All-Time Detroit Tiger Catchers

Throughout the history of the Tiger organization, catchers have played a very prominent role in leading the team to the World Series.  Because of that, the challenge I had with the All-Tiger team was narrowing down the position to two players.  In reality I could easily place 4 players on this squad, and I would have no issue with any of these 4 players being placed on this team.

The Detroit Tigers played 35 seasons before winning their first World Series.  They won 4 American League pennants without being able to overcome the National League in the Fall Classic.  Their fifth pennant was the charm, as they defeated the Chicago Cubs in 1935 to become World Series Champions.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s the two dominant teams in the American League were the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics.  Upon falling on financial difficulty in 1933, Connie Mack began to sell off his cache of talent to other big league teams.  It was at this time the Tigers obtained Mickey Cochrane.  Cochrane immediately improved the team from an offensive standpoint, handling the pitchers, and managing the Tigers.  Cochrane’s addition was the key that pushed Detroit over the top, allowing the Tigers to win the pennant in 1934 (losing a thrilling series in 7 games to the Cardinals) and winning the World Series in 1935.  Unfortunately for Cochrane, he only played two full seasons for Detroit, as injuries limited his play in 1936 to 44 games, and 27 games in 1937, when his playing days ended.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

BB

K

Notes

1934

.320

2

76

140

74

32

78

26

MVP, AS

1935

.319

5

47

131

93

33

96

15

AS

Prime

.319

4

62

136

84

33

87

21

The 1960s saw the rest of the American League chasing down the Yankees.  New York won each pennant from 1960 to 1964, followed by Minnesota, Baltimore, Boston, and Detroit in 1968.  The mainstay behind the plate for the Tigers during this decade was Bill Freehan (R, R).  Freehan made 11 All-Star teams (the most ever by a player not in the Hall of Fame), won 5 Gold Glove awards, and retired with the highest fielding percentage of any catcher in history (it was later broken in 2002 by Dan Wilson), most putouts (later broken by Gary Carter), and most total chances by a catcher (later broken by Bob Boone).  He had a .262 career batting average, and hit 200 home runs in his 15 years.  He was runner-up for the American League MVP award in 1968 (behind teammate Denny McLain), and was key in helping the Tigers win the World Series that year, as well as the Eastern Division title in 1972.  After he retired in 1975, he helped an up and coming catcher named Lance Parrish with his technique behind the plate.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

BB

Notes

1964

.300

18

80

156

69

14

8

36

AS

1967

.282

20

74

146

66

23

1

73

GG,AS

1974

.297

18

60

132

58

17

5

42

1968

.263

25

84

142

73

25

2

65

MVP Runner-up, GG, AS

Prime

.285

20

75

144

67

20

4

54

In the late 1970s the Detroit franchise saw a youth movement, as several players who would later become the core of the 1984 team began to cut their teeth in the majors.  Among those who started their career in Detroit in the late 70s were Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Aurelio Lopez, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish (R, R).  When Sparky Anderson arrived to manage the team in 1979, he claimed he could win a World Series in 5 seasons.  These guys made that prediction come true.

Lance Parrish’s influence on the team was vital, because he was not only the best defensive catcher in the league during the early to mid-80s (3 Gold Glove awards), but he was also the clean-up hitter on the 1984 team, hitting 33 home runs (an American League record for catchers)and driving in 98 runs.
He had a great arm behind the plate, often leading the league in one category or other for assists, throwing runners out stealing, and percentage of runners caught stealing.  He ended his career with 324 home runs, 299 of which were hit in the American League (6th all-time for AL catchers).  He was an 8-time All-Star for his career, and 6 times while with Detroit.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

Notes

1980

.286

24

82

158

79

34

6

6

AS

1982

.284

32

87

138

75

19

2

3

AS

1983

.269

27

114

163

80

42

3

1

GG, AS

1985

.273

28

98

150

64

27

1

2

GG, AS

Prime

.278

28

95

152

75

31

3

3

The fourth major impact catcher in Tiger history was Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez (R, R).  The Tigers signed Pudge in 2004 to a 4-year contract.  At the time he was a 32 year old catcher, with a recent history of injury issues with his knees and back.  No other team in the league was willing to offer him a 4-year contract, and the Tigers were at the time the laughing stock of baseball.

Going into 2004, Detroit had last seen a winning season in 1991, when they won 84 games, and they had not made the playoffs since 1987.  Worse, in 2003 they lost 119 games, earning consideration as one of the worst teams in baseball history.  Pudge Rodriguez was just coming off a World Series win with the Marlins, but in typical Florida Marlin’s fashion, his contract was not picked up at the end to the year.  The Tigers needed a marquee ballplayer who could lead their team back to respectability.  They rolled the dice on Pudge, and did the same with Magglio Ordonez in 2005.

Instantly the message was out that Detroit was an OK place to play ball again.  Other players were willing to consider coming to Detroit, because Detroit was now willing to pay for good players.  The gamble paid off.  By 2006, the Tigers were back in the World Series, and Pudge was a key component in the team’s newfound success.

Rodriguez is considered by many estimates to be the best defensive catcher who ever played (fans of Johnny Bench will no doubt disagree).  For his career he threw out over 45% of the runners trying to steal off of him.  The league average is about 20 points below that.  He had a career batting average of .296, 2,844 hits, and 311 home runs; amazing statistics when you consider the wear and tear a catcher endures over the course of any year, not to mention a career.  He was a 14-time All-Star (earning 4 selections with the Tigers), and 13-time Gold Glove winner (earning 3 in Detroit), and he won the American League MVP in 1999 while playing for the Texas Rangers.  More importantly to Tiger fans, he brought respectability back to Motown.  Without Pudge, I don’t see a way the Tigers win the American League Championship in 2006.  Not only was his presence on the field important, but because of the respect he had with players around the league, when he came to Detroit, others were more willing to give the Tigers a chance as well.  I view his addition to the team as being as important as the addition of Mickey Cochrane in 1934.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

Notes

2004

.334

19

86

176

72

32

2

7

GG, AS

2006

.300

13

69

164

74

28

4

8

GG, AS

2007

.281

11

63

141

50

31

3

2

GG, AS

Prime

.305

14

73

160

65

30

3

6

 Who would you choose?  If Cochrane had a third productive year, he would be on this team.  His leadership was second to none, and he helped the Tigers win their first World Series.  Since he is not eligible based on my criteria, I am left with choosing two players from the other three.

Defensively, all three were at the top of the league when they played in Detroit.  Pudge may be the best of the bunch, but he was in the twilight of his career in Detroit.  His best defensive years were a little behind him, although he was still the best in the league at his position while with the Tigers.

Freehan and Parrish both played on World Series winners, and both were key in the offensive production of the teams when they won the World Series.  Both also produced better power numbers than Pudge, and this with the consideration that Freehan had to play in one of the most difficult hitting eras in baseball history.  Pudge, however, did hit for high average, and had some pop in his bat as well.

On this one, I wish I could take all three catchers, but when I look at the overall body of work, and what each player did for Detroit, I have to give an edge to Bill Freehan and Lance Parrish.  They played the best of their careers with Detroit (and Freehan did not play anywhere else).  Their impact on the Tigers is greater as a whole, and if for no other reason, they both were catchers on World Series Championship teams.  I love Pudge Rodriguez, and enjoyed watching him play as much as I ever enjoyed any player, but when I have to choose an All-Time Detroit Tiger team, I cannot leave off Bill Freehan or Lance Parrish.

All-Tiger Catchers:

Bill Freehan

Lance Parrish

Up next: Pitchers

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