Kell gets closer than expected nod as Tigers’ greatest third baseman

George Kell and Ray Boone manned third base for the Detroit Tigers from 1946 to 1956, with Boone succeeded the Hall of Famer at the hot corner.

George Kell and Ray Boone manned third base for the Detroit Tigers from 1946 to 1956, with Boone succeeded the Hall of Famer at the hot corner.

When the Detroit Tigers acquired Prince Fielder before the 2012 season and moved Miguel Cabrera to third base, it ran contrary to the way the franchise has manned the hot corner in recent decades. The men who had played that position regularly for the Tigers in the previous half-century almost all were defensive stalwarts and lightweights at the plate. Miggy, of course, broke that mold.

Here, in my continuing series on the all-time greatest Tigers at each position, I turn to the left side of the infield.

[ See Betzold's picks at shortstop, right field, and left field ]

The four men who have played the most games for the franchise at third base are Aurelio Rodriguez (1,235 games), Don Wert (1,035), Brandon Inge (999), and Tom Brookens (997). Each of these four was capable of some clutch hits, but overall their offensive performances ranged from substandard (Inge, Brookens) to lousy (Rodriguez, Wert). But each was a good-to-great fielder.

Together, this quartet covered third base for most of four different decades.

Wert was a key member of the 1968 champions in the Year of the Pitcher and, though a pretty lousy hitter, wasn’t even the weakest bat in the lineup, usually hitting seventh in front of the pathetic stick of Ray Oyler. Wert came up in 1963 and manned the hot corner through 1970, when he was traded to the Senators. During his eight seasons as a Tiger, he hit .242/.314/.343, and Baseball Reference awards him a cumulative 10.2 WAR (just a little more than one win a season).

In his nine seasons in the 1970s as the Tigers’ third baseman, Rodriguez basically replicated Wert’s performance, with a nearly identical .631 OPS (.239/.274/.356) and a cumulative WAR of 9.5. That does undervalue his defense: Rodriguez was a great fielder and had an exceptional arm to boot. He is the only Detroit third sacker to have won a Gold Glove Award.

The next decade produced another clone: Brookens. From mid-1979 through 1988, he hit .246/.296/.367, for a .663 OPS, slightly better than Wert and Rodriguez, with essentially the same set of skills and the same sort of WAR — 12.4 for the ten seasons.

An unsettled period in the nineties, with Travis Fryman and a cast of others at third base, was followed by the decade of Inge, who played for the Bengals, not always regularly, from 2001 to 2012. He hit slightly better than the other three, in an era of increased offense: .234/.304/.387, for a .691 OPS. He gets an 18.5 WAR for his 12 seasons in Detroit, so he was a win-and-a-half player.

It’s amazing how similar these four players are. And, with the possible exception of Wert, all were fan favorites in Detroit: embodiments of a lunch-bucket work ethic, beloved beyond their value as players, which was, let’s face it, at or below league average. Each one had his own cohort of fans who adored the hustling weak-hitting defensive third-base standout of their time.

But if you go back to the years that preceded the long spell of weak-hitting Tiger third baseman you find a different kind of animal. I vaguely remember Ray Boone, who played mainly at third but also at first base in the mid-1950s. He was a good hitter but average fielder at best. Boone hit .291/.372/.482 as a Tiger and is awarded a 16.5 WAR for his five-and-half seasons in Detroit, three wins a year. Boone is almost as good a hitter as the man he replaced at third.

That was Hall of Famer George Kell. He spent just five full seasons and parts of two others in Detroit, and those were his best years: he hit .325/.391/.433 as a Tiger. That’s an .824 OPS, which is only ten points higher than Boone’s. He earned a 23.0 WAR, above three wins a season.

You’d think Kell would be a lock as the third baseman on the all-time Tiger team, but it’s closer than you might think between him and Boone, who’s unjustly overlooked by Detroit fans. He’s quite similar to Kell in all respects and had more power (though hitting for a slightly lower average).

Before World War II, there’s no memorable Tiger third baseman. And after the departure of Kell and Boone, there’s just that succession of bizarrely similar players who each lasted about a decade apiece. But longevity is not a good measure of achievement at this spot so much as a sign of management tolerance (or lack of alternatives) for a weak bat at third.

With Miggy and now the advent of Nick Castellanos, it appears the Tigers are going back to the days of Kell and Boone, when prodigious offense outweighed adequate defense at the hot corner.

The man from Arkansas, Mr. Kell, gets my nod as the best third sacker in Tigers history — but Ray Boone, surprisingly, is a close second.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.