Tigers' Top 5 right-handed starters: Beck's take

May 25th, 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 right-handed starters in Tigers history. Next week: Left-handed starters.

• Tigers All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH

1) , 2005-17
Key facts: Second in Tigers history in strikeouts, second in career bWAR for Tigers pitchers

Verlander had a mantra in his best season as a Tiger in 2011: If you expect greatness, greatness shouldn’t surprise you. It could well have been the theme of his 13-year Detroit tenure. He arrived in the big leagues with Hall of Fame aspirations. He used his American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season in '06 as a “warning sign” that he needed to prepare his body every offseason for a heavy workload. When he won the AL Cy Young Award and the AL Most Valuable Player Award in '11, he talked about trying to get better next year. By the time his days in Detroit were done, his standing among franchise greats was secure.

“I think he will be remembered as one of the all-time great pitchers in Detroit history,” his former manager, Jim Leyland, said a few years ago, “and I think it goes even further. He’s been one of the faces of the Tigers, without question, but he’s also been one of the faces of baseball.”

Detroit fans will forever be thankful the Padres passed on Verlander with the first pick in the 2004 MLB Draft. His selection by the Tigers with the second pick is a lasting part of the late Mike Ilitch’s legacy as team owner.

Verlander leads all Tigers right-handers in Wins Above Replacement by either formula. His 2,373 career strikeouts trail only Mickey Lolich on Detroit’s all-time list. Beyond the stats, he was a key part of the revival of the franchise.

2) , 1977-90
Key facts: Four-time AL All-Star in Detroit, three finishes in top five of AL Cy Young Award voting, inducted into Hall of Fame in 2018

Morris doesn’t have a lot of the individual honors owned by others on this list, but he has a few key factors in his favor: He has a spot in the Hall of Fame, a well-deserved reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers of his era, and 22 more wins (162) than any other big league pitcher in the 1980s. He was also third in strikeouts (1,629) for the decade, behind Nolan Ryan and Fernando Valenzuela.

While the Tigers boasted a star-studded lineup in their heyday in the 1980s between Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish, Morris was the unquestioned mustachioed face of the pitching staff. He vaulted to a spot among the league’s greats once he mastered his splitter in '83, a season in which he threw 293 2/3 innings and 20 complete games and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting behind White Sox 24-game winner LaMarr Hoyt and Royals closer Dan Quisenberry.

The numbers might not have been as stingy as some might have liked, but the success and durability were apparent. Morris pitched at least 235 innings for seven consecutive years, a streak that would have been longer if not for the strike-shortened 1981 season. He averaged 18 wins a season during that stretch, including a 21-8 season in '86 that included six shutouts.

"Jack didn't pitch for a low ERA. He just simply won baseball games," teammate Dan Petry said when Morris’ No. 47 was retired in 2018. "He was just going to find a way to win. There was just no surrender in him."

3) , 1963-70
Key facts: Baseball’s most recent 30-game winner, won 1968 AL MVP Award and back-to-back AL Cy Young Awards from '68-69

McLain’s window of greatness was far too short, but for 1968 and '69, he was one of the greatest pitchers in Tigers history. His 31-win season in ’68 -- the first since Dizzy Dean in '34 -- is a standard that will never be broken in the current game. His supporting numbers were nearly as impressive -- a 1.96 ERA, a 154 ERA+ and 336 innings pitched in 41 starts, 28 of which were complete games. He started three games in the '68 World Series, then came back and threw 325 innings with 24 wins the following season.

That workload eventually shortened his career. McLain reportedly received cortisone injections down the stretch in 1968 to dull the pain in his arm as the wear and tear took its toll.

As quickly as McLain ascended, his 31-win season coming at age 24, he was out of baseball by his 29th birthday. Still, he was quite a return for the Tigers’ waiver claim from the White Sox in 1963.

4) , 2010-14
Key facts: 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner, 39 wins from '13-14

Like McLain, Scherzer’s window for greatness in Detroit was too short, but for different reasons. Unlike McLain, Scherzer continued his greatness at his next stop in Washington. Still, for five years, he was exactly what general manager Dave Dombrowski hoped for when the Tigers traded away popular Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson to get Scherzer and a package of prospects. Scherzer was a first-round pick in Arizona, who some saw as an injury risk due to his delivery. Not only was he strong enough to stay on the mound, he was also smart and driven enough to get better every time he stepped on it.

“You never stay the same,” Scherzer said countless times in his Tigers tenure. “You either get better or you get worse.”

A fastball-slider pitcher since college, Scherzer improved every year as a Tiger. He raised his game when he honed his delivery and found his curveball while working with pitching coach Jeff Jones in 2012. From that point on, Detroit had twin aces with Verlander and Scherzer, who pushed each other to get better. And as great as Verlander’s '11 MVP season was, Scherzer’s '13 season was almost as strong, from a 21-3 record to a 0.97 WHIP to a 2.74 FIP to a 4.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

5) , 1955-63
Key facts: 20-game winner in 1957, back-to-back AL strikeout leader from '59-60

Bunning went into the Hall of Fame wearing a Phillies cap, but he spent more seasons as a Tiger. He was a 20-game winner in his first full big league season, a back-to-back AL strikeout champ a few years later and had the lowest FIP in the league in 1960 despite an 11-14 record. Bunning was a five-time All-Star in Detroit, and he surely would’ve received more recognition had the Tigers not been stifled by the Yankees' dynasty atop the AL.

Honorable mentions
Tommy Bridges won 150 games in the 1930s, most by any Tigers pitcher for the decade and sixth-most in the American League. He won both of his starts in the '35 World Series, including the title-clinching Game 6 in a complete-game effort.

• Though Dizzy Trout's peak seasons came in the years when many of baseball’s greats were serving in World War II, he played a critical role in Detroit’s 1945 World Series title, then had arguably his best season in '46 with baseball back at full strength.

Virgil Trucks will forever be remembered for tossing two no-hitters in a 5-19 season in 1952, but that overlooks his success earlier in his career, including a 19-win All-Star season in '49.

Hooks Dauss holds the franchise record with 223 career wins in a 15-year career from 1912-26, including a 24-win season in '15 and a 21-win season in '23.

's rookie campaign of 1976 is one of the greatest single-season pitching performances in Tigers history, leading one to wonder what might have been had injuries not stalled his career soon after.