The Detroit Tigers have a long history of great starting pitching that goes back more than a century, but with Jim Bunning and Hal Newhouser being the only Detroit pitchers to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame, it’s easy for the city to forget just how good its starting pitching has been.
Obviously in recent years, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have won Cy Young awards, while Jeremy Bonderman and Kenny Rogers helped pitched the Tigers to a pennant and Anibal Sanchez claimed an ERA title. Former Cy Young award winner David Price also pitched and won one of the biggest games in recent memory, the final game of the 2014 season, clinching the AL Central title.
Championship teams have had great pitching from Jack Morris and Dan Petry in 1984 to Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson in 1968. Going back even further, Newhouser teamed with Dizzy Trout and Virgil Trucks to form a pretty good trio known as “TNT.”
In 1935, the team had Tommy Bridges, Schoolboy Rowe, Elden Auker and General Crowder, who all won at least 16 games.
But perhaps the best staff in Detroit history was during the trio of pennants from 1907-1909, led by George Mullin, who was born in Toledo in 1880 and arrived n the scene in Detroit in 1902.
In 1909, Mullin went 29-8 on the mound with a win percentage of .784 and an ERA of 2.22 and three shutouts. He led the Tigers to their third consecutive pennant and a spot in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, where they lost in seven games. His 29 victories remained a franchise record until McLain topped it in ’68.
Mullin teamed with Ed Willett (21 wins, 2.34 ERA), Ed Summers (19 wins, 2.24 ERA) and Ed Killian (11 wins, 1.71 ERA) in ’09. Even Wild Bill Donovan chipped in with eight wins and a 2.31 ERA.
But it was Mullin who carried the load, leading the American League in wins and win percentage. It was his best season despite having several stellar campaigns for Detroit.
Mullin proved to be the ace in the World Series, too, going 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA against the Pirates. He completed all three games he started, including a shutout. Manager Hughie Jennings also used “Wabash George” in relief in one game during the series.
He won 21 games in 1905 and 1906 before leading the Tigers to three straight World Series appearances. He won 20, 17 and 29 games in those years. As the Tigers aimed for a fourth straight, Mullin had his last 20-win season with 21 wins in 1910.
In the first two World Series appearances in Tiger history, Mullin went 1-2. He lost both starts in 1907 against the Cubs despite a 2.12 ERA in the series. In the 1908 rematch, he went 1-0 with a masterpiece complete game with no earned runs allowed. It was Detroit’s only win of the series.
Mullin finished his career with a 228-196 record, 1,482 strikeouts and a 2.82 ERA. He is 15th on Detroit’s all-time list in wins above replacement with a career WAR of 47, which among Tiger pitchers, trails only Newhouser, Bridges, Trout and Lolich.
However, it didn’t start that spectacular for Mullin, who led the American League in walks in four of his first five years in the majors. But after walking more than 100 batters in five of his first six seasons, he only walked 100 in one other season.
As his walks went down, so did his ERA, remaining sub-3.00 for nine of his 12 seasons in Detroit.
Mullin’s last full season with Detroit was in 1912 when he pitched in the first game ever played at Navin Field, the Tigers brand-new ballpark on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
He won his final game for the Tigers in 1913, his 209th for the franchise. All these years later, Mullin’s total still ranks second in franchise history, trailing only Hooks Dauss, who replaced George as the team ace.
It has been 103 years since Mullin put on a Tiger uniform. But in more than a century of baseball in Detroit, few pitchers have been able to match Mullin’s ability and accomplishments both in the regular season and World Series.
Those first three Tiger pennants are remembered as the Cobb-Crawford years, but they deserve to also be remembered as the Mullin years.