Picking what team to do next for the Retired Number Series is something of a challenge now. I’m always looking for interesting trivia or unusual tidbits to sway me towards one team or another. In the case of the Tigers, part of what caught my attention was a recent article from Beyond the Boxscore where the Tigers were found, by at least one measure, to be the most snubbed in terms of Hall of Fame voting.
The Tigers have stuck mostly to retiring Hall of Famers’ numbers (with one major exception); therefore, there would be a good chance that several Tiger legends are being snubbed as far getting their numbers retired. Are there, and, if so, who are they?
Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.
There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers only goes back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.
The Already Retired Numbers
Let’s start with the players that Detroit has immortalized. To date, the team has honored seven figures. The earliest among them is Ty Cobb, who played with the team from 1905 to 1926. He would play two seasons after leaving the team, but he recorded 154 of his 158 career bWAR and 157 of his 164 career fWAR as a Tiger. Cobb never had a number while playing, but that didn’t stop Detroit from recognizing him: he’s one of six players to be so honored.
Al Kaline was the first player to get a number retired, back in 1980. Number 6 was a career Tiger, playing from 1953 to 1874 and racking up 91 bWAR and 102 fWAR. The only other “career” Tiger to be so honored is number 2, Charlie Gehringer. Gehringer accumulated 81 bWAR and 88 fWAR in his career, which lasted from 1924 to 1942.
The rest of the honored players are near misses for the title of one-franchise players. Hank Greenberg played from 1933 to 1947 (with 1942-44 off for World War II), and left for only his final season. Number 5 put up 54 bWAR (out of 57) and 64 fWAR (out of 68) with the Tigers. His number was retired concurrently with Charlie Gehringer’s, back in 1983. Hal Newhouser’s number 16 was next retired in 1997 following a career that lasted from 1939 to 1955. In his time in Detroit (which lasted from his start until 1953), he put up 56 bWAR (which, after rounding, is also his career total). Willie Horton is the lone player not in Cooperstown that the team has honored. Horton played with the team from 1963 to 1977, and finally retired in 1980. His time with the Tigers saw him put up almost all of his career value: 33 fWAR (out of 35) and 25 bWAR (which, due to the fact that WAR can be negative, is greater than his career total of 24). His number 23 was retired in 2000.
Sparky Anderson also had his number 11 retired this past season for his time managing the team. However, I didn’t include managers in my study, so this is just an extra tidbit.
Compared to the League
In comparing teams’ standards for retiring numbers, I can look at three different factors: I can use bWAR or fWAR; I can compare what the players did in their career or just what they did with the franchise in question; or, I can look at the median or average value provided by the players.
Going by the straight averages and medians, the Tigers have some of the highest standards for number retirement. They rank towards the bottom of the first quartile in average career bWAR, median career bWAR, average career fWAR, and median career fWAR. They’re even stricter when it comes to requiring that the value come from time with Detroit; they rank second in every category when only accounting for the players’ value specifically for one franchise. Basically, the Tigers have very high standards for players to clear in order to get a number retired, particularly in making sure that the value came in Detroit.
The Tigers are different than other teams in that they have the names of six honored players on their wall, none of which has their number retired. Harry Heilmann, Sam Crawford, Hughie Jennings, Heinie Manush, Mickey Cochrane, and George Kell are the players in question. All of them entered the Baseball Hall of Fame as Tigers, but their names are kept separate from the retired numbers, which made classifying them particularly difficult. In the end, I kept them out of my study. However, for those interested, adding these players in to the Tigers’ averages makes their standards just slightly higher than the league average-they would rank in the second quartile in nearly every ranking I use.
So Who’s Next?
The Tigers will be hard pressed to improve on their high requirements. However, they do have numerous players who would clear the bar for almost any other team.
The best place to look for the next honoree would probably be among the numbers they’ve already removed from circulation (i.e.; numbers they’ve stopped issuing since a player retired without a formal retirement). Right now, the Tigers have three such cases. Number 1 has not been worn since Lou Whitaker retired in 1995. The second baseman played all nineteen of his seasons in Detroit, racking up 69.7 bWAR and 74 fWAR. Both figures place him fourth in franchise history for position players. I have no idea why Whitaker’s number hasn’t been retired yet, unless they’re waiting for him to make the Hall of Fame or some other honor. Hall induction isn’t a requirement, though, and it seems odd to make him wait just because the BBWAA has snubbed him. In any case, I don’t think 1 will remain un-retired for too much longer.
His old double play partner Alan Trammell is in the same boat. Number 3 also played his entire career with the Tigers (from 1977 to 1996), provided a ton of value (66.9 bWAR, 69 fWAR), and got overlooked by Hall voters (although at least Trammell’s managed to hang on for a while, though). Since he retired, his number has actually returned to use twice, though. Once was at the request of Gary Sheffield, after he got Trammell’s blessing. The other was for Trammell himself, as a manager. Like Whitaker, I would imagine Alan Trammell’s number will be retired eventually; it’s only a matter of when. Possibly the two will be honored together.
The last out of circulation number is 47, in honor of pitcher Jack Morris. Morris, interestingly enough, stands the best chance of the three of getting elected to the Hall, in spite of having the weakest case. He posted 34.5 bWAR while pitching for the Tigers, and 39.3 bWAR for his full career. Like the other two, I see no reason his number won’t be retired eventually. They may be waiting for a Hall induction in this case (I won’t get into the ridiculousness of Morris making the Hall before Whitaker of Trammell, although it will likely take the Veterans Committee at this point), but I see no reason the Tigers shouldn’t honor him for his years of service with the team.
The next best place to look after the partial honorees would be the team’s WAR leaders. According to both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, Harry Heilmann and Sam Crawford are the best hitters we haven’t covered yet (both sites rank Whitaker first among non-retired hitters, while Trammell is ranked second by B-R and third by Fangraphs). Heilmann put up 73 fWAR and 65.7 bWAR in fifteen years with the team, while Crawford was worth 66 fWAR and 64.8 bWAR in his fifteen years with the team. Both are interesting cases, in that neither wore uniform numbers and are already honored by the team in their Hall of Famer section. I doubt that the team will change either player’s status, not that it matters much, since they’re both remembered in some way anyway.
Both versions have Norm Cash next. Cash is probably the most puzzling exclusion I’ve seen. He’s a borderline Hall of Fame player who more or less spent his entire career in Detroit (2018 of his 2089 career games came with the team). He additionally played primarily in the 1960s, which is possibly the best-represented era in terms of number retirements. Cash put up 52.5 bWAR and 64 fWAR in his decade and a half as a Tiger. I would say that Cash will almost definitely get his number retired, but my one hesitation is that I can’t see why it hasn’t already been done.
Both methods round out their top tens with catcher and career Tiger Bill Freehan. Like with Cash, I can’t see why Freehan hasn’t already gotten his number retired. He made eleven All-Star Games in fourteen full seasons, spent his whole career with the team, has a borderline Hall of Fame case, and played during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Number 11 was worth 43.3 bWAR and 53 fWAR, both impressive figures for a catcher (since the position usually comes with less playing time, and as a consequence, lower WAR totals). Again, the only reason I’m not sure if Freehan will be honored is because it hasn’t already happened.
Bobby Veach (twelve years in Detroit; 42.7 bWAR, 51 fWAR with the team) and Donie Bush (fourteen years; 37.2 bWAR, 46 fWAR with the team) are both highly rated by both WARs, but neither wore numbers, and they’ve been out of baseball since 1925 and 1923, respectively. I seriously doubt any movement on either front. The next three players all have numbers at least. Dick McAuliffe (fourteen years; 35.1 bWAR, 45 fWAR), Rudy York (ten years; 26.6 bWAR, 40 fWAR), and Lance Parrish (ten years; 27.5 bWAR, 35 fWAR) are all well behind too many other players to have serious cases as of now, though.
Pitchers are the next area to look. According to Baseball-Reference, Hal Newhouser and Jack Morris are first and fifth in franchise history in bWAR among pitchers. After Morris, there’s a fall off in value, so we’ll stick to examining the three pitchers in between them for now. Tommy Bridges spent his entire sixteen year career with Detroit, posting 50.7 bWAR, making six All-Star Games, and keeping a 126 ERA+. However, as good as he was, he hasn’t played since 1946 (and his last full season was 1943), meaning very few people will be pushing for his number 10 to be retired.
Mickey Lolich is third on the list, with 44.2 bWAR in thirteen seasons. I suppose his case is similar to Bill Freehan’s in that I can’t see a reason not to retire his number should they decide to do it, but the lack of action to date suggests that it won’t happen. Dizzy Trout is next, with 42.2 bWAR in fourteen seasons with the team. Most of that value comes from three good seasons though, and the rest of his career wasn’t particularly notable, so it’s doubtful he’ll get his number retired.
Now that we’ve looked at former hitters and former pitchers, that leaves just current players. After scanning the roster, it looks like there are maybe five players who may end up with various degrees of compelling cases. I want to start by quickly covering Prince Fielder. I don’t think he has much of a chance to see his number honored by the Tigers. Although it’s tempting to say otherwise, with his new nine year contract and everything, I think he’s already spent too much time in Milwaukee. To get to the same value with the Tigers that some already mentioned players have had, he’s more or less going to have to play as well as he did last season for the entirety of his contract. I don’t think that’ll happen. So, it can happen, I guess, but I really doubt it.
The most likely future honoree on the team is Justin Verlander. He’s played six seasons with the team, and he’s under contract for three more seasons, which will represent his age 29, 30, and 31 seasons. He’s already been worth 27.2 bWAR (and 32.4 fWAR) for his career, so it’s definitely reasonable that he’ll find himself among the franchise leaders soon (he’s already tenth among franchise pitchers).
Miguel Cabrera is also a promising candidate. In only four years, he’s been worth 22 fWAR and 21.5 bWAR. He’s the same age as Verlander, and under contract for an extra year. Also like Verlander, he’s building off of an impressive 2011 season, so there’s a good chance Cabrera works his way into the franchise top ten in the next few years.
The other candidates are younger, and more based on projections. Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, and Rick Porcello are all under 24, and have all shown brilliance in the past. Being young means there’s room to improve, and a lot of time to rack up value. However, it also means there’s more time for unpredicted things to pop up. In any case, I figured it was worth mentioning them
So, In Closing...
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Detroit Tigers in the future are, in order: