By the Numbers is our semi-regular feature where we profile the best, or sometimes just most interesting, current or former Tiger to wear each uniform number. To catch up on earlier installments, click the “By the Numbers” tag at the top of this page.
In the annuls of Tiger history, very few prominent players have worn the number 15 for any length of time. Other than the current No. 15, only pitcher Joe Coleman (P, 1971-76) stands out among a group of role players. Coleman twice had 20 win seasons in Detroit, but was just slightly better than .500 for his career. But even if the crop were stronger, Brandon Inge would still get the call here.
Charles Brandon Inge was the Tigers’ second round draft pick in 1998 out of Virginia Commonwealth University where he starred as a shortstop and relief pitcher. Immediately upon his signing, the Tigers handed him some catcher’s gear and Inge began the transition behind the plate. While Inge accepted the assignment, his desire remained on the infield.
Despite his lack of experience as a catcher, Inge rose quickly through the minor leagues. His defense was never an issue as he took to the position with ease. He showed off his cannon-like arm, throwing out 44% of attempted base stealers in his minor league career. His bat, on the other hand, really never materialized.
Nevertheless, the Tigers were going nowhere in the early part of the 2000s, and Inge was making his major league debut by 2001. Still green as a catcher, Inge split time behind the plate in each of his first three big league seasons. But once again, it was his bat that was holding him back. After posting averages of .180 and .202 in his first two years, Inge was hitting just .150 on June 17, 2003. He was sent back to the minors for the third time in three seasons, and many figured he wouldn’t be coming back, at least not with the Tigers.
But Inge found something in Toledo that summer and played well enough to earn a call-up a month and a half later. While he didn’t set the league on fire down the stretch, Inge batted a very respectable .258 in his last 46 games and posted a .714 OPS, not bad for a catcher of his defensive abilities.
The next career crossroads for Inge came the following offseason, when the Tigers, coming off the worst season in American League history, signed future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez to be their catcher. It seemed that as soon as Inge was able to inspire confidence in his ability to play everyday, the opportunity was gone.
But the 2004 Tigers had another player who was struggling to make it it the big leagues in third baseman Eric Munson. While Inge still served as the backup to Rodriguez, he also saw time in the outfield and at third base. While Munson struggled both offensively and defensively, Inge showed a live bat when he wasn’t behind the plate and his athleticism was on display at the hot corner. His range at third alone was enough to steal the job from Munson, but his .287 average and surprising power didn’t hurt either. By the start of 2005, Inge was the unquestioned everyday third baseman for the Tigers.
Almost as soon as he was given the job at third, Inge began flashing the leather. From 2005 on, he has yet to post a UZR/150 of under 5.9. His rating for his career at third is 6.9. The question wasn’t going to be about his defense, it was whether or not he could ever hit enough to play consistently.
But Inge’s bat continued to develop. He posted respectable averages in each of the next two year and kept his OPS near .750. Not great by any stretch, but serviceable. His defense was where the majority of his value lied. But the power began to come on strong in 2006 as well when he belted a career best 27 homers, mostly from the ninth spot in the order, and helped the upstart Tigers to the American League title.
But his bat took a big step backward in 2007. The Tigers had the best record in the league at the all-star break and held first place as late as August 17 that year. The Tigers would stub their toe down the stretch and wound up a distant second to Cleveland. Though he was batting ninth again, Inge couldn’t match the production he had in 2006, and hit just .222 (.628 OPS) from that date through the end of the year.
Sensing their window was closing, the Tigers made a couple of trades that offseason, bringing in shortstop Edgar Renteria and slugging third baseman Miguel Cabrera. With Carlos Guillen shifting to first base, Inge was left once again without a starting job. Trade rumors swirled around Inge as the Tigers tried to find a taker for his $6MM salary. None were found.
When centerfielder Curtis Granderson went down with a wrist injury late in spring Training of 2008, Inge took over at that position, becoming just the third player in big league history to be an Opening Day starter at both catcher and centerfield.
When Granderson returned to the field, Inge returned to the utility role he filled in 2004. He played occasionally in the outfield, while also filling in at third and backing up Rodriguez at catcher. Tiger coach Andy Van Slyke said of Inge “he is the only player in the majors with the talent to play all nine positions at a high level”. When the Tigers traded away Pudge at the deadline, Inge was a starter once again, and back behind the plate full-time. Still, his bat couldn’t keep up with the rigors of catching and manager Jim Leyland announced at the end of that year that Inge would be returning to the hot corner in 2009.
After what was essentially a lost year, Inge reported to camp in 2009 with a fresh new batting stance and a spring in his step. When the rest of the offense struggled to open the season, Inge was red-hot, almost single-handedly keeping the Tiger afloat. His torrid first half ended with a .268 average, 21 home runs, an .876 OPS, and his first All-Star selection.
But Inge hurt his right knee right around the break. He played through the pain and wound up hurting his left knee due to the compensation for the pain in his right. His mobility on the field wasn’t bad, he still covered more ground than most third basemen, but his offense suffered immensely. Over the second half of the season he hit just six home runs and batted a paltry .186. Through the pain, Inge didn’t want to take any time off. He declined an invitation to rest on the disabled list because a mere two weeks couldn’t stop the pain. His team was in the pennant race and the good people of Michigan deserved to see the best the Tigers could offer. Inge wound up playing in a league best 161 games, the final 60 or so with two excruciatingly painful knees.
In October of last year, Inge underwent surgery to repair the damage to both knees. He is said to be recovering well and could make his Grapefruit League debut this weekend, well ahead of schedule. If all goes smoothly, Inge could be ready to play by Opening Day.
For Inge, the one-time college pitcher turned pro catcher, third baseman, outfielder, catcher, and third baseman again, his athletic ability is approaching legend. Reportedly, Inge can dunk a basketball, though he stands just 5’11”. He can hit a golf ball better than 350 yards despite his sub-200 lbs frame. Inge once kicked a fifty-yard field goal during a fundraiser at Ford Field. But in Detroit, with all of his ups and downs on the field, it may be Inge’s work off the field that is most important.
Over the past several years, Inge and his wife Shani have been regular supporters of Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. In addition to the mounds of money the Inges have donated, Brandon makes appearances there several times per year to meet with the kids.
In June of last year, Inge made headlines when an eight-year-old heart patient named Tommy Schomaker autographed Inge’s forearm before a game versus the Chicago Cubs. Tommy asked that Inge hit a home run for him that night, and Inge delivered. Less than two months later, Inge repeated his heroics for another young boy, a terminal cancer patient named Noah, homering again with an autograph on his arm.
Greg Eno, a very talented and respected Detroit-based sports writer, wrote a compelling piece on Inge last year. He called for another statue to be erected at Comerica Park, this one for Brandon Inge. Inge’s contract is up at the end of the season, but with no one obviously ready to take his place, a solid season will earn him a new deal. If he does stick around a few more years and stays healthy, Inge will certainly have had a career worthy of such an honor. Not only for his performance on the field, but for his efforts in the community as well.