While it is generally concluded that Ty Cobb was the greatest hitter in Tigers history, and Al Kaline might have been the most complete player, there is a lot of debate about the greatest slugger.
All Tigers fans have seen Miguel Cabrera, and very few saw Hank Greenberg. As great as Cabrera was in his prime, it seems impossible that Greenberg could have been better. But he was.
Statistics are nice, but they often don’t tell the whole story. When one points out the great home-run and RBI totals put up by Greenberg, Cabrera backers scream that it was easier to put up those stats back in those days.
Really? Well, during Cabrera’s 12 years with the Tigers, he hit a home run once per every 18.45 at-bats. The major-league average during those 12 years was once in every 32.71 at-bats. Greenberg hit a home run once every 15.66 at-bats with a peak of 9.59 in 1938. During his time with Detroit, the major-league average was 65.66. Obviously, it was much easier to hit a home run during Cabrera’s time than Greenberg’s, and it isn’t even close.
One of the recent stats, WAR, is a controversial stat. But it is a nice stat that tries to put a player’s career into one single number. In 1,269 games for the Tigers, Greenberg has a 54.2 WAR. In 1,680 games for the Tigers, Cabrera is at 51.3 – a lesser total in more than 400 games than Greenberg.
However, there is a number where Cabrera compares favorably with Greenberg, and it is another metric stat: OPS+. This one is easy as an average OPS+ is 100. Cabrera has a career OPS+ of 150 with the Tigers, while Greenberg is 161. However, Greenberg’s best season of OPS+ was 172, which Cabrera topped three times with a peak of 190.
Finally, the core stats. For his Tigers career, Greenberg had 306 home runs, 1,200 RBIs, a .319 batting average and an OPS of 1.028. Cabrera checks in with 339 home runs, 1,171 RBIs, a .315 batting average and an OPS of .937. The MLB average OPS during Cabrera’s time was .732. During Greenberg’s time it was .727. Cabrera only wins home runs, and he had just 33 more in 400 more games.
And here’s the kicker: Greenberg lost nearly four full seasons and half of another because of his time in World War II. He was coming off a 41-home run season with 150 RBIs when he went into the service, and in his first full season after he returned to the Tigers, he hit 44 home runs with 127 RBIs.
If you want peak stats, well, Greenberg’s top five home-run seasons total 219, while Cabrera’s is 201. When it comes to RBIs in the five best seasons, Greenberg has the edge 788-648.
It is not out of the question that Greenberg would have hit 150 or more more home runs without time in the service, and that would have given him pushing 500 career home runs for the Tigers. Nobody has hit 400 in franchise history.
So, next time the debate comes up over who should be the first baseman on the all-time Tigers team, give Greenberg serious consideration. He deserves it.He is the greatest slugger in franchise history. And, yes, Miggy still should be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.