The Tigers have a rich history as one of the American League’s charter franchises, including four World Series titles, 11 Fall Classic appearances and five 100-win seasons. But Detroit boasts just as much individual success: 12 AL Most Valuable Players, five AL Cy Young Award winners and five AL Rookie of the Year Award winners.
While the 1984 Tigers are generally recognized for the greatest season in franchise history, what are the best individual seasons by Tigers hitters? Here’s my ranking of the top five:
1. Ty Cobb, 1911
Key stats: Led Majors with .419 average, 127 RBIs and 196 OPS+; won AL MVP
Cobb could easily dominate this list; the club's top five seasons for position players in Wins Above Replacement are his according to Baseball Reference. His 1911 campaign ranks second on that list, but it’s the year he won the Chalmers Award, the short-lived predecessor to the AL MVP Award. He actually won it the year before, but the '10 batting title race ended in controversy after Nap Lajoie laid down seven bunt singles in an 8-for-8 doubleheader performance on the last day of the season. Both players were honored as batting champs. The next year, Cobb made sure the race wasn’t close. He had nearly twice as many games with three or more hits in '11 (29) than hitless games (17), and he didn’t go hitless in consecutive games until the final week of the season. He led the league in average, runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs, slugging percentage and stolen bases.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 2012
Key stats: Won AL batting Triple Crown with .330 average, 44 HR, 139 RBIs; won AL MVP
Cabrera arguably had a better season in 2013, but '12 will be the year everybody remembers from Miggy when he is eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 had a hitter won a Triple Crown, but Cabrera turned a late-season tear into an unlikely run at history. He hit 26 home runs after the All-Star break, 11 of them from Sept. 1 on. He posted 22 games with at least three hits, including six from Aug. 31 to season’s end, to earn his second of three consecutive batting titles. He also struck out just 98 times in 697 plate appearances. The key to his late-season success was that the Tigers needed him; Detroit didn’t take the lead for good in the AL Central until the final week. Cabrera was so focused on returning to the playoffs that he didn’t think about the Triple Crown until the final series.
“I don’t know when I’m going to believe this,” Cabrera said.
3. Hank Greenberg, 1940
Key stats: Led AL with 50 doubles, 41 HR, 150 RBIs and 1.103 OPS; won AL MVP
Like Cobb and Cabrera, Greenberg had other seasons that could have made this list and maybe even topped 1940. He also won AL MVP honors in '35, drove in 184 runs in '37, and hit 58 home runs to make a run at Babe Ruth’s then-single-season record in '38. But Greenberg’s numbers in '40 were all-around dominant, and he posted them while converting from first base to left field so the Tigers could move catcher Rudy York to first. Greenberg’s stretch run was incredible, batting .396 with 15 homers, 38 RBIs and a 1.504 OPS over 27 games in September. He homered five days in a row from Sept. 10-14. He then posted five-RBI games on back-to-back days that month, both times in the first games of doubleheaders, and hit four homers in four games over those two days.
4. Al Kaline, 1955
Key stats: Youngest batting champion in AL history at age 20
It's hard to believe looking back that arguably the best season of Kaline’s career came just after his teenage years. He had just completed his first full Major League season and was struggling to hold onto a starting outfield spot going into 1955, then started the year with six consecutive multihit games, capped by a three-homer outburst April 17 against the A’s -- nearly matching his home-run total from the previous year. He hit .429 with a 1.318 OPS in April and rolled from there, taking a Triple Crown bid into late summer. He went hitless in consecutive games only once until mid-July.
5. Miguel Cabrera, 2013
Key stats: Led Majors with .348 average and 1.078 OPS, second with 44 HR and 137 RBIs; won second straight AL MVP
The pure numbers suggested Cabrera was even better in the follow-up to his Triple Crown season. The revelation after the season that he played through a groin tear from September on made it all the more incredible. Until then, he was on pace for the first season with a .350 average, 50 homers and 150 RBIs since Jimmie Foxx in 1932. He also posted a three-homer game at Texas in May.
Honorable mention: Norm Cash, 1961
Key stats: Led AL with .361 average, 1.148 OPS and 193 hits; finished fourth in MVP voting
Cash never gets enough credit in history for his breakout season, in part because it was overshadowed by the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home-run chase, and in part because he admitted to using a corked bat. Cash batted .416 with 14 home runs over 30 games in June and didn’t bat worse than .340 in a month the rest of the way. Nobody would match his single-season average for the rest of the decade.