The Tigers have a rich history as one of the American League’s charter franchises, including four World Series titles, 11 AL pennants and five 100-win seasons. But Detroit boasts just as much individual success: 12 American League Most Valuable Players, five AL Cy Young winners and five AL Rookie of the Year honors.
While the 1984 Tigers are generally recognized for the greatest season in franchise history, deciding the best individual seasons is a tougher debate. We tackled the best seasons by Tigers hitters earlier; here’s my ranking of the top five seasons by Tigers pitchers:
1. Justin Verlander, 2011
Key facts: Won AL pitching triple crown with 24 wins, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. Tossed second career no-hitter. Won AL MVP and Cy Young.
The raw statistics were eye-popping. No AL pitcher had won a Triple Crown since Johan Santana in 2006, no Tiger since Hal Newhouser in 1945. No AL pitcher had won that many games in a season since Bob Welch in 1990. No AL pitcher had as strong a combination of stats in the Triple Crown categories since Vida Blue in 1971. But beyond the numbers was a summer of dominance in which every Verlander start felt like a no-hit bid in the making. He no-hit the Blue Jays on May 7, falling a walk shy of a perfect game, held the Royals hitless for five innings five days later, took a no-hit bid into the eighth against Cleveland a month after that, then did it again versus the Angels on July 31. He’d had good seasons before, but this was the year Verlander became Verlander.
2. Denny McLain, 1968
Key facts: Baseball’s last 30-win season, went 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA. Won AL MVP and Cy Young.
The intersection of an incredible team on a mission to win in what became known as the Year of the Pitcher produced McLain, who became baseball’s first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. McLain’s roll to 30 was a story for most of the summer, thanks to eight wins in his first 11 starts (including five consecutive complete games and a 10-inning performance), nine consecutive wins (eight of them complete games) at midseason and a seven-game winning streak (six complete games) in July and August. He tossed seven scoreless innings in his final start of the season to drop his ERA back under 2.00.
3. Hal Newhouser, 1945
Key facts: Won the Major League pitching Triple Crown with 25 wins, 1.81 ERA and 212 strikeouts. Won AL MVP.
Newhouser’s season would have a greater place in history if not for many of the game’s great hitters being away to serve in World War II, though he posted arguably better numbers when those hitters returned in 1946. Newhouser won MVP honors in '44, then followed up by outclassing the rest of the league. Twenty-nine of Newhouser’s 36 starts were complete games, eight of them shutouts. His 212 strikeouts topped the next-best AL pitcher by 83. His 313 1/3 innings were nearly 50 more than anyone else in the AL. His 11.3 bWAR is the highest for a pitcher in a season in Tigers history.
4. Mark Fidrych, 1976
Key facts: Won AL Rookie of the Year. Led Majors with 2.34 ERA. Tossed 24 complete games in 29 starts.
The Bird’s career was too short, but his only full season in the big leagues remains legendary in Tigers history. The 21-year-old rookie spent the first few weeks of the season stuck in the back of Detroit’s bullpen before tossing a two-hitter in his first Major League start May 15. Fidrych tossed complete games in 12 of his first 13 starts, fell an inning shy in the lone exception, and went 11-2 with a 1.72 ERA in that stretch. Add in an infectious enthusiasm and unique personality that included talking to baseballs and applauding his teammates from the mound for good plays on defense, and the legend took off. Not only did he start the All-Star Game and win Rookie of the Year, he finished second in Cy Young Award voting to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer.
5. Max Scherzer, 2013
Key facts: Won AL Cy Young with AL-high 21 wins and 0.97 WHIP, second in AL with 240 strikeouts.
While Justin Verlander was the superstar of the Tigers' pitching staff, Scherzer was a mercurial young starter behind him in the rotation, a few years removed from joining Detroit in the Curtis Granderson trade. A tweak in his delivery and a newly refined curveball, both helped by pitching coach Jeff Jones, allowed Scherzer to emerge as a frontline starter and help the Tigers to the World Series in 2012, but the next season is when his career really took off. Scherzer had eight starts with double-digit strikeouts, five starts of eight innings with two runs or less, and won his first 13 decisions before finally losing in his final start before the All-Star break, his 19th start of the season. His 21-3 record for the season makes him the only pitcher in Tigers history with 20-plus wins and three or fewer losses in a season, and one of just five Major League pitchers to do so in the last 40 years. He finished behind only teammate Aníbal Sánchez in the AL for strikeouts that year.
Honorable mention: Mickey Lolich, 1971
Key facts: Led the Majors with 25 wins, 376 innings and 308 strikeouts, a franchise record. Finished second in AL Cy Young voting.
Though Lolich is best remembered for his dominance in the 1968 World Series, his best seasons came after that October. None were better than '71. Like Scherzer, Lolich benefited from an added pitch, a cutter. But he also became a workhorse, making 45 starts out of a four-man rotation and tossing 376 innings, more than 100 over his previous best. His 29 complete games did not include a pair of 13-inning marathons he tossed in no-decisions, one in a suspended game. Only Oakland’s Vida Blue denied him an elusive Cy Young Award.