Tigers' Top 5 designated hitters: Beck's take

May 18th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only. If you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jason Beck’s ranking of the top five designated hitters in Tigers history. Next week: Right-handed starters.

Tigers all-time best: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | LF | CF | RF

1. Darrell Evans, 1984-88
Key fact: Posted two highest single-season home run totals for Tigers in 1980s

No, Evans wasn’t part of the core of those great Tigers teams of the 1980s, but he proved to be the final piece Detroit needed to win it all in 1984. The Tigers drafted Evans in the fifth round of the 1966 MLB Draft but couldn’t sign him. They didn’t miss their chance to ink him as a free agent coming off his 30-homer season with the Giants in 1983, signing him to a three-year deal despite a more lucrative offer from the Yankees. He hit .308 with 25 RBIs over his first 37 games before falling into a deep slump, finishing with a .232 average in the regular season and a 4-for-25 postseason.

“Darrell was the elder statesman,” Alan Trammell said years later. “Along with Willie Hernandez, those were the last two pieces that were needed to get us over the hump, and they both performed.”

Said Evans: “When I got to Spring Training in ’84, I didn’t really know anybody. But that fire was in their eyes. They were on a mission, and I just wanted to reinforce that. It was a wonderful thing.”

Evans’ better years came during the Tigers’ efforts to return to October glory, from a 40-homer campaign in 1985 to a 34-homer, 99-RBI season as baseball’s oldest regular in 1987. The 40-year-old slugged nine homers with 25 RBIs from Sept. 1 to season’s end that year, helping the Tigers beat the Blue Jays for the American League East title.

2. Victor Martinez, 2011-18
Key facts: .330 hitter, .925 OPS in 25 postseason games; AL MVP runner-up in 2014

In 2011 the Tigers were looking for a run producer to bolster their lineup behind Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez. They had their choice of free agents Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn, and signed Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract and set up their run atop the AL Central. V-Mart hit .330 with 12 home runs and 103 RBIs in his first season in Detroit to help lead the Tigers to their first division title in 24 years. An offseason workout accident cost him the 2012 season while he recovered from knee surgery, but he returned with back-to-back .300 seasons. His 32 homers and 103 RBIs led the Tigers in 2014, and his .974 OPS was tops in the AL, leading owner Mike Ilitch to authorize a four-year contract extension rather than lose him in free agency.

Though age and injuries slowed Martinez from there, he still had his moments. His .289 average, 27 homers and 86 RBIs helped the Tigers to an 86-win season and a run for the AL Wild Card until the season’s final day. He retired after the 2018 season with a .290 average and 115 OPS+ as a Tiger.

“We had some good memories, man,” Martinez said when he retired. “Those playoff runs that we went through, we had some good teams. Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish the final goal, winning a championship. But I have quite a few [memories]. The best year of my career, I had here in Detroit.”

3. Rusty Staub, 1976-79
Key facts: 1976 All-Star; back-to-back years with 30+ doubles, 20+ home runs, 100+ RBIs

Staub will forever be known by fans as a Met or an Expo, but he had some of his best seasons for a Tigers club in transition. Detroit didn’t win much behind Staub, but the Tigers certainly won the trade that brought him to Detroit in exchange for Mickey Lolich, who played one season with the Mets.

Staub was an All-Star for the Tigers in 1976, batting .299 with 96 RBIs in a season better known for Mark Fidrych’s arrival than Staub’s. After moving to DH full-time in 1977, Staub turned in his first 100-RBI season, then churned out 121 RBIs in 1978 while batting behind AL Rookie of the Year Lou Whitaker.

4. Dmitri Young, 2002-06
Key facts: 2003 All-Star; posted a 144 OPS+ in 2003 on a team that had an 83 OPS+

How good of a hitter was Da Meat Hook? In 2003 he hit .297 with 29 homers, 85 RBIs and a .909 OPS with one of the least productive lineups of the modern era around him. He posted 3.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference, for a team that had just 43 actual wins.

How good of a competitor was Young? He should have hit for the cycle in a game that season but spoiled it by taking an extra base. He stepped to the plate in the ninth inning on May 6 at Baltimore needing a double for the cycle, and basically had it with a ball to left off Buddy Groom, but he kept going around second because he wanted to try to get his team an insurance run. It ended up being a go-ahead triple, his second three-bagger of the night as part of a five-hit game. His 15 total bases that game are the second most in franchise history, one behind Ty Cobb’s six-hit, three-homer game in 1925.

Young had a three-homer game, too, on Opening Day in 2005, part of a 21-homer season that year. His struggles in 2006 led to his release in September, costing him a chance to enjoy the Tigers’ run to the World Series. Still, he has a case as one of the team’s best pure hitters of that decade.

5. Marcus Thames, 2004-09
Key fact: Shares franchise record with a home run in five consecutive games in 2008

The Tigers spent big in free agency in their rise from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series three years later, but they also made a critical addition when they signed Thames to a Minor League contract in 2004. The former Yankees and Rangers prospect spent two years bouncing between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, then slugged 26 home runs -- two off the team lead -- in just 348 at-bats to play a key role for the 2006 AL champions. He posted a 25-homer season in just 342 at-bats two years later.

Though Thames never won an everyday spot, he forged a valuable role as a part-time outfielder and DH who could mash left-handed pitching. Manager Jim Leyland loved putting him into the second spot in his lineup on occasion to provide a power punch in front of his main run producers. Thames homered in five consecutive games in 2008, tying the franchise record shared by Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and Willie Horton, among others.