Best Five: Greatest Designated Hitters in Detroit Tigers History

It’s not easy to select a quintet of Tiger designated hitters for our Best Five. The franchise has had many, many players in that role, and for many years they shuttled in regular position players at DH for days off from playing the field. But there have been a few players who were used regularly as a DH. The very best were the first two Tiger DH’s, who filled the role after the rule was instituted in the American League in 1973. The years listed are the seasons the player appeared in at least one game as a DH for the Tigers.

#5 Gary Sheffield (2007-2008)

Sheffield was a perfect DH, he was late in his career and was no looger an effective outfielder, but still had his famous quick bat. In 2007, the 38-year old hit 25 homers and drove in 75, while scoring 107 runs. He was a 20-20 man, stealing 22 bases. The next season his average sank to .225, but he still delivered 19 homers and 57 RBI in 114 games. He was pretty much done as a major leaguer, but in his two seasons as a Tiger he was a dangerous presence in the lineup and a leader in the clubhouse.

#4 Dmitri Young (2002-2006)

The switch-hitting Young was the Tigers primary DH for four+ seasons. He was tailor-made for the role. Dmitri made nearly every flyball hit to him in the outfield an adventure. But at the plate he was in his element. He hit 29 homers in 2003 and made the All-Star team for the Tiger club that lost 119 games. The next season he hit 18 (in just 104 games), and in 2005 he hit 21 homers. Personal problems curtailed his career, but “Da’ Meat Hook” was a .292 career hitter in 13 seasons.

#3 Kirk Gibson (1981-1987, 1993-1995)

Gibson earns his spot here mostly due to his second stint with Detroit, in the 1990s. As a young Tiger, Gibson played a little DH here and there before settling in as a right fielder (and left fielder). But coming back to Sparky and the club when he was a more mature 36-year old in 1993, Gibby provided his patented power and aggressive base-running from the DH role. Playing mostly against right-handed pitchers, Gibson hit 13 homers with 62 RBI in ’93, and 23 HR with 72 RBI the next season. In 1994 he had a .548 slugging percentage, the highest mark of his career.

#2 Willie Horton (1973-1977)

When the DH rule was passed for the 1973 season, it was perfect timing for Willie. The Tiger veteran had already spent a decade in left field for the club and in recent years gad missed significant playing time with injuries. The pampered life of a professional hitter was suited for Horton. Manager Ralph Houk was the first to install Willie as a full-time, exclusive DH, in 1975. Willie responded by setting career highs in games played, at-bats, and hits. He socked 25 homers and drove in 92 runs. He spent two more years in the role for Detroit, and later was a very successful DH for Texas, Oakland, and Seattle.

#1 Rusty Staub (1976-1979)

We’ll never know who would win a footrace between Rusty Staub and Gerald Laird, and it’s a shame, because the two sloths would probably put on a good show. But good thing For Staub he didn’t have to beat out that many infield hits: he was usually lining singles to the outfield. Rusty was a great hitter everywhere he went (he’s the only player to collect at least 500 hits with four different teams). He was at his best when runners were on base: the redhead drove in 100 runs twice for the Tigers and he averaged 106 RBI for his three full seasons with the team. With a sweet, short, level, left-handed stroke, Staub was a .277 hitter as a Tiger. In 1978 he finished fifth in AL MVP voting while playing every game at DH.

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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 @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.