Best Five: Greatest Catchers in Detroit Tigers History

On Tuesday, June 7, the Detroit Tigers drafted University of Arkansas catcher James McCann as their first selection in the first-year draft. McCann was a three-year starter for the Razorbacks, known for his leadership behind the plate. At 21 years old he’s not yet considered a huge threat at the plate, and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever start at that position in the big leagues for the Tigers. If he does he’ll join an impressive group of players who’ve worn the mask for the Tigers over the years. As part of my series selecting the Best Five in Tiger history, this time I look at the backstops.

#5 Mickey Tettleton (1991-1994)

The first of two Mickey’s in our Best Five, Tettleton spent four years in a Tiger uniform in the 1990s. He actually played more games for Detroit than any other team in his career (570), catching 347. He also spent time at DH, first, and the outfield for Sparky Anderson. Tettleton was never going to be confused with Johnny Bench behind the plate defensively, but he could do a few things exceptionally well: get on base and hit for power. In his four seasons as a Tiger he averaged 28 homers and 108 walks per.

#4 Ivan Rodriguez (2004-2008)

Pudge helped transform the Tigers from laughingstock to pennant winners after arriving as a free agent in 2004. He hit .298 as a Tiger and had a top ten finish in MVP voting his first season with the club. He also won three Gold Glove awards for Detroit, and was probably the best all-around defensive catcher in the history of the franchise.

#3 Lance Parrish (1977-1986)

When he first came up in the late 1970s, Parrish was a raw defensive catcher. He was big, muscular, and had a cannon arm, but he didn’t really understand the position. Bill Freehan helped tutor him and before long Parrish was one of the best catchers in the game. In ten years with the Tigers he made six All-Star teams and won four Gold Gloves. He once threw out three of the best runners in baseball in the All-Star Game. Parrish clubbed 212 home runs for the Tigers and he was the cleanup man on the 1984 World Championship team. His peak was never as good as Pudge’s, but he ranks ahead of him because of the extra time he spent in Detroit.

#2 Mickey Cochrane (1934-1937)

Had Cochrane spent his entire career with the Tigers he’d rank first. He’s the only Hall of Fame catcher to ever don the mask for the Bengals (though Pudge should join him eventually). He actually only started behind the plate for two years for the Tigers, but they were two of the most successful seasons in the history of the franchise. In 1934 and 1935, serving as both the starting catcher and manager, Cochrane guided the Tigers to back-to-back pennants, and their first World Series title in ’35. He hit .300 three times for the Tigers and won the MVP award in 1934. A near fatal beaning ended Cochrane’s career in 1937, but he remains one of the legends of Tiger history.

#1 Bill Freehan (1961, 1963-1976)

Ask any member of the 1968 World Series title team and they’ll tell you that Freehan was the heart of that club, and one of the most valuable members of the team. The writers thought he was valuable too – he finished second to teammate Denny McLain in AL MVP voting. It was one of six times Freehan earned MVP votes in his career, and three times he finished in the top ten. He was most definitely the best catcher in the league for a decade, from 1963-1972, and arguably the best in baseball for much of that period. Unfortunately, because he played in the 1960s when offensive numbers were at a near record low, his stats look less impressive than they really are. His career OPS+ of 112 is one of the best in history for catchers not in the Hall of Fame. He was a complete defensive player, adept at handling pitchers, blocking the plate, and throwing out runners. For being the complete package, Freehan ranks #1 as the Tigers greatest catcher of all-time.

Next: The Best Five Tiger First Basemen

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.