Mickey Tettleton was one of my first favorite baseball players. It wasn't because I was such a smart kid that I knew how effective a hitter he was thanks to his walks, it was really just as simple as the fact that "Mickey Tettleton" is a really cool name. Only years later would I really notice HOW MUCH Mickey Tettleton walked, and how good of a hitter he really was despite his .241 career batting average.
Tettleton was a catcher, too, which was a position I played briefly and occasionally when I was 9/10 years old in little league. For the record, I originally started as an outfielder, moved to 3B/C, then played 1B/CF, then started pitching and spelling people at first, third, second or one of the corner outfield spots. That is more than anyone needed to know about my little league career, but so be it. He was also a switch-hitter with a peculiar batting stance.
So Tettleton appealed to me because he had a cool name, he was a catcher, and finally, he hit home runs. And some of them were monster shots. Mickey first caught my eye after the '89 season, when I was really starting to get into baseball. I got a bunch of his cards (different brands and all) and 26 homers was a lot in 1989. And considering he only played in 117 games that season, it was really a lot. Fred McGriff, who played in 161 games, led the AL with 36.
Tettleton was born on September 16, 1960, in Oklahoma City, and played his college ball at Oklahoma State. He was drafted by Oakland in the fifth round of the 1981 draft. He spent 1981, 1982 and 1983 with Single-A Modesto. He wasn't much of an average hitter even in the minors. He hit .246, .249 and .243 those three seasons, but he walked. A lot. His on-base percentages those three years were .437, .402 and .381. He also didn't hit for much power, totalling just 20 homers over the three years. In 1984, he moved up to Double-A Albany/Colonie, where he hit .321/.355/.349 over 86 games. He was called up to Oakland for the first time that year, and hit .263/.352/.355 in 76 at-bats.
Tettleton played four games for Modesto again in 1985, but spent the majority of the season with Oakland. He was again unimpressive, really, hitting .251/.344/.351. In '86, he hit .204/.325/.389 with 10 homers for the A's. In '87, he was a dreadful .194/.292/.322. He was 26 years old and clearly had no future. Because of injuries (he missed a lot of '85 and some of '86 ) and non-production, the A's released him, and the Orioles stepped in to sign him.
In '88, Tettleton became somewhat valuable, batting .261/.330/.424 with 11 homers in reserve duty. In 1989, he exploded, batting .258/.369/.509 with 26 homers and 65 RBI. He walked 73 times. He also struck out 117 times. He was for the most part a three true outcomes guy. He won the first of three Silver Slugger awards in his career that year, and was also an All-Star. The Orioles improved by 33 games from 1988.
In 1990, Tettleton hit 15 more homers, but while his patience stayed true and he had a .376 OBP, he slugged just .381 and batted .223. Maybe '89 was a fluke year. The Orioles traded him to Detroit for Jeff Robinson.
This wound up being a horrible trade for the Orioles. Tettleton found a groove in a big way with the Tigers, hitting some of the most enormous home runs you've ever seen, twice hitting the ball out of Tiger Stadium to right field. He had 31 dingers in '91, 32 in '92, 32 in '93, and 17 in the strike-shortened '94. His OBPs those four years were .387, .379, .372 and .419. In 1990, the Tigers were 79-83. In Tettleton's first season in Detroit, the Tigers won 84 games. They regressed after that, but it wasn't Mickey's fault. He had his second and final All-Star appearance in 1994, too.
The Tigers let Tettleton go as a free agent, and the Rangers signed him on April 13, 1995. In another strike-shortened year, Tettleton went bananas, hitting 32 homers in 134 games and putting up a .396 OBP with a .510 slugging percentage. In 1996, which was basically his last season (he'd play 17 games in 1997), he hit 24 homers with a .366 OBP. In 1994, the Rangers had gone 52-62. In 1995, they went 74-70.
For his career, Tettleton hit .241/.369/.449 with 245 homers and 949 walks in 1485 games. Tettleton retired on July 6, 1997, due to a knee injury.
I said earlier that Tettleton was a catcher, but to be fair he was only loosely a catcher. He wasn't awful, but he was no Gold Glover. He also had knee problems that forced him into more of a DH role, and he also played first base and some outfield, too.
Mickey also has another odd footnote in Orioles history, on April 19, 1996. It was a game between the Rangers, managed by former O's skipper Johnny Oates, and Orioles, then managed by Davey Johnson. The Rangers won the game 26-7, scoring 16 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. Davey got pissed off when Tettleton tagged up from second when the Rangers were ahead 20-7. "I've seen it all," he said, "but guys tagging up from second with an 18-run lead [this is in context, mind you], that's ridiculous."
The kicker? Oates carried with him a clipping from 1983, an International League game where the two were opposing managers. Johnson had his team stealing with a nine-run lead in that game. Oates also fired back on Johnson, who had let Manny Alexander pitch in the inning, "Davey didn't have to use an infielder to pitch that inning."
How good was Mickey Tettleton? I'm not going to crunch numbers because math is hard, but he was very comparable to Gene Tenace (a career .241/.388/.429 hitter), and what was in Tenace's day and Tettleton's, too, an underrated player, is now something a lot of baseball fans tout thanks to writers like Bill James and the Baseball Prospectus crew, along with Moneyball. It is now rather common knowledge that batting average isn't everything, and it's really not much of anything in the grand scheme of things.
Adam Dunn is a stathead favorite, of course, and one of my favorite players too. Dunn is also a lot like Tettleton, but better, as he has even more power. Dunn made $4.6 million this season. The most Tettleton ever made in a year was $3.3 million, with Detroit in 1993. Tettleton was also a 32-year old veteran that year, and Dunn is still just getting started on his legacy, as he has yet to turn 26. Whatever Tenace made pales in comparison to either, obviously.
While I can't really say for sure HOW GOOD Tettleton was, it's a fact that every team he went to after Oakland released him got better as soon as he was playing full-time. The O's did, the Tigers did, and the Rangers did. He walked and he hit homers, and that was Mickey Tettleton. It helped every team he went to.
Mickey Tettleton to this day remains my very favorite player of all-time. I wish the O's had held on to him, and maybe DH'd him those years when Chris Hoiles was in his prime. But they didn't, and they missed out on Mickey Tettleton's biggest seasons. It happens.
Camden Chat salutes Mickey Tettleton, wherever he is today.