Al Kaline passed away on Monday at the age of 85. He played 22 years in Detroit, and continued to be involved with the organization through the rest of his life for a total of 67 years starting form his playing days. He was and continues to be one of the most beloved players in Tigers’ history, and deservedly so. Our friends over at Bless You Boys aggregated an outpouring of love from current and former players, as well as writers.
The Tigers drafted Kaline right out of high school and debuted him while he was still only 18 without ever having him play a minor league game. It is a path to the majors that you don’t see anymore, even for uber talented players such as Kaline. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodríguez were the last players I can recall that made their major league debuts out of high school and skipped the minors. As with Kaline, Griffey and A-Rod were generational talents, the kinds that scouts will tell you were among the best they ever scouted. Also as with Kaline, both players had Hall of Fame or Hall of Fame caliber careers.
Even though Kaline was talented enough to debut at such a young age, he certainly was not good right away. He played 30 games his first season and 138 games his second, but hit only .274/.305/.348 in 565 PA in that span. He seldom walked and had a 76 wRC+ as a right fielder, which is obviously quite poor. Still, it was not that bad considering he was a teenager. Perhaps he would have benefited from playing in the minors a little bit, but the Tigers were terrible in 1953 and 1954, so it was not like he was hurting the team. It’s not like things did not end up working out either.
Kaline broke out in a big way in his third year in the majors. He hit .340/.421/.546, becoming the youngest batting champion ever at age 20, and led the league in hits (200) and total bases (321). His 156 wRC+ was the fifth-best in all of baseball, and his 8.3 WAR was second only to another legend, Mickey Mantle with 9.5 WAR. Obviously we did not have WAR back then, but at the time, that was the highest ever for a 20-year-old. It has been surpassed twice since then by A-Rod (9.4 WAR), and of course, Mike Trout (10.5 WAR). Kaline came second in MVP voting to another Yankee legend, Yogi Berra, a result that does not look so good historically but it was a different time.
Speaking of which, the MVP award would always evade Kaline. Usually Hall of Famers have at least one, especially one of Kaline’s caliber, but he always had one big obstacle in his way: Mickey Mantle. Their primes more or less overlapped. Mantle won three MVP awards, and frankly, he should have won more, such as the aforementioned one in 1955. Even in Kaline’s best seasons, Mantle was still better. By the time Mantle had retired, Kaline’s prime had passed. He shares company with Mel Ott as all-time great outfielders who never won an MVP award.
Kaline played all 22 years of his career with the Tigers, hitting .297/.376/.480 and accumulating 3,007 hits. He also walked more than he struck out. His 92.8 WAR and 70.8 JAWS rank seventh all time among right fielders, just slightly behind the legendary Roberto Clemente. He had something else in common with Clemente, too.
The list of all-time great corner outfielders has some offensive juggernauts, but Kaline’s career 134 wRC+ never quite measured up to those who surpassed a 150 wRC+. Clemente had a 129 wRC+, but he was very famous for more than his bat: he was a the greatest defensive right fielder ever. Kaline was not so bad himself.
Kaline was an outstanding defender. Gold Gloves are not a an adequate measure of one’s fielding skills, but he really deserved his ten awards. By Total Zone, he was worth 128 runs in right field. So while he never posted the big power numbers as, say, Frank Robinson, he made up for it with his glove. Right field in old Tiger Stadium became known as Kaline’s Corner for a reason.
It is not unusual to see someone with an exceptionally long career have more than a few poor years at the end of it. Griffey Jr. is probably the best example of this. Kaline, on the other hand was no worse than a solid everyday regular in 1972, his third to last season in the majors. He was not too bad over his last two seasons, and they were the only seasons since his breakout 1955 campaign that saw him turn in a sub-zero WAA. In his final season he hit .262/.337/.389 for a solid 106 wRC+. Not bad for a 39-year-old.
Unsurprisingly, Kaline sailed into the Hall of Fame on his first chance with 88.3 percent of the vote (I can’t believe 11.7 percent of voters did not believe he belonged in Cooperstown). The man was Tigers royalty, nicknamed “Mr. Tiger” and was the first member of the franchise to have his number (6) retired.
Kaline did not see a lot of postseason action, but remember the the postseason consisted of only the World Series until 1969, meaning a team had to have the best record in its respective league just to make the postseason. Thankfully for Kaline, the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, just edging out the Cardinals in seven games. He was a big part of their victory, too, because he really could not have done much better. He hit .379/.400/.655 with two home runs in 30 PA.
After retirement, Kaline never really left the Tigers. He spent over two decades broadcasting for the team and eventually joined the front office. He just loved the game and the Tigers franchise so much. With everything going on right now in the world, this is one bit of bad news that the Tigers and their fans did not need. Rest in peace, Mr. Tiger.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.