Happy Throwback Thursday Detroit Tigers fans! Today we take a look at the career of Steve Kemp, Detroit’s star of the 1970’s.
The Detroit Tigers are rebuilding, and while this may be unfamiliar territory for some of our younger fans, it’s hardly uncharted for this franchise. The most notable example of course was in 2003, when a decade of mediocrity reached its apex with a disastrous 43-119 season. The team finally turned things around shortly thereafter, and was in the World Series in 2006.
Another period of rebuilding occurred in the late 1970’s, between Detroit’s epic 1968 World Series and the equally impressive run of 1984. In order to get to that championship, this team had to take their lumps in the late-1970’s. An outstanding draft in 1976 helped turn things around, but it didn’t happen overnight.
As Bobby Higginson was in the late-1990’s/early-2000’s, and as Nicholas Castellanos is right now, every rebuilding team needs one great player to follow. And while he isn’t as well-remembered as many Tigers greats, the Castellanos/Higginson of the late-1970’s was outfielder Steve Kemp.
Kemp was drafted in 1976, although not in their infamous June draft but in the now-defunct January phase of the draft. He hit a blistering .328/.429/.557 in the minors that season, and was a big league regular just one year later in 1977.
Kemp’s hot professional start continued, as he hit .257 with 18 home runs and a 1.2 bWAR in his rookie year, where he was Detroit’s starting left fielder.
1978 saw Kemp post a 3.3 bWAR with 15 home runs and a .277 average. Along with Jason Thompson, Kemp was one of Detroit’s best players already, at just 23 years old.
The 1979 season saw Detroit finish fifth in the AL East for the second consecutive year, although Kemp broke out with 26 home runs, a .318 average and a 4.2 bWAR – second on the team behind Lou Whitaker. He was an All-Star and finished 17th in MVP voting. It was clear he was on his way to stardom in Detroit.
Kemp once again finished second in bWAR in 1980, with his 3.5 mark losing out to Alan Trammell. Kemp had his first, and only, 100 RBI season, and hit 21 home runs with a .293 average.
The strike-shortened 1981 season saw Kemp tie for first place in bWAR for Detroit, in a three-way with (you guessed it) Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. He hit nine home runs and had nine steals, finishing 23rd in MVP voting.
At this point Kemp was just 26 years old, had consistently been one of Detroit’s best hitters for the last four years, and was an All-Star. That’s why it seemed crazy that Detroit traded him, to the White Sox in exchange for veteran outfielder Chet Lemon.
Of course, this became one of the best trades in Tigers history, as Lemon went on to be a huge piece in Detroit’s 1984 World Series winning team, while Kemp battled injuries for the rest of his career. In fact, after leaving Detroit, Kemp only hit .268 in 484 more games, as he was out of baseball by age 33.
With the Detroit Tigers currently in a rebuild, which star players will be forgotten down the line? And will they be traded for veterans when the team is ready to compete again?