One of the neatest curiosities in baseball is when a player seems to perform inordinately well against a certain team or pitcher. When that player has the other guys' number. It's like they've broken their opponent. As if they've Sun Tzu'd their way to winning the battle before it is even fought. Think Paul Goldschmidt against Tim Lincecum, or Theo Epstein versus curses. The Cleveland Indians have faced many such monsters in their history, men who so bedeviled them for years on end. Many of those have been foes they've battled hundreds of times. So for the fun of it all, let's look at one of the Indians' division rivals, and who on that team so dominated the Tribe. Specifically, the Detroit Tigers.
Whether the Tigers regard the Indians the same way or not, it seems clear Detroit is Cleveland's greatest division rival. There's just so much history. Kansas City is too new, Chicago too routinely bad, and Minnesota seems almost too nice to consider a true rival. More just a rude acquaintance. The Tigers, though, especially in recent memory, have blocked the Indians’ efforts time and again. Throughout their history, they have players who just seem to dominate Cleveland. To find the best of them, I used Baseball Reference's Play Index to find Tigers players with a career .900 or better OPS against Cleveland over at least 500 plate appearances. That's nearly a whole season over a career on the low end, and All-Star level production at the plate. Only five men met these requirements. We'll start with the worst, first.
If this is the worst one on the list, it’s pretty plain it's going to be full of legendary Detroiters. Gehringer spent 16 years with the Tigers assaulting the Indians to the tune of .329/.408/.503. That's a spread of 299 games against Cleveland. He also hit 31 home runs, a fifth of his career total.For a guy known as the Mechanical Man for his consistency, he certainly had power surges against Cleveland. Oddly, the year Gehringer won the MVP and batting title with a .371 average, he slashed .267/.337/.293, far and away his worst line against a team that season.
Gehringer started early in his Cleveland destruction though. After cutting his teeth in 1926, he blasted the Indians with a .424/.493/.644 line over 15 games. Over a period from 1935-37 was the only time besides 1929 where Gehringer under-performed relative to the rest of his season according to tOPS+ (measures a player's output compared to his season average, with 100 being his season rates) and he still slashed .354/.404/.531 in '36. He was just excellent that season in general, and also obliterated the Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns. But who didn't? Gehringer was great, and a continuation of the brutalization two other men on this list wrought.
Heilmann served as a bridge of sorts between Gehringer and another man on this list. He played for Detroit from 1914 to 1929, though didn't get started in earnest until 1916. During his time there, he became, aside from a certain surly centerfielder, Detroit's greatest hitter. He more than earned his way to the Hall of Fame with a .342/.410/.520 career line, and certainly bolstered those numbers with his .360/.417/.535 line in 282 games against Cleveland.
The year Heilmann hit .403, he batted .458 against Cleveland. The year he won the batting title with a .398 average he hit .451 against Cleveland. When he won it in 1921 with a .394 average and a league-best 237 hits, he hit .461 against Cleveland with 41 hits, his best against any team. Of his four batting titles, only the 1925 award where he hit .393 had Heilmann hitting below his season averages against Cleveland. Even then, he hit .345. Heilmann also had 217 runs batted in against Cleveland. Normally I'm against using RBI's as a measure of a player's value, but when the goal is to measure their brutalization of a certain team, knowing he drove in the most ever for that team means something.
Only Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig (who might be the greatest Cleveland beater ever) and Al Simmons had more RBIs against the Indians. Lofty company for Heilmann. When he left the Tigers, Gehringer was there to take up the mantle and continue to beat on the Tribe.
The Tigers' second best first baseman is the only non-Hall of Famer on this list, if we include future Hall enshrinees at least. If he'd been able to have a few dozen more games against the Indians though, perhaps he would have squeaked in to Cooperstown. Cash did benefit from getting to play the Indians as they began their death spiral into 30 years of misery, but that shouldn't discount his brutalization.
He slashed .309/.400/.561 facing the Indians, against a career .271/.374/.488 line. In fact, that line he put together against the Indians is better than any single season except 1961, when he hit .361/.487/.662. That year he hit .379/.520/.776 against Cleveland, with seven of his 41 home runs. So you could say he had some good times by Lake Erie. He hit the most home runs against the Indians by any Tiger, 51 of them at a rate of one every 14.8 at-bats. Perhaps the most painful thing about Cash was how he was paired with Rocky Colavito to win 101 games in 1961 and hit 86 combined home runs. The Indians hit less than twice that number among the entire team that season.
Cash helped the Tigers win a World Series in 1968, spending that season logging a .993 OPS against Cleveland that helped lead to a 12-6 record against the Tribe. This is the kind of player I was looking for when I started this list - pretty good guys that happened to dominate one team. Cash certainly did that.
Of course, the best Tiger in history is on this list. He's the best in general, why wouldn't he be one of the best at crushing the Tribe? For his career, he hit .361/.435/.501, against the Indians, and from 1913 on (that's the lower limit the Play Index allows searching due to lacking complete information any further back) that jumped to .373/.449/.515. The thing about Cobb, though, in that same stretch of time he hit .370/.445/.518 against everyone. So really it's not as though he was spectacular against the Indians and just good against everyone else. He was just really, really good. His tOPS+ against the Indians was 96, meaning he was actually worse against them than his career average, though that does take into account his brief stint as an Athletic.
Basically, Cobb treated everyone the same -- brutally.
Amid a couple deadball players, a dude from the 60's and another from the 30's, here is the man who has done the most damage of any Tiger against the Indians. It's only eight years, so Cabrera's .353/.427/.609 slash line may well drop, but he's only nine homers off Cash's record of most Tiger homers against the Indians.
Cabrera is signed for a while, so I expect him to break it. He's also supposedly going to start declining at some point soon, so that slash line might take a hit as well. He hit almost precisely his career averages in 2016, so perhaps that's the inflection point? Also in 2016 he hit "only" .316/.420/.456 against the Indians. Still dominant, but that's an OPS below .900, and he only had four extra-base hits. The Indains' ability to take the sting out of his bat last year was key to their domination of the Tigers. But nobody should expect that to last. Cabrera loves hitting at Progressive Field too, packing a .344/.420/.607 in 83 games and 23 home runs as a visitor.
There's a reason he is the player all angry fans demand the front office find. From 2010 to 2015 though, Cabrera slashed .369/.452/.638 with 27 home runs in 105 games played. That's a peak within a peak right there. He's done more damage against other teams. The 1.142 OPS against Baltimore with 20 homers in 58 games springs immeadtely off the page. But Cabrera has played more games against the Indians than any other team at 165, The next highest is the Twinsx at 164, and his OPS against them is under 1.000. Usually numbers aren't this high once you get a years' worth of a sample. But there's so little noise compared to others, this is just what Cabrera does to the Tribe. We've all witnessed this greatness, seeing it in numbers and among these icons of Tiger lore gives it supreme perspective.
Other players on other teams may have done more damage. Lou Gehrig comes to mind immediately. But seeing as it's a neighbor from just up the comparative street, it counts more if it's a Tiger punching you in the face. Detroit and Cleveland have been each other's foil for a long time, and these men encapsulate that. As terrible as it is to watch these guys (well, one of them. I wasn’t alive to see any of the others, but you have to assume.) take to the plate, it's satisfying that players through the decades continue to achieve such singular greatness against one team like this. It creates a villain, gives a face to the rivalry. Rather than hating some laundry, a fan can pour their animosity on a specific player. That, I think, makes fandom a bit more enriching. May it never cease.