Underrated Detroit Tigers-Bobby Higginson

24 Apr 1997: Left fielder Bobby Higginson of the Detroit Tigers stands on the field during a game against the Texas Rangers at The Ball Park in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers won the game 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport
24 Apr 1997: Left fielder Bobby Higginson of the Detroit Tigers stands on the field during a game against the Texas Rangers at The Ball Park in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers won the game 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport /

With the Detroit Tigers off until Friday with the games with the Cardinals being postponed, we decided to go back in time to look at the career of Bobby Higginson.

Back in June 1992, based on the recommendation of scout Ramón Peña,  the Detroit Tigers drafted Bobby Higginson in the 12th round.  Of the Tigers’ draft picks in 1992, he and Frank Catalanotto were the only major leaguers out of that draft class. Higginson’s rise to the Tigers 40-man roster came during a transition time in Tigers’ history.

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After working with Larry Parrish in Toledo on tapping into his power by belting out 23 home runs in 1994 and being one of the leaders in the Arizona Fall League in home runs, Higginson was added to the 40-man roster in the winter.  Thanks to the strike, Higginson did not get the call up to Toledo but he, along with other prospects made a strong impression on Sparky Anderson, who was entering into speculation if this was his final season as the Tigers’ manager in the spring of 1995. 

"“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we have legitmate prospects. Those other guys were frauds”-Sparky Anderson"

New Blood

Between 1995 and 1996, many Tigers players were either traded or not brought back to save costs. David Wells, Mike Henneman, Cecil Fielder, Tony Phillips to name a few. Higginson, along with Tony Clark and Damion Easley and new management with Randy Smith and Buddy Bell, would usher a new era in Tigers baseball.

Higginson struggled in his rookie season,  hitting .224/.329/.393 but his second year, he came into his own. In 1996, Higginson hit .320/.404/.577 with 26 home runs, 81 RBIs, and a walk rate and strikeout rate that were nearly identical (12.6%BB, 12.8%K rate), good enough for a 3.6 bWAR season.

Among the leaders on the team. Higginson was the most vocal and would come up time and time again. The first case was when he asked for a raise early on in 1997. Randy Smith reminded him of his second-half fade in his rookie season.  Higginson responded, hitting 27 home runs, driving 101. While his batting average declined a bit, dropping to .299, he also led the league in outfield assists. He got his raise, to $16 million dollars.  Whereas Clark and Easley were quiet, Higginson was intense. Kirk Gibson said this about Higginson in 1997.

"“He’s has an aura… He’s cocky, naturally cocky. When he fails he’s miserable, he can’t wait to get back on the field”"

He received the Tigers’ Lou Gehrig Iron Man Award in 1997. It was a testament to his work ethic and leadership on the team. Fans liked his hustle and it helped that both papers sung his praises while the Tigers struggled throughout the decade.

Another example of Higginson expressing his opinion was the firing of Buddy Bell the following season in 1998. Even with his old Toledo Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish taking over, Higginson protested the firing by writing on his hat “B.B #25” across the back of his cap.

Higginson struggled with injuries in 1999, having toe surgery in September but provided a moment in another losing season. Against the Yankees and Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, he hit a game-tying home run that would send the Tigers into extra innings against the defending World Series champs. They lost the game but for the fans in attendance to see Higginson hit that home run after all the struggles, it would be a sign for things to come.

His best season was in 2000, hitting 30 home runs, driving 102, and put up a slash line of .300/.377/.538 in the first year at Comerica Park. With Juan Gonzalez providing protection, Higginson put up his best season also in terms of bWAR, with 5.3. Even with the strange dimensions of the ballpark compared to Tiger Stadium, he did just fine. The quote that will always be tied to Higginson was he once referred to Comerica as “Comerica National Park”.

Higginson, despite the constant trade rumors, stayed with Detroit until 2005. Ironically enough, he was a part of the new era of Tigers’ baseball under new GM Dave Dombrowski. He accepted a reduced role on the bench to make way for the likes of Craig Monroe and Marcus Thames and with injuries catching up to him, he would appear in 10 games in his final season in a Tigers uniform.

We often like to romanticize the past so perhaps it can give us a better view of what things were. I don’t believe that in this case. For fans who remember the late 90’s Tigers teams that struggled in the AL East then later into AL Central, Higginson played day in and day out.

Consider a few numbers here:

  • Between 1995 to 2000, Higginson had 12 different outfielder partners. That seems typical but the Tigers for a better part of the decade from 1980 until 1990, had a trusted core of players who played in the outfield that Sparky used to platoon during the season. Higginson had the numerous trades of Randy Smith to deal with.
  • His career walk rate is 11.5% and his K rate is 14.1%. That is solid and I can bet any Tigers fans would love to see that in the current outfield.
  • Batted .406 against David Cone (40 at-bats) and .286 against Roger Clemens (56 at-bats). He held his own against the aces of the day.
  • His career bWAR of 21.4 ranks him 22nd all-time in Tigers’ history, just ahead of George Kell’s time in Detroit, who had a 21.2 bWAR.

While he never made an All-Star team, I would take that walk rate and production in his prime right now for Detroit. He is one of the better late-round draft picks in Tigers’ history.  A tip of the cap to Bobby Higginson, a criminally underrated player.