Tigers' Top 5 shortstops: Beck's take

April 20th, 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 shortstops in Tigers history. Next week: left fielders.

• Tigers All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B

1) , 1977-96
Key facts: Six-time All-Star, four Gold Gloves, one of three Tigers to spend 20 years with club

No debate on this one. With the passing of Al Kaline, Trammell is the closest we’ll see to Mr. Tiger. Though it took two decades for his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Detroit fans have been preaching the greatness of Trammell’s 20-year career all along. His 63.7 career Wins Above Replacement by the Fangraphs formula ranks in the top 14 all-time for Major League shortstops, and his 70.7 WAR by Baseball Reference ranks 64th all-time for Major League position players. His 22.7 defensive WAR ranks 33rd. The second-round pick from the 1976 MLB Draft, a scrawny two-sport star out of high school in San Diego, hit .300 or better seven times and had six seasons with a 130 OPS+ or better.

Trammell’s second-place finish in the 1987 American League MVP race remains a thorn in Detroit’s collective side. He hit .343 that season with 28 homers, 105 RBIs, a .953 OPS and an 8.2 bWAR, only to lose out to Toronto slugger George Bell by four first-place votes. He never enjoyed that kind of power or run production again, but his steady two-way greatness for two decades stood out in an era when shortstop was still considered a defense-first position, while his humble personality endeared him to a working-class Midwest fan base. His teamwork with Lou Whitaker made them the greatest double-play duo in Tigers history, and led to both their numbers being retired.

“As a young player, I watched Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente and I noticed how they did everything well. And that was my goal,” Tramell said. “I might not have been the best in any one area, but I like to think I was solid all the way around.”

2) Donie Bush, 1908-21
Key facts: Led AL in walks five times and in runs twice

He doesn’t get much discussion, but quietly, Bush was one of the better shortstops of the Deadball Era. Though his .658 OPS as a Tiger was just below average for his position and era, he was an on-base machine and a constant threat on the basepaths. The 5-foot-6 switch-hitter led the AL in walks in five of his first six full big league seasons, and he fell one walk short of leading another. He had almost as many walks (117) as hits (118) in 1912, and he came within 10 walks of matching his hit total in 1915. Bush hit just nine career home runs, seven of them inside-the-parkers, according to Baseball Reference. For the era, though, he would’ve finished in the league’s top 10 for offensive WAR four times.

Bush led the AL in runs scored in 1909 and '17, his two best years in terms of batting average. He finished in the top five among AL shortstops in fielding percentage 12 times, despite finishing first or second in the group in errors seven times, mainly thanks to his everyday play.

3) Harvey Kuenn, 1952-59
Key facts: 1953 AL Rookie of the Year, 1959 AL batting champion, All-Star in all seven of his full seasons as a Tiger

The same summer that a teenage Al Kaline signed out of high school and made his Major League debut, the Tigers had a Rookie of the Year in Kuenn, whose sweet swing produced a .300-plus average in all but one of his eight seasons in Detroit as well as an AL batting title in 1959. Signed out of the University of Wisconsin for a $55,000 bonus in '52, Kuenn made his Major League debut that September and became the starting shortstop almost immediately, a position he largely held until the Tigers moved him to center field to make room for Billy Martin in '58.

Kuenn wasn’t a slugger, cracking double digits in home runs only once as a Tiger, nor was he a speedster. But he was an incredibly tough at-bat who could lace line drives all around Tiger Stadium. He led the league in doubles three times, topped the AL in hits four times, and consistently racked up more walks than strikeouts. He fanned just 13 times in 696 plate appearances in 1954, his second full year in the league. His .353 average in '59 won the AL crown by 27 points over his teammate Kaline.

All this made it all the more remarkable, then, when the Tigers traded Harvey Kuenn to Cleveland for Rocky Colavito two days before the two teams faced each other to open the 1960 season. Detroit made a power play for a bigger, younger bat, which paid off with a 101-win team in '61, but Kuenn’s value still gets overlooked. His 23.5 fWAR as a Tiger trailed only Kaline for the 1950s.

4) Billy Rogell, 1930-39
Key stat: One of nine players in Major League history to drive in 100 runs in a season with three or fewer home runs

Rogell was part of a Tigers infield that was nicknamed the Battalion of Death, with Rogell dubbed the Fire Chief. But while right-side infielders Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer hit their way to Hall of Fame resumes, Rogell was an underrated cog up the middle, a defensive stalwart and pesky run producer who, depending on which site you follow, posted a 100-RBI season with just three homers in 1934. He would’ve led the league in defensive WAR from 1934-36, according to Baseball Reference, and he led AL shortstops in fielding percentage from 1935-37. He and Gehringer led the league in double plays twice.

Rogell hit .283 combined in the 1934 and ’35 World Series, including three multi-hit games in the latter against the Cubs. He played the '34 World Series against the Cardinals on a broken ankle and still went 8-for-29 with three runs scored and a stolen base.

The Tigers traded Rogell to the Cubs after the 1939 season, but his work in Detroit was far from over. After just 34 games with the Cubs, he retired, returned to Detroit and ran for city council, where he served until 1980. The road leading from I-94 to Detroit Metro Airport’s North Terminal is named W.G. Rogell Drive.

5) (tie) , 2004-11; Dick McAuliffe, 1960-73
Key fact: Two All-Star selections for McAuliffe, one for Guillen

Judge them by their tenures at shortstop in Detroit, and the numbers are very similar. McAuliffe had a 15.6 bWAR and 14.8 fWAR during his time as Detroit’s primary shortstop from 1963-66. Guillen had a 16.2 bWAR and 16.5 fWAR as Tigers shortstop from 2004-07.

Both players had very good peak seasons at short. McAuliffe would’ve ranked fourth among AL position players with a 6 bWAR in 1966, when his .882 OPS ranked fifth in the league. Guillen’s first season in Detroit in 2004 was an All-Star one, as he batted .318 with 20 homers, 97 RBIs and a .921 OPS while ranking third among AL position players with a 6 bWAR. Both players eventually moved to other positions; McAuliffe found a new home at second base, while Guillen moved all over the field for the Tigers from '08 on.

While Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez get a lot of credit as the key acquisitions behind the Tigers’ rise from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in '06, Guillen’s addition was critical. His trade from the Mariners for Ramon Santiago and a prospect was one of the greatest deals in Dave Dombrowski’s tenure as Tigers general manager.