Rob Deer played for the Detroit Tigers from 1991 to 1993. He was a true all-or-nothing player before that became more common in MLB.
Over the past few years, Major League Baseball has become much more of an all-or-nothing game, as rates for the “three true outcomes” – home runs, walks, and strikeouts – have all been going up. Back in the early 1990s, the Detroit Tigers had a player that exemplified that approach before it became more of the norm.
Rob Deer signed with the Tigers as a free agent prior to the 1991 season. Before that, he’d spent two years with the San Francisco Giants and five years with the Milwaukee Brewers. In five years in Milwaukee between 1986 and 1990, Deer hit at least 23 home runs every year but never drove in more than 86, had more than 124 total hits, or batted higher than .252. He also led the league in strikeouts twice. He signed with the Tigers coming off a 1990 season in which he only batted .209.
Deer spent the entire 1991 and 1992 seasons in Motown, and both seasons were strange statistically. He again led the league in strikeouts in 1991, though he walked an impressive 89 times. He hit 25 home runs and drove in 64, yet his batting average was just .179. Going back to 1990, over the past 30 years, that is the lowest batting average by any player who hit at least 25 home runs in a season.
Mark McGwire is second, from when he batted .187 in 2001. Five other players have hit at least 25 home runs and batted under .200 since 1990, all instances of which have occurred since 2010. Looking at that 1991 season, Deer was a player who was truly ahead of his time.
Then there was the 1992 season. That year, Deer hit 32 home runs but only drove in 64. Between 1990 and 2015, only one other player had a season in which he hit at least 25 home runs and drove in himself at least as much as he drove in his teammates, and that was Barry Bonds, whom nobody pitched to, in 2001 and 2003. In this way, Deer was again ahead of his time, as this happened five times between 2016 and 2019.
A big reason why Deer didn’t drive in many runs was his poor performance in clutch opportunities. In 1992, though his batting average got up to .247, he batted just .212 with RISP, .218 with men on base, and just .125 with at least two men on base. The Tigers even had one of the great leadoff hitters of his generation in Tony Phillips.
Deer would again lead the league in strikeouts in 1993, splitting time between the Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. In 2 1/2 years with the Tigers, he hit 71 home runs while only driving in 167 and batting just .212. It was a strange Detroit Tigers career, the likes of which we haven’t seen since.