The Detroit Tigers have been a generally successful franchise in their rich history, featuring some of the game’s greatest hitters from Ty Cobb to Hank Greenberg, and from Al Kaline to Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers have had their share of great pitchers, as well, but they are more historically renowned for their bats. It’s been the pitching more often than not that’s disappointed Detroit fans in the 100-plus years of Tigers baseball, as we take a closer look at 15 of their hurlers who brought the most pain and the least gain to Motown.
In compiling this list, several factors are weighed and includes career Tigers pitchers who were bad, those who under-performed either based on promise as a high amateur draft pick or as the object of a high-profile trade or free agent signing. We've also included pitchers who did not come through in the clutch from the Tigers when it counted most, from their very first American League dynasty in the dead-ball era to their recent run that saw them capture four division titles and two AL pennants from 2006-2014.
One challenge to compiling a list such as this, is that when a given pitcher is that bad for a given team, the Tigers or any other squad, those hurlers often don’t get very many chances to replicate on bad seasons. More than three years of really poor pitching won’t see too many pitchers--however highly valued and/overpaid they may be--lasting too long with a given team. He’s either going to be out of baseball outright or traded to another team. Taking all that into consideration, here then, are the 15 worst Tigers pitchers, meaning none of them ever got to date Kate Upton.
16 LIL STONER
No, Lil Stoner wasn't the first weed puffing hip-hop superstar out of Detroit; he was another bad Tigers pitcher who played in 1922 and then from 1924-1929. Lil Stoner's real name was the considerably more sonorous Ulysses Simpson Grant Stoner, which makes him sound like a cross between a President and a TV cartoon character. Stoner amassed a lifetime 50-57 record with a terrible 4.74 ERA during his seven seasons in the Motor City. And keep in mind, Stoner pitched in an era when the pitchers used to bat in the AL, and when the home run game was just being established by Babe Ruth.
Sure, his name helped Stoner “make” this particular list of terrible Tigers, but any pitcher who had a losing record for a given team as well as totaling over 50 losses is fair game for a “worst ever” list--whatever his name may be.
15 WILD BILL DONOVAN
Donovan’s inclusion is sure to generate some controversy; after all he compiled an impressive 140-96 lifetime record as a starter from 1903-12 in the Motor City, a .593 winning percentage with a formidable 2.49 ERA. However, it is the right-handed Donovan’s postseason failings that land him on this list of Tigers losers. Donovan has the dubious distinction of losing two consecutive deciding games of the World Series, in 1908 (the Cubs' last title until their miracle win in 2016) as well as Game 7 of the 1909 Series versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. Why is this so significant? Losing those games--especially in ‘09 when it all came down to just one game--meant that the greatest Tiger--and possible greatest player--of all time, Ty Cobb, was denied a championship. That the majors' greatest competitor never won his final game in a season, is nothing less than a baseball tragedy.
14 JOSE "PAPA GRANDE" VALVERDE
Here begins the list’s more “controversial” choices, as Valverde enjoyed a considerable measure of success with the Tigers, saving 119 games for Detroit. But of course the gigantic 6-4 Valverde will only be remembered by Detroit fans for his postseason meltdowns in 2011 versus Texas in the ALCS in which the Tigers lost, and especially 2012, when the Tigers were swept in the World Series by the San Francisco Giants. But even when the Tigers were taking multiple postseason series that year to capture the AL pennant, Valverde was still awful with a 16.20 ERA in the ALDS, losing a game to the Oakland A’s.
The right-handed flamethrower followed that up with matching ERAs of 54.00 for both the ALCS (in which the Tigers won) and the World Series (again, that they lost). Valverde was psychologically ruined in Motown, as the 2013 season and his 5.59 ERA were the end for Little Papa.
13 ART HOUTTEMAN
Any pitcher with a nickname like “Hard Luck” has to be included on such a list, though Houtteman could just as well have been called “Yo-Yo”, given the ups and downs his career took. He broke in during the Tigers' title-winning 1945 season as a 17-year old rookie, and pitched very well in 1947. Then the righty fell to 2-16 the next season, his 0-8 start prompting the media to dub him “Hard Luck Houtteman” but he rebounded to win 15 games in ‘49 and 19 in ‘50, actually making the All-Star Game. But that’s when Houtteman fell off the cliff, dropping 20 games on a 104-game losing Tigers team in 1952.
He “only” lost 13 the next year, but his win total improved but one game, to 9 W’s. He also once got into a serious car crash that inspired Indians manager Lou Boudreau to ban all his players from driving. Hard Luck Houtteman finished 53-69 overall for the Tigers, with a 4.13 ERA.
12 DONTRELLE WILLIS
When Willis emerged on the MLB scene for the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins, it was the closest thing the baseball world had seen to Doc Gooden, as the left-handed “D-Train” electrified home and road fans alike with his dazzling pitching style. Willis’ greatest claim to fame as a Tiger is that he was part of the December 2007 deal that also landed the Tigers' eventual Triple-Crown-Winner (and Hall of Famer to be) Miguel Cabrera. Otherwise, Willis was a colossal bust for the Tigers, getting paid $29 million over three years for a grand total of two wins (against 8 losses) and unbelievably bad stats of a 6.86 ERA and 1.93 WHIP during his tenure in Detroit. When combining the bad of Willis with the good of Cabrera, I guess you'll take that any day of the week.
11 PHIL COKE
In Detroit, Phil Coke was not the real thing. Coke began his career as a New York Yankee and was part of the Bombers' 2009 title winning team. Coke departed the Bronx for Detroit in 2010, and while his 17-24 overall record at Detroit wasn’t so bad for a reliever, his 4.25 ERA and 1.52 WHIP were unacceptable. Detroit experimented with making the southpaw Coke a starter in 2011, but that backfired and he endured his worst season in the big leagues.
Coke also lost the decisive Game 4 of the 2012 World Series in extra innings as the Tigers were swept by the Giants. And just when Coke showed improvement in 2014, he left the team. Coke has since fizzled so badly in the majors. He currently pitches in Japan.
10 JOBA CHAMBERLAIN
The often enigmatic Chamberlain didn’t have a lot of decisions (2-7 record), or saves (2) for that matter, for the Tigers during his two-year stint in Motown, yet still qualifies for our loser list due to his large sample size--larger than his ample gut--of 99 games pitched in Detroit. When the Tigers signed Chamberlain for $2.5 million for the 2014 season, they were expecting the right-handed setup man to perform based on his stellar 2009 postseason when his reliable bullpen work helped the Yankees capture their most recent World Series title. Instead, they got an overweight and inconsistent pitcher who was so lame in 2015 with a 4.09 ERA, the Tigers opted to release Justin Louis Chamberlain in the middle of that season.
9 JUSTIN THOMPSON
8 DUKE MAAS
Naturally, when Maas wound up on the dynastic New York Yankees in 1958, ol’ Duke compiled a lifetime 26-12 record with the perennial pennant contending Bronx Bombers. Perhaps he just needed the right situation to thrive.
7 C.J. NITKOWSKI
The career journeyman who hurled for eight MLB teams, the “Nit Picher” was around for not one, but two less-than-sterling stints with the Tigers, firstly mostly as a starter (1995-96), then later as a situational lefty (1999-2001). It’s not like Nitkowski was one of those “he’s better off in the National League” guys, because other than a decent 1998 season with the Houston Astros, Nitkowski bombed out in the NL, too.
During both runs with the Tigers combined, Christopher John Nitkowski went 11-24 for a .314 “winning” percentage and zero saves, all justified properly by a laughable 5.68 ERA. Seems improbable he got that many years pitching that badly, but that’s how lame those ‘90s Tigers were. Pitching in the middle of the "steroid era" certainly didn't help either.
6 JEREMY BONDERMAN
A first-round pick (26th overall) of the Oakland A's in the 2001 Amateur Draft, Bonderman never lived up to his potential. More a beneficiary of the Tigers' miraculous mid-2000s resurgence than a contributor to it, Bonderman posted a career 68-78 won-loss record for baseball's Bengals. The right-handed starter, and occasional reliever, just never could piece it all together, going 8-10 in his final season in his first stint with Detroit in 2010, when lack of experience and being on a bad team were no longer excuses.
Whereas contemporaries like Justin Verlander got better as the years progressed, Bonderman stagnated. As noted by Detroit Athletic Co. Bonderman also has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst Tigers' hitting hurlers in their vast history; going a career 1-for-28, with that lone "hit" being an infield dribbler. He tried to come back in 2013, posting a 6,48 ERA in 11 games and retired.
5 FELIPE LIRA
Lira represents those mediocre Tigers teams of the 1990s, part of a dry spell that saw the Tigers go 19 years between postseason appearances, which is no mean feat in this era of expanded postseason entries. Signed as an amateur free-agent out of high school in his native Venezuela in 1990, the right-handed Lira debuted in 1995 and actually enjoyed a respectable rookie record of 9-13 on a lousy team that won only 60 games in that strike-shortened season. Unfortunately, Lira didn’t follow up on that promise and the sometimes starter and sometimes reliever went 6-14 with a horrifying 5.22 ERA in 1996, a number that didn’t look so bad after his 5.77 ERA he was saddled with in the midst of ‘97, when he was shipped to Seattle.
Lira gets zonked with an extra demerit point for re-joining the Tigers in 1999 and posting a ghastly 10.80 ERA in two forgettable games.
4 JEFF WEAVER
Jeff Weaver never did live up to all that potential contained in his imposing 6-5 frame, going 39-51 for the Tigers from 1999-2002. The right-hander was Detroit’s number one pick in 1998 (#14 overall), the Tigers passing on pitchers like division rivals C.C. Sabathia (Indians) and Mark Buehrle (White Sox) in the process. Control issues plagued Weaver, as he lead the league in hit-by-pitches in both 1999 (17 batters plunked) and 2000.(15). During his forgettable 2001 campaign, Weaver led the league in batters faced with 985, a sign he never got command of his wicked stuff. He was traded to the Yankees in mid-2002. The older brother of the much more accomplished Jered, Jeff Weaver retired after a couple of winning, but non-descript years with the Dodgers.
2 LERRIN LAGROW
The embodiment of those really crappy Tigers’ teams of the mid-1970s, LaGrow lost 19 games for the '74 Tigers and followed that up by "improving" to only 14 losses in ‘75. LaGrow's overall record for the Tigers was a nauseating 16-39, and even on a bad team, that's bad. The right-handed starter’s five-year Tigers’ ERA of 4.40 was also way, way too high for the 1970s, when those numbers ran much lower than today, due to various factors including larger ballparks that dominated the decade.
That was about all Motown could take of Lerrin Harris LaGrow, and they promptly sold him to the Cardinals. In all, LaGrow pitched in 1970, and then from 1972-75, compiling a wretched record of 16-40 for the Tigers. He bounced around four teams in a five-year span after leaving Detroit.
1 MIKE MAROTH
Someone has to be held responsible for the Tigers nearly record-breaking 119-loss season in 2003 and the left-handed Maroth, who “led” the big leagues with 21 losses that year while winning 9 for an abysmal .300 winning percentage, is just the man to shoulder that blame. It’s not like Maroth can really blame his terrible teammates on those ‘03 Tigers, either. His earned-run-average was a comical 5.73 as he paced the majors by surrendering 123 runs while serving up 34 homers. When the Tigers turned the corner in 2006, Martoh was basically done in Motown, as he only got into 13 games in the Bengals’ pennant-winning season. Maroth’s miserable career in Detroit ended mercifully in mid-2007 and he finished his Tigers career going 50-62 with a sad 4.81 ERA
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