If you’ve spent any time around a baseball box score in the present day you’ve undoubtedly come across the statistic WAR, or Wins Above a Replacement player. While not a perfect statistic, as no statistic is (here’s looking at you pitcher wins), WAR is meant to measure the value a player adds to an organization over the course of a season and a career. If a replacement player is considered to add zero wins to a season, setting the baseline to zero, measuring a player’s value against this is a strong metric.
For an organization that has been around since 1901, using WAR to determine a top-ten is a very safe and balanced comparison. According to Fangraphs, “Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players.”
So we are comparing players from the beginning of Detroit Tigers’ history, simply answering the question, who has been the most valuable Tiger ever? We compiled this list with the help of Baseball Reference, and only took into account the players WAR when they were with the Tigers. Without further adieu, here are the top ten most valuable Tigers of all-time.
10. HANK GREENBERG – FIRST BASEMAN (1933-1946) 54.1 WAR
“Hammerin’” Hank Greenberg was one of the premier power hitters during the thirties and forties. The native New Yorker signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers after his senior year in high school and hailing from a traditional Jewish family, it took a little convincing of his mother and father that professional baseball could be a viable profession. After a couple of years toiling in the minor leagues, Hank finally got his shot with the Detroit club, cracking the lineup for good in 1933.
Throughout Hank’s tenure in Detroit he collected 1,528 hits, 306 home runs, 1,274 RBIs, while slashing .313/.412/.605. He spent his final year in the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, helping to groom a young Ralph Kiner. Hank did lose three season to World War II, which means his all-time numbers could be even better. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956, Hank will always be remembered for his historic chase of Babe Ruth’s homerun record and Lou Gehrig’s single-season RBI record, each of which he fell just short. Greenberg’s number five is retired by the Detroit Tigers.
9. JUSTIN VERLANDER – STARTING PITCHER (2006-2017) 55.8 WAR
Yes, it is possible for a current player to crack this list. And, if it were to be anyone, shouldn’t it be Justin Verlander? Arguably the face of the franchise for more than a decade Verlander was easily a fan favorite. Whether cheering on the two no-hitters, back-to-back domination in Game 5s against Oakland, or his first MLB hit in San Diego, JV was the embodiment of what it takes to wear the Old English D and he represented it as well as anyone.
In thirteen years with the Tigers, Verlander amassed a 183-114 record, in 2,511 innings pitched, with 2,373 strikeouts, and a 1.19 WHIP. He also collected Rookie of the Year honors, a Cy Young trophy, an MVP, along with multiple All-Star appearances while wearing a Tiger uniform. Even though Verlander is still in the process of playing out his career, clearly he was a valuable piece of the Tigers’ recent decade of dominance. In fact, he’s the ninth-most valuable player the Tigers ever had — that’s saying something. He was a great Tiger, and who knows, maybe he will be again.
8. HAL NEWHOUSER – STARTING PITCHER (1939-1953) 61.9 WAR
The native Detroiter made his Major League debut for his hometown team as an eighteen-year-old kid. His debut was the only start that he made in the 1939 season, but from that moment on and for fifteen years after, he was a staple in the Tigers starting rotation. The lanky lefty pitched his way to back-to-back MVPs (1944 & 1945), two ERA titles, a World Series ring, and a Hall of Fame induction. Not bad for a kid born and raised in midtown Detroit.
The Wilbur Wright High School product made 373 starts for the Tigers, throwing complete games in 212 of those starts. In over 2,900 innings pitched, Newhouser compiled a 200-148 record, a 3.07 ERA, and racked up 1,770 strikeouts. He was a Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame in 1992, and his number 16 is retired by the ballclub.
7. SAM CRAWFORD – RIGHT FIELDER/FIRST BASEMAN (1903-1917) 63.5 WAR
“Wahoo” Sam Crawford was a vital part of the Detroit Tigers early success, helping the team win three consecutive American League pennants from 1907-1909. He and Ty Cobb teamed up to make a formidable outfield presence for the Detroit ballclub during the game’s dead ball era. Starting his career in 1899, he was purchased from a semi-pro club by the Cincinnati Reds, making his debut that year at age 19.
In 1903 he jumped from the Senior Circuit to the Junior American League and the Detroit Tigers. It was here that Crawford made his mark as one of the premier power hitters of the dead ball era — leading the league in home runs in 1908 with seven round-trippers. For his career Crawford collected a lifetime batting average of .309 and still holds the all-time record for triples with 309 — how’s that for symmetry? Falling just short of the magic 3,000 hits by a mere 31, Crawford was elected to the Hall of Fame by a Veterans Committee vote in 1957. His approach at the plate was simple, “My idea of batting is a thing that should be done unconsciously…If you get to studying it too much…you will miss it altogether.” Adding nearly 75 wins to his ball club over the course of his 19 year career, we’d say that approach worked out quite well for old Wahoo Crawford.
6. HARRY HEILMANN – RIGHT FIELDER/FIRST BASEMAN (1914-1929) 67.4 WAR
It is fitting that Harry “Slug” Heilmann comes after Wahoo Sam Crawford in this list, as it was Heilmann that was made to replace Crawford in right field for the Tigers. With the natural pressure that comes from replacing someone like Wahoo, Heilmann performed admirably in his task and became the sixth most valuable player in Tigers history.
Heilmann had his first cup of coffee in the show in 1914, hitting a mere .225. After two more years in the minors, he was entered into the Tigers lineup in 1916 and remained there until 1929. Heilmann missed most of the year in 1918 due to military service during World War I, but still managed to hit .276 in just 286 at-bats. During his career manning the right field of Navin Field, Heilmann hit over .390 four times, once eclipsing the .400 mark, and even beat out player-coach Ty Cobb for the batting title in 1921, hitting .394 to Cobb’s .389. Heilmann was voted in to the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association in 1952.
5.ALAN TRAMMELL – SHORTSTOP (1978-1996) 70.7 WAR
When you list the greatest combinations in the history of mankind you start to think of things like peanut butter and jelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, and of course the double play combination of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. Trammell accumulated a laundry list of accomplishments throughout his time in Detroit, including: three-time Silver Slugger, four-time Gold Glover, six-time All-Star, World Series Champion, and World Series MVP.
In 2,293 career games in the Old English D, Trammell hit a career .285/.352/.415, with 185 home runs, 1,003 RBIs, and 2,365 hits. But it was the 1984 World Series where Trammell shined brightest. In 20 at-bats, he hit .450/.500/.800, mashed two home runs, nine hits, had six RBIs and only struck out twice. Effectively running away with the World Series MVP trophy and a Championship ring as well. For as great as Trammell was as a player, he was removed from the Hall of Fame ballot until 2018 when he earned entrance through the Veterans Committee. His number three will be retired by the Tigers this August.
4. LOU WHITAKER – SECOND BASEMAN (1977-1995) 75.1 WAR
Ah yes, the jelly to Alan Trammell’s peanut butter; the Bonnie to his Clyde. The second half of one of the longest tenured double play duos of all-time: Lou Whitaker. Manning the keystone for nearly two decades Whitaker was #1 in the programs and the hearts of fans. More admirably, he was a very vocal candidate for Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame induction in 2018, even though once again he was shunned by the Hall.
In nearly 10,000 plate appearances (9,967), Whitaker collected 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, 1,084 RBIs, and slashed .276/.363/.426. He also was a five time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover, four-time Silver Slugger, and World Series champion. Arguably his numbers are on par with other Hall of Fame second basemen — with a higher WAR than Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg, just to name a few. Yet, egregiously he has been left off of Hall of Fame ballots and hasn’t yet been added by the Veterans Committee. He has yet to have his number retired by the organization.
3. CHARLIE GEHRINGER – SECOND BASEMAN (1924-1942) 80.7 WAR
“The Mechanical Man” as Gehringer came to be known was a stalwart keystoner for the Detroit Tigers, helping bring the club their first World Series Championship ever in 1935. The lefty hitting second baseman was a product of the University of Michigan, who played a handful of games in 1924 and 1925, exceeding rookie limits in 1926. From there he went on to become MVP of the league in 1937, a six-time All-Star, and a batting champ hitting .371 in 1937.
Gehringer did it all at the plate, spraying 2,839 hits in 8,860 at-bats. He collected 181 home runs, 1,186 walks, 1,427 RBIs, and slashed .320/.404/.480 for his career. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association in 1949, just seven years after hanging up the cleats. His number two was retired by the Detroit Tigers.
2. AL KALINE – RIGHT FIELDER (1953-1974) 92.8 WAR
How do you put into words the value of someone like Al Kaline? Sure we can measure it by the WAR statistic, which we will do, but Kaline’s reach goes far beyond the baseball diamond. It is not uncommon to still see the 83-year-old Kaline around the ballpark and with the newer younger players instilling wisdom, and that is something that cannot be measured by some metric. However, during his playing days, Kaline proved he was one of the best, most valuable, Tigers of all-time.
The 18-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glover amassed a career WAR of 92.8. In over 10,000 at-bats for the Detroit club, he collected 3,007 hits, 399 home runs, and 1,582 RBIs. His career slash line of .299/.376/.480 isn’t anything to balk at either. A key element of the 1968 World Series team, the third in club history, and a 1980 induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame truly helps to encapsulate the value of Al Kaline as a ballplayer. His number six is retired by the club, but even more endearing is his nickname: Mr. Tiger. Something that could not befit a better player from our beloved club’s history.
1. TY COBB – CENTER FIELDER (1905-1926) 144.7
Was there really ever any doubt? Tyrus Raymond Cobb, “The Georgia Peach,” is not only the most valuable player in Detroit Tigers history, but also ranks fourth all-time in the statistic behind Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Barry Bonds. The often controversial, and mostly misunderstood, Cobb played the game hard during a time when creating havoc during the dead ball era was needed to create an edge. And create an edge did he ever.
Cobb is second all-time in hits (4,189), fourth all-time in stolen bases (897), and second all-time in runs scored (2,244). In an era where the long ball wasn’t really a factor, creating runs like Cobb did made him extremely valuable. He is the all-time leader in batting average (.366) and for his career slashed .366/.433/.512, which places him first (BA), 9th (OBP), and 77th (SLG) all-time. Cobb only played in three World Series in his career (1907-1909), all losing efforts. And, in those games, he hit a pedestrian .262/.314/.354. However, three series should not dilute the type of career that Cobb had, he was one of the best to ever play the game and he did so for 22 years in a Detroit Tigers uniform. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame “[i]n 1936, [when] the first balloting was held for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cobb received the most votes of the five electees and came within four votes of unanimity.” His name is on the wall of legends back behind left center field at Comerica Park, though having not worn a number, none is retired.