Sunday, December 9, 2012

Top Five: Tiger Starting Pitchers

Last week, I listed off my five least liked Tiger starting pitchers since I was introduced to the game. Today, I’m going to the opposite side of the coin and list off my five personal favorites.

As always with these lists, it’s a matter of personal taste with no rhyme or reason to it. These just happen to be the guys I have rooted for the most and look most fondly upon when I think about the team. And considering the long stretch between Morris and Verlander before we had a decent starter in the D, the choices were quite limited.

It’s sad that we were forced to be excited to have a washed up Hideo Nomo for a while. Anyhoo…

5. Jack Morris (1977-1990) 

Like many Tiger fans, Jack Morris was the first “ace” pitcher I ever knew. In fact, Morris lead all of baseball in games started, innings pitched, and wins during the 1980’s. He was a beast on the mound and could be an even bigger monster to the media at times.

A fifth round pick of the 1976 MLB Draft, Jack would go 198-150 as a Tiger with a 3.73 ERA in 3042.2 innings pitched. He would have 154 complete games in Detroit and 24 shutouts. Those numbers are unheard of in today’s game. In fact, from 1980-1991, Morris would have only one season where he had less than 10 complete games. That was 1984, of all years, when he had 9.

Of course, Jack’s most memorable game would come a year after leaving Detroit for the Twins when he pitched a 10 inning complete game in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. It was odd to see him celebrate in another uniform, but luckily Young Rogo had been prepared three years earlier while watching Kirk Gibson become immortal as a Dodger against the A’s.

Morris is hoping to enter the Hall of Fame on his 14th ballot next month. I think he’ll get in, but not until his 15th and final chance in 2014. The voters are dicks like that.
4. Mike Maroth (2002-2007) 

It’s hard to feel bad for multi-millionaires that get paid to play baseball for a living. Yet I’ve never felt as bad for a guy as I did for Mike Maroth in 2003.

That was the historically bad Tigers team that lost 119 games for you newer folks. And Mike became the poster boy for the team for becoming the first pitcher to lose 20 games since 1980. While Mike wasn’t very good that year, no pitcher in today’s game should lose 20 games with a passable offense behind them.

Yeah, I felt bad for him. But Maroth never showed that he felt bad for himself. He remains one of the nicest and classiest Tigers I’ve had the honor of seeing play over the years. And his skills got better, too. Maroth had a pretty good 2004 that featured one of my favorite baseball games I’ve ever seen. In July of 2004, Mike pitched a one-hit shutout against the slugging New York Yankees. The only hit would come at the hands of future Tiger, and future Super Agent, Gary Sheffield. It remains the proudest I’ve ever been of a Tigers pitcher.

In 2007, Maroth would be traded to the Cardinals for a player to be named later who turned out to be the forgettable Chris Lambert. He battled injuries and bounced around the minors for a couple years before retiring in January of 2011. In September, Maroth would return to the Tigers organization by becoming the pitching coach at Lakeland. It’s good to have him home.
3. Kenny Rogers (2006-2008) 

My first thought of the 2006 Tigers team will always be Magglio taking Huston Street deep in the ALCS. But my second one is the pitching performance of Kenny Rogers. He was amazing, to say the least. He made three postseason starts, pitched 23 innings, and allowed ZERO runs. In prior years, Rogers had been a disaster in the playoffs. But at the age of 41 years and 330 days old, he got his first postseason victory and just kept dominating.

Many will point out a smudge that The Gambler had on his hand during one of those starts to try and discredit his accomplishments. Or they might mention his altercation with a cameraman in Texas in 2005. But I’ll always remember Kenny’s insane intensity on the mound during those 2006 playoffs. Well, that and him spraying the cops with champagne while celebrating winning the ALDS.

Rogers went 29-25 with a 4.66 ERA during his three seasons as a Tiger. But in mentoring a young pitching staff including Justin Verlander, Rogers helped the team in more ways than on those days he happened to start. And he continues to do so to this day, helping out with the pitchers for Detroit at Spring Training. I hope we see him there again in 2013. 
2. Frank Tanana (1985-1992)

The parade of crafty lefties continues. While Morris was the ace of the Tigers when I began watching, Tanana was my favorite pitcher on the team. I never saw him when he was a flame throwing power pitcher with the Angels early in his career. He would suffer an arm injury and reinvent himself as a crafty junk-throwing starter with Detroit. ESPN used to refer to him as the “guy that threw 90 in the 70’s and 70 in the 90’s”. The dude could make the ball dance and it enthralled Young Rogo to no end. The first time I saw Major League, I was convinced that the Eddie Harris character was copied from Tanana.

Tanana is probably best known to Tiger fans for pitching a complete game 1-0 shutout on the final game of the 1987 season over the second place Blue Jays to clinch the AL East title. He went 15-10 that year with a 3.91 ERA. He would leave the team via free agency for the 1993 season and play for both New York teams before calling it quits. But Frank and his family continue to reside in Michigan to this day.

One final bit of trivia on Frank: He and Rick Reuschel are the only two pitchers in MLB history to have given up home runs to both Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.
1. Justin Verlander (2006-present) 

Yeah. Him.

Rookie of the Year. Five All-Star Games. Cy Young. MVP. Two no-hitters. Kate Upton. Do I really need to go on any further?

Verlander is simply the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen. His amazing fastball is as fun to watch as his outstanding curve. The guy is the total package and I hope everyone realizes how lucky we are to see him pitch every fifth day in Detroit. He is a beast, a machine, and a bunch of other words that don’t do justice to how amazing he is on the mound.

Well, at least when it’s not the All-Star Game or the World Series. But give him time.

Honorable mention: Justin Thompson, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Dan Petry, Bill Gullickson.

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