Michigan is often considered to be the auto capital of America. This is no small wonder, either. According to the state’s Center for Automotive Research, Michigan receives parts to build between 10 and 12 million vehicles a year. So, it’s no surprise that terms like acceleration and velocity are often used in conjunction with the state’s descriptors. This is also true for their abilities on the baseball field. They’ve offered some of the fastest-rising talent in history as well as some of the fastest players, period. Their 5,081 combined stolen bases rank 15th all-time, which is nothing to sneeze at considering the talent of some of their competition. However, that said, it’s not just speed that counts on this list.
In seeking Michigan’s best baseball player, we search, as always, for the absolute pinnacle of the game’s perfection. It’s that special player who has beaten out all others in the WAR department, be it pitching or hitting. This list, though, is something that’s rather special. Michigan is also known for its baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. Many a Tiger has come from the state, and this list contains some of the best in franchise history. But there are eight other cases to examine, so we will waste no more time. Here are the best baseball players in Michigan’s history.
Michigan’s Best Baseball Player
Kicking off the list in true Hall of Fame fashion is Kiki Cuyler, an outfielder who defined speed and precision through the 1920s and 30s. After an 18-year career, Cuyler retired with 2,299 hits, 394 of which went for two bases. He is best known for his time with both the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1925, he helped the latter to a World Championship at a mere 26 years of age. He hit .357 with a 1.021 OPS, 18 homers, 220 hits, and 43 doubles. His 26 triples and 144 runs scored both led the league, and he also topped the rankings in games played (153). He finished second to Rogers Hornsby in NL MVP voting. In 1929, with the Cubs, he hit .360 and in 1934, he made it to the second-ever All-Star Game.
Born: Highland Park
Ted Simmons was never a league leader or record-setting type of player. However, his 21 years of absolute consistency netted him a Hall of Fame berth. His 13 years with the St. Louis Cardinals made him a franchise legend. By WAR, he’s the ninth greatest Cardinal of all time. He was something of a hybrid, both catching and playing first base to an above-average level. But, his true production came at the plate. He hit .285 for his career with a 118 OPS+, 2,472 hits, and 1,389 RBI. An eight-time All-Star, Simmons also boasts three top-10 MVP vote finishes. His best years came toward the end of the 1970s. From 1977-1980, he hit .298, had four straight 20+ homer seasons, and had three years of 140 or more hits. In 1978, he cracked 40 doubles and in 1980, he won his only career Silver Slugger.
The search for Michigan’s best baseball player treads the mound for the first time, and in extremely excellent fashion, no less. Jim Kaat played 25 years in the big leagues, debuting in 1959 and retiring in 1983. The Hall of Famer posted 283 wins, with three 20-win years, and five seasons with an ERA of three or lower. His 15 years with the Minnesota Twins vaulted him to household status among franchise fans. He’s in the top five in team history in both wins and strikeouts. Terrific as all that success was, his defense was even more legendary. He earned 16 Gold Gloves in his career. Only Greg Maddux has more among pitchers.
In an age of Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce flew under history’s radar. This is something of a shame, as the Chicago White Sox legend deserves a lot of praise. He spent 18 years in the league, amassing 211 wins, a 3.27 ERA, and a 119 ERA+. His attributes earned him seven All-Star appearances and top-five finishes in both MVP and Cy Young voting. For three consecutive seasons, he led the American League in complete games. In the late 1950s, hardly anybody in the game was better. From 1955-1960, Pierce won 100 games with a 3.09 ERA and a 125 ERA+. He also posted 92 completions and 17 shutouts during that period. Singular seasons of note include 1955 (league-leading 1.97 ERA), 1953 (league-leading 186 strikeouts), and his back-to-back 20-win campaigns (1956 & ’57).
Frank Tanana is a man whose stat line reads like the average roller coaster. From 1975-78, he was a future Hall of Famer. By 1982, he was leading the league in losses. In any case, he did manage to grind out 20 years of extremely interesting performances. He’s best known for his eight years with the then-California Angels, where he won 102 games with a 3.08 ERA. He also had three consecutive top-10 finishes in Cy Young voting. Pair that with three straight All-Star appearances, and he’s something of a shoo-in for a list like this. However, in January 1981, he was involved in a deal with the Boston Red Sox that sent, among others, Fred Lynn the other way. Though never quite the same pitcher, Tanana did find some later stability with his hometown Tigers.
In stark contrast to our previous entry, Eddie Cicotte did not find fame until his career’s waning years. While a solid hand for the Boston Red Sox, it took a change of footwear color to expose his true talent. In 1917, at the age of 33, Cicotte led the league in wins (28), ERA (1.53), and ERA+ (174). He did all this while helping lead the White Sox to a World Championship. Two years later, he had what could be argued was his best campaign. He went 29-7 with a sparkling 1.82 ERA and hurled 30 complete games. In total, Cicotte retired after winning 209 games in only 14 years. His career ERA (2.38) and ERA+ (123) make him worthy of inclusion on this list by themselves. However, it is his later explosion that truly locks him in here.
Hal Newhouser represents yet another pitcher on our search for Michigan’s best baseball player. At the same time, he also represents the first Tigers legend that we’ve covered. Newhouser’s career began inauspiciously, to say the least. However, by 1944, Newhouser and the Tigers had something figured out. The team won 88 games, with Newhouser claiming 29 for his own. His 2.22 ERA and league-leading 187 strikeouts helped him to the first of back-to-back MVP Awards. In 1945, the Tigers won the World Series with Newhouser leading the staff again. He went 25-9 with a league-best 1.81 ERA. All told, for 15 seasons, Newhouser was the cream of the Tigers’ pitching crop. His 58.7 WAR as a Tiger is the best among pitchers in franchise history.
The search for Michigan’s best baseball player wouldn’t be complete without John Smoltz. Indeed, he’s one of the only pitchers in baseball history to post 200 wins and 150 saves. In the mid-90s, Smoltz helped the Atlanta Braves to a World Title and won the 1996 Cy Young Award. He also made four All-Star appearances. Unfortunately, surgery knocked him out of the 2000 season. His return saw him go to the bullpen, where he became one of the most feared closers in the league. In 2002, he led the league with 55 saves, and in 2003, he put up a 1.12 ERA and 45 more saves. All told, Smoltz retired after 2009 with 213 wins, 154 saves, and over 3,000 strikeouts. Not bad for a kid who began his career with an ERA in the mid-fives.
Some might argue that Bobby Grich deserves a spot in Cooperstown. While that is definitely up for debate, one thing that isn’t is his inclusion here. The definition of a utility man, Grich played a number of infield positions throughout his career. He took home six All-Star appearances, four Gold Gloves, and a Silver Slugger. In 1979, with the Angels, he had what was, perhaps, his best season. He hit .294 with 30 homers, 101 RBI, 157 hits, 30 doubles, and 287 total bases, topping it all off with an eighth-place MVP finish. Finally, his 224 career homers and 320 doubles place him squarely within the top five of all players from Michigan.
It’s fitting that Michigan’s best baseball player is a Tigers legend. It’s also fitting that his nickname was The Mechanical Man. He truly was like a machine, making the first six All-Star Games consecutively. No second baseman in the big leagues was better during the 1930s. Charlie Gehringer did practically everything. He posted seven seasons of 200 or more hits, including league-leading totals in 1929 and ’34. In 1937, he took home AL MVP honors and the batting title by hitting a blistering .371. He led the league in runs scored twice, doubles twice, and triples once. However, his most amazing stat was his overall consistency. From 1927-1940, he only hit below .300 in a season once, and that was a .298 mark. In light of this, it is easy to see why Gehringer is the best in Michigan baseball history.
Main photo credits:
Brett Davis-USA Today Sports
Kiki Cuyler, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Simmons, Jim Kaat, Greg Maddux, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce, Frank Tanana, Fred Lynn, Eddie Cicotte, Hal Newhouser, John Smoltz, Bobby Grich, Charlie Gehringer
Caleb Begley is a 26 year old lover of all things sports, but especially our nation's great national pastime. He holds a degree in Broadcast Journalism from Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, and hopes to use it to create a career within the sportscasting realm. While in school, he was able to write and edit for the school paper's sports section, while also helping to anchor and produce the student newscast. As far as baseball itself is concerned, he is always willing to talk about the history of the game, and the statistics and stories that go along with it. He is thrilled to be able to be a part of the Last Word on Baseball team, and he hopes that he is able to contribute something that is both factual and interesting.