to win 79 games and finish just 16 games out of first place, both of which were career bests for Higginson.
Unfortunately, 2000 would be a high mark for Higgy. He had a couple more solid seasons in 2001 and 2002, but injuries started to take their toll. Higginson had hamstring issues in 2002 and 2003, and his OPS slipped below .800 for the first time since his rookie season. He missed over 100 games from 2002 to 2004, and he was worth just 1.7 WAR. When he suffered an elbow injury and missed nearly all of the 2005 season, Higginson announced his retirement at the age of 35.