This is the fifth and final article in a series that looks at the five best players at each position for the Detroit Tigers. In this installment are right- and left-handed starters as well as relief pitchers.
The Tigers have a shortage of Hall of Famers on their pitching staff, but they have plenty of depth, especially from the right side. Among that group are the top two pitchers on the franchise’s all-time wins list, the pitcher with the most wins in the 1980s, a current flamethrower who was dominant in his prime, the last person to win 30 games in a season and a young star from the 1970s who had so much potential before injury took it away.
The lefties feature three pitchers who had multiple seasons with 20 wins and the relievers include several workhorses who could shut down opponents for multiple innings.
The Best Pitchers in Detroit Tigers History
Honorable Mentions – Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe spent the first 10 seasons (1933-42) of his 15-year career with the Tigers, overcoming chronic shoulder issues to amass a 105-62 record with a 4.01 earned run average and 92 complete games. He had a three-year stretch from 1934-36 that included two All-Star selections and a 62-32 record and 60 complete games.
Rowe went 24-9 in 1934 and followed that up with back-to-back 19-win seasons. He led the league with six shutouts in 1935 and a .842 winning percentage in 1940 when he went 16-3. Rowe split 1942 between the Tigers and Dodgers, missed two years because of service in World War II, and spent his final five seasons with the Phillies before retiring in 1949.
“Wild Bill” Donovan led the National League with 25 wins and struck out 226 batters for the Brooklyn Robins in 1901 before joining the Tigers two years later. During his 11-year run with Detroit (1903-12 and 18), he won at least 16 games six times, including a 25-4 record and a 2.19 earned run average in 1907. However, he had a penchant for walking batters, leading to his nickname.
Donovan had at least 20 complete games seven times, including a league-high 34 in 1903. He ranks third in franchise history in complete games (213), fourth in ERA (2.49), fifth in shutouts (29), ninth in wins (140-96), and tenth in innings (2,137 1/3). Although Donavan had a respectable 2.70 ERA during Detroit’s three straight World Series appearances, he went just 1-4 and the Tigers lost all three times. He played two seasons with the Yankees before returning for a two-game stint with Detroit in 1918.
“Wild Bill” managed the Yankees and Phillies after his playing career and was successful in the minor leagues as well. He was killed in a train crash in 1923 while future Yankees executive and Hall of Famer George Weiss survived the wreck.
Jim Bunning went 118-87 over his nine seasons in Detroit (1955-63). He was selected to seven All-Star Games, led the league in fielding four times, topped the A.L. in strikeouts twice, and posted league highs with a 20-8 record and 267 1/3 innings in 1957. The following year, he threw a 3-0 no-hitter against the Red Sox.
Bunning reached double-digits in victories in his final seven years with the Tigers, and he posted an earned run average below 3.00 twice. Overall, he ranks sixth in franchise history with 1,406 strikeouts in 1,867 1/3 innings, and he also posted a 3.45 ERA, 78 complete games, and 16 shutouts.
He spent six years in two stints with Philadelphia, where he made two more All-Star appearances and threw a perfect game against the Mets in 1964. Bunning got good at winning elections later in life. He became a legislator and later a Congressman from Kentucky and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1996. He passed away in 2017 at age 85.
Known for his zany stunts and sense of humor (such as arriving at Tigers camp on a motorcycle and circling the field), Paul “Dizzy” Trout earned two All-Star selections during his 14 seasons with Detroit (1939-52). He reached double figures in victories eight times and had a four-year stretch from 1943-46 in which he went 82-54.
Trout led the league with a 20-12 record in 1943, then followed with an All-Star appearance after posting a 27-14 record and leading the A. L with a 2.12 earned run average, 33 complete games, and seven shutouts. He ranks fourth in franchise history in games pitched (493), sixth in shutouts (28), seventh in innings (2,591 2/3) and complete games (156), eighth in wins (161-153), and games started (305) and ninth in strikeouts (1,199).
Trout went 1-2 in three World Series games, and he helped the Tigers win the championship in 1945 with a 1-1 record and a 0.66 ERA. After being traded to the Red Sox in 1952, he retired and spent the next five years as a color(ful) analyst with the Tigers. He returned for a two-game stint with the Orioles in 1957 before he retired for good and became a spokesman for the White Sox
Despite missing nearly two full seasons due to military service in World War II, Virgil Trucks went 114-96 in 12 seasons with the Tigers (1941-43 and 45-52). He produced double-digit win totals six times with Detroit and earned an All-Star selection after going 19-11 with a 2.81 earned run average and a league-leading 153 strikeouts in 1949.
Both Trucks and the Tigers endured a rough season in 1952, with the pitcher going 5-19 and Detroit setting a record for futility with a 50-104 record. However, two of Trucks’ victories were 1-0 no-hitters, one against the Senators in May and the other against the Yankees in August.
Trucks is tied for tenth in franchise history with 20 shutouts, and he also posted a 3.50 ERA, 84 complete games, and 1,046 strikeouts in 1,800 2/3 innings. He had one more All-Star season with the White Sox in 1954 and retired after splitting the 1958 season between the Athletics and Yankees. Trucks passed away in 2013 at age 95.
Jack Morris spent 14 seasons with Detroit (1977-90) and holds the record for the most wins in the 1980s (162-119). Morris reached double figures in victories 11 times, including two seasons with 20 or more and a league-high 14 in the strike-shortened 1981 season. In 1983, he went 20-13 with a 3.34 earned run average and league-high totals of 232 strikeouts in 293 2/3 innings. Morris threw a 4-0 no-hitter against the White Sox the following year.
The six-time All-Star ranks second in franchise history in games started (408), third in strikeouts (1,980), fourth in innings (3,042 2/3), fifth in wins (198-150), eighth in complete games (154) and shutouts (24) and ninth in games pitched (430).
Morris went 3-1 in four postseason starts with the Tigers, including 2-0 in the 1984 World Series. However, his most memorable performance came in 1991 with the Twins when he went 2-0 against the Braves, including a 10-inning performance in Game 7. He won his second straight title as a member of the Blue Jays in 1992 and retired after playing with the Indians two years later. Morris failed to reach the necessary 75 percent of votes needed from the baseball writers in 15 years on the ballot, but he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first time on the Veteran’s Committee list in 2018,
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was one of the most charismatic young players of his era and maybe in baseball history. Bursting onto the scene in 1976, he went 19-9 and led the league with a 2.34 earned run average and 24 complete games. He was an All-Star, earned the Rookie of the Year Award, was the Cy Young runner-up, and even garnered some MVP attention.
“The Bird” had plenty of quirks that he needed to keep himself calm and focused, but also distracted opponents. He would chew gum constantly, talk to the ball and himself, walk a circle around the mound after each batter, and gesture toward the plate to point out where he wanted the ball to go. However, the success wouldn’t last. He injured his knee during spring training in 1977, and although he was an All-Star, he made just 11 starts.
Fidrych suffered from a “dead arm” which limited him to just 27 starts over his final four seasons before he was forced out of the majors in 1980 with a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA in 56 starts. He pitched in the minors but did not have his usual pinpoint control and officially retired in 1983. Two years later, he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, but even with surgery, it was too late for him to return to baseball.
Fidrych became a truck driver and made sporadic public appearances after his playing career, including a role in the 2009 film Dear Mr. Fidrych about his life. He died in April of that year while working underneath a truck.
5. Tommy Bridges – He spent his entire 16-year career with the Tigers (1930-43 and 45-46), missing nearly two full seasons due to military service. Bridges used his fantastic curveball to record double-digit victories 10 times, including nine straight years from 1932-40. He was a six-time All-Star who had three 20-win seasons, including 1936, when he led the league with a 23-11 mark, 38 starts, and 175 strikeouts in 294 2/3 innings.
Bridges had a 3.57 ERA and is tied for third in franchise history in shutouts (33), fifth in complete games (200) and strikeouts (1,674), sixth in wins (194-138) and innings (2,826 1/3), seventh in games started (362) and tenth in games pitched (424). He went 4-1 in four World Series with Detroit, including 2-0 in the Tigers’ win over the Cubs in 1935. After the Tigers released Bridges, he pitched in the minor leagues for five more years.
4. George “Hooks” Dauss – Nicknamed for his fantastic curveball, Dauss is the all-time franchise leader in victories (223-182) over his 15 seasons (1912-26). Although he played in an era before the All-Star Game, the consistent righty would have gotten some consideration thanks to 14 straight seasons with double-digit victories, including three with 20 or more.
Dauss’ best season was arguably 1915 when he set career highs with a 24-13 record and 27 complete games to go along with a 2.50 earned run average and 132 strikeouts in 309 2/3 innings. He ranks second in franchise history in innings (3,390 2/3), games pitched (538) and complete games (245), fourth in games started (388), eighth in strikeouts (1,201), and ninth in shutouts (22).
3. Denny McLain – He came to the Tigers off waivers from the White Sox in 1963 and became a polarizing figure in Detroit baseball. He earned the first of back-to-back Cy Young awards with one of the greatest performances in modern baseball history. He also won the A. L. MVP Award in 1968, going 31-6 and making him the last pitcher to reach 30 wins in a season. In addition to the franchise-record win total, he also led the league with 28 complete games and 336 innings and had an amazing 1.96 earned run average, six shutouts, and 280 strikeouts, which is the second-highest single-season mark in team history.
After the success of McLain and Cardinals star Bob Gibson, the league lowered the pitching mound, but McLain still stood tall over the American League. He led the circuit with a 24-9 record, 325 innings, and nine shutouts, which set a team record, en route to his second straight Cy Young Award.
However, the three-time All-Star also had some issues. The outspoken star found his way into magazines and on television shows but was ill-equipped to handle the pressure of fame at times. McLain was linked to gambling (which manager Mayo Smith chose to overlook but catcher Bill Freehan noticed and wrote about in his book). He was suspended for half a season and filed for bankruptcy. His antics eventually led to a trade to Washington in 1971, but his arm was worn down due to a long history of cortisone shots and he struggled with the Senators, Athletics, and Braves before he retired in 1972.
McLain finished his eight-year Tigers tenure with a 117-62 record and a 3.13 ERA. He ranks seventh in franchise history with 26 shutouts and tenth with 1,150 strikeouts. In the 1968 World Series, he lost twice against Gibson, but returned on short rest to win Game 6 and tie the series for the Tigers (they beat Gibson in Game 7).
His post-baseball career was filled with issues and controversies. He worked in television and radio and ran nightclubs before he was forced to declare bankruptcy for a second time. McLain went to prison for 2½ years after a 1985 arrest for extortion, racketeering, and drug possession, but his conviction was overturned. He was convicted in 1996 for stealing $3 million in pension funds from his meat-packing company, was paroled in 2003, and has seemingly turned his life around.
2. Justin Verlander – He is one of the best power pitchers of his era, which he showed during his 13 seasons in Detroit (2005-16). Verlander reached double figures in victories 11 times in that span and was a six-time All-Star. He earned the Rookie of the Year Award in 2006 and, after leading the league with 17 losses in 2008, he bounced back to lead the A. L. with 19 wins, 269 strikeouts, and 240 innings the following year.
In 2011, Verlander loaded up on hardware, winning the MVP, the Cy Young Award, and the pitching Triple Crown after leading the league with a 24-5 record, a 2.40 ERA, and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings. He finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting three other times and is the only pitcher in Tigers history to have three seasons with at least 250 strikeouts. He also joined Trucks in throwing two no-hitters, one against the Brewers in 2007 and another four years later against the Blue Jays.
Verlander was traded to the Astros for the stretch run in 2017, and he won two more Cy Youngs, earned three All-Star selections, led the league in wins twice, went to three World Series, won two titles, and was the MVP of the 2017 ALCS. He went 7-5 in 16 postseason starts with the Tigers but went 0-3 in losses to the Cardinals (2006) and Giants (2012) in the World Series. Verlander joined the Mets in 2023 but was sent back to the Astros at the trade deadline.
1. George Mullin – Although he isn’t the most exciting name to pick for the top of this list, he is the most consistent. Mullin used a powerful fastball to reach double figures in wins in 11 of his 12 seasons with Detroit (1902-13). He won 20 games or more five times and led the league with a 29-8 mark in 1909, which is tied for the second-most wins in team history. He threw a no-hitter against the Browns on July 4, 1912. Not only was it the first in Tigers history, but it was on his 32nd birthday.
Mullin threw more than 300 innings in a season six times and led the league in 1905, but it was the year before when he was at his best, setting a team record with 382 1/3. Going hand-in-hand was his complete game total, which includes five seasons with 30 or more and a franchise-best 42 in 1904. Although he went 17-23 that season, Mullin had a 2.40 earned run average, seven shutouts, and 161 strikeouts.
“Wabash George” (another who was named for his hometown) is the all-time franchise leader in innings (3,394) and complete games (336), second in wins (209-179) and shutouts (34), third in games started (395), sixth in ERA (2.76), seventh in strikeouts (1,380) and eighth in games pitched (435).
Mullin went 3-3 in six World Series starts with a 2.02 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 58 innings. However, the Tigers lost all three times. He split 1913 between Detroit and Washington then played two seasons in the Federal League before retiring with 228 career wins.
5. Frank Tanana – He found his greatest success with three All-Star selections and some Cy Young consideration during eight seasons with the Angels, but he was also a solid contributor over eight years with the Tigers (1985-92). With the Tigers, he had double-digit wins seven times with a high mark of 15-10 with 146 strikeouts in 1987.
Tanana went 96-82 with a 4.08 earned run average and 958 strikeouts in 1,551 1/3 innings over 243 starts. He was with the Rangers when the Tigers went to the World Series in 1984 and he lost his only start to the Twins in the 1987 ALCS. Tanana retired in 1993 after splitting his final season between the Yankees and Mets.
4. Earl Whitehill – He was a solid contributor in an era between the Tigers’ World Series appearances. Whitehill posted double-digit win totals in nine of his 10 seasons with Detroit (1923-32) and won at least 16 games five times. He went over 200 innings eight times and led the league with 33 starts in 1925.
Whitehill ranks ninth in franchise history in games started (287), complete games (147), innings (2,171 1/3), and tenth in wins (133-119) to go with a 4.16 ERA and 838 strikeouts.
3. Ed Killian – He spent seven of his eight seasons with Detroit (1904-10), amassing a 100-74 record. Killian posted two of the three lowest single-season ERA totals in club history with a 1.78 mark in 1907 and a 1.71 two years later. In 1905, he went 23-14 with eight shutouts, which led the league and is tied for second-most in team history. He went 25-13 in 1907 with 29 complete games and 314 innings.
“Twilight Ed” ranks second in franchise history with a 2.38 ERA (Harry Coveleski is first at 2.34) and is tenth with 142 complete games. Killian made one appearance each in the 1907 and ’08 World Series but did not play in 1909.
2. Hal Newhouser – He was a seven-time All-Star who led the league in wins four times and was the first pitcher to earn back-to-back MVP awards while the world (including quite a few ballplayers) was at war. Newhouser got a medical exemption from military service due to a heart condition and earned his first MVP in 1944 when he led the league with a 29-9 record and 187 strikeouts and posted a 2.22 earned run average in 312 1/3 innings.
The following year, he won the pitching Triple Crown with a 25-9 mark, a 1.81 ERA, and 212 strikeouts in 313 1/3 innings. In 1946, Newhouser finished second in the MVP voting after leading the league once again with a 26-9 record and a 1.94 ERA, with his 275 strikeouts finishing second behind Cleveland’s Bob Feller and ranking third in team history.
“Prince Hal” is tied for third on the franchise list in shutouts (33) and ranks fourth in wins (200-148), strikeouts (1,779), and complete games (212), fifth in innings (2,944), sixth in games started (373) and seventh in games pitched (460) to go with an impressive 3.07 ERA over 15 seasons (1939-53).
Newhouse did not pitch in the 1940 World Series and went 2-1 in the win over the Cubs five years later, including a series-clinching victory in Game 7. He was released by the Tigers and spent his final two seasons with the Indians, making one appearance in the 1954 World Series and retiring the following year. He was a banker following his retirement and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1992.
1. Mickey Lolich – He was born right-handed but doctors encouraged him to throw from the left side following a motorcycle accident and he became one of the best pitchers in baseball in the 1960s. Lolich reached double figures in wins 12 times during his 13 years with Detroit (1963-75), posting 15 or more eight times and topping the 20-win mark twice.
After leading the league with 19 losses in 1970, he bounced back the following year to top the A. L. with a 25-14 record and finished as the runner-up for the Cy Young Award and fifth in the MVP voting. That season, he also set a franchise record with 308 strikeouts and led the league with 29 complete games and 376 innings, which ranks second in team history.
Lolich is the all-time franchise leader in strikeouts (2,679), games started (459), and shutouts (39) and he ranks third in wins (207-175), innings (3,361 2/3), and games pitched (508) and sixth in complete games (190). He started at least 40 games in a season four times, with his 45 in 1971 being a team record.
Lolich was the 1968 World Series MVP and won the Babe Ruth Award after winning all three of his starts, including coming back on two days’ rest to beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Game 7. He went 3-1 in five career postseason starts with a 1.57 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 45 innings. The three-time All-Star won the fielding title in 1975, was traded to the Mets for Rusty Staub the following season, and after sitting out a year to become a free agent, he finished his career with two seasons in San Diego, retiring in 1979 and opening a pastry shop.
Honorable Mentions – Francisco Rodriguez started his career with the Angels, earning three All-Star selections, leading the league in saves three times, and setting the single-season saves mark with 62 in 2008. After time with the Mets and Orioles, as well as two stints with the Brewers, Rodriguez finished his career with two seasons in Detroit (2016-17).
He resembled his earlier career self, posting 44 saves in his first season with the Tigers (which ranked second in team history) before crashing the following year with just seven saves and a 7.82 ERA. “K-Rod” ended his 16-year career with 437 saves and got a little more than 10 percent of potential votes in his first season on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2023.
Aurelio Lopez played seven seasons with Detroit (1979-85), earning his only All-Star selection in 1983. He combined to win 23 games out of the bullpen in his first two years. Lopez ranks sixth in franchise history with 85 saves, with many earned by pitching multiple innings. He went 53-30 with a 3.41 ERA and 519 strikeouts in 713 innings. Lopez went 2-0 with six strikeouts in six innings in the postseason to help the Tigers win the 1984 World Series.
Known for his tilted cap and bow-and-arrow celebration, Fernando Rodney amassed 70 saves (seventh in franchise history) in seven years with Detroit (2002-03 and 05-09). He spent most of that time in a setup role and missed all of the 2004 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Rodney took over the closer role during the 2008 season and saved 37 games the following year. He went 15-30 with a 4.28 ERA and 314 strikeouts in 330 innings. Rodney made seven appearances during the 2006 playoffs, allowing two runs in 7 2/3 innings. He went to the Angels in 2010 and bounced around to 10 teams over the next 10 years.
“La Flecha” (the arrow) earned three All-Star selections, won Comeback Player of the Year with 48 saves and a ridiculous 0.60 ERA with the Rays in 2012, led the American League with 48 saves for the Mariners in 2014, and won a World Series with the Nationals in his final season in 2019.
5. Jose Valverde – He led the league in saves two years in a row with two different teams (the Diamondbacks in 2007 followed by the Astros) before coming to the Tigers. In four seasons with Detroit (2010-13), he had 119 saves (fifth in team history) and totaled 25 or more three times.
In 2011, Valverde earned his second straight All-Star selection and won the Rolaids Relief Award after posting 49 saves, which led the league and set a franchise record. He went 7-13 with a 3.22 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 223 2/3 innings.
4. Mike Henneman – For a while, he was the Tigers’ all-time leader in saves, but he actually never was an All-Star as a closer. He earned his only selection to the Midsummer Classic as a setup man in 1989. Henneman amassed 154 saves in nine seasons with Detroit (1987-95), posting 20 or more five times.
Henneman went 57-34 with a 3.05 earned run average and 480 strikeouts in 669 2/3 innings. In addition to his team saves mark, he ranks fifth in franchise history with 491 games pitched. Henneman went 1-0 during the 1987 ALCS, but the Tigers lost to the Twins. After being traded to the Astros in 1995, he finished his career with the Rangers the following year and posted a career-best 31 saves before injuries forced him to retire.
Henneman, who was born in a suburb of St. Louis and adopted, made news after his playing career when he found out that he had seven stepsiblings.
3. Todd Jones – Despite him owning the team record with 235 saves, things were never easy when he came into the game, hence the nickname “Roller Coaster.” Jones spent eight seasons with the Tigers in two stints (1997-2001 and 06-08) and posted 25 or more saves six times.
Jones earned his only All-Star selection, won the Rolaids Relief Award, and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2000 when he led the American League with 42 saves. He went 23-32 with a 4.07 ERA and 372 strikeouts in 479 1/3 innings. Jones played for seven other teams during his 16-year career, and he finished with 319 saves.
2. Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez – He spent his first seven years in the National League with the Cubs and Phillies before joining the Tigers in 1984. Getting to a World Series takes many things to go right, and things certainly went right with Hernandez. He became the first relief pitcher to win the MVP Award and he also won the Cy Young Award after going 9-3 with a 1.92 earned run average, converting all 32 of his save chances and striking out 112 batters in 140 1/3 innings.
Hernandez appeared in six games during the playoffs in 1984, giving up two runs in 9 1/3 innings and converting three saves, including two in the World Series victory over the Padres. He was a three-time All-Star who retired in 1989 with a 36-31 record, a 2.98 ERA, 384 strikeouts in 483 2/3 innings, and 120 saves, which ranks fourth in franchise history.
1. John Hiller – What do you have to do to rank higher than someone who won the Cy Young Award and the MVP as a reliever? Setting a single-season save record would be a good start. Hiller spent his entire 15-year career with Detroit (1965-70 and 72-80), appearing in 545 games, which is the most in franchise history.
Hiller started his career as a spot starter and middle reliever. He missed the entire 1971 season after suffering multiple heart attacks and was relegated to being a batting practice pitcher before retiring to the active roster.
Hiller won 10 games, had a 1.44 ERA, and saved 38 games in 1973, besting the single-season Major League record of 37 set by Cincinnati’s Clay Carroll the year before. The mark held for 10 years until Kansas City’s Dan Quisenberry converted 45 saves in 1983. Hiller also was named Fireman of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year, and he won the Hutch Award.
Although he set the saves record, Hiller’s only All-Star selection came the following year in 1974, when he went 17-14 out of the ‘pen with 13 saves and 134 strikeouts in 150 innings. He finished his career as the all-time franchise leader with 54 games pitched, an 87-76 record, a 2.83 ERA, 1,036 strikeouts in 1,242 innings, and 125 saves, which ranks third in team history. Hiller appeared in two games during the 1968 World Series and three more in the ALCS in 1972. He retired in 1980 and worked at an insurance company in Minnesota.
The next featured team is the Houston Astros.
A look back at the Colorado Rockies
A look back at the Cleveland Guardians
Cleveland Guardians Catchers and Managers
Cleveland Guardians First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Cleveland Guardians Second Basemen and Shortstops
Cleveland Guardians Outfielders
Cleveland Guardians Pitchers
A look back at the Cincinnati Reds
A look back at the Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox Catchers and Managers
Chicago White Sox First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Chicago White Sox Second Basemen and Shortstops
Chicago White Sox Outfielders
Chicago White Sox Pitchers
A look back at the Chicago Cubs
A look back at the Boston Red Sox
A look back at the Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore Orioles Catchers and Managers
Baltimore Orioles First and Third Basemen
Baltimore Orioles Second Basemen and Shortstops
Baltimore Orioles Outfielders and Designated Hitters
Baltimore Orioles Pitchers
A look back at the Atlanta Braves
A look back at the Arizona Diamondbacks
Arizona Diamondbacks Catchers and Managers
Arizona Diamondbacks First and Third Basemen
Arizona Diamondbacks Second Basemen and Shortstops
Arizona Diamondbacks Outfielders
Arizona Diamondbacks Pitchers