COMMENTARY | For five seasons, Detroit Tigers fans consumed themselves with a seemingly endless debate over a player with a career .233 batting average but a flashy glove. Talk radio stations filled their lines with callers either showing support or spewing hatred. Message boards were packed with people who seemed to break down the pros and cons of his game on an at-bat basis.
Toward the end of his time with the Tigers, whether he was booed or cheered depended solely on whether or not he got a hit or made a defensive play. No other player in the history of the Tigers franchise was more scrutinized than him.
The player in question is former catcher turned third baseman Brandon Inge.
Inge's time in Detroit started off with little controversy as he served as a catcher for the club for the first few years of his career, including the historically bad 2003 season. While he never hit better than .203 in his first three seasons, the rest of the team was so bad, it was impossible to get down on just Inge.
From 2004-06, however, Inge turned it around offensively, batting .287, .261 and .253, respectively, while hitting 56 home runs and driving in 219 runs. Coincidentally, the spike in offensive production came after a switch to third base when the Tigers signed Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez prior to 2004.
Following a standout 2006 season, the Tigers signed Inge to a four year, $24 million contract. Soon after, the problems began. In 2007, Inge hit just .236 with 14 home runs and 71 RBIs. Things got worse the next season as Inge was good for a .205 average, 11 home runs and 51 RBIs.
While the offense was declining, Inge's defense was enough to keep some fans happy. Inge made numerous highlight plays defensively and was a standout at third base. Many fans pointed to his glove as a reason why he was worth every penny of his $6 million a year contract.
Inge appeared to get back on track in the first half of 2009 when he launched 21 home runs in the first half of the season and hit .286. He won the final vote for the All-Star game and was invited to participate in the Home Run Derby that year. Those 86 games would be last of the great times for Inge, who was disastrous in the second half that year.
Following another disappointing 2010 season, fans expected Inge to be on his way out of Detroit, but the Tigers' front office decided to bring him back. Even worse, they gave him a two-year deal worth $11.5 million. By this time, Inge was basically a utility player with no everyday role, yet the Tigers were paying him as if he were still an All-Star.
Critics didn't understand why a team would bring back a player who was clearly on the decline and had become a distraction in the clubhouse. Inge was public in asking for a trade following the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera prior to the 2008 season. He continued to be vocal about playing time despite being an offensive liability.
Every at-bat that didn't result in a hit (and there were plenty of them) added fuel to the fire of why he had to go. At almost $6 million a season, fans demanded more from Inge.
His defenders, however, continued to point to his flexibility at different positions and that while his average was down, Inge continued to drive in runs at a decent clip.
Pregame introductions became a popularity contest for fans, as supporters rose to their feet and clapped, showing their support while the detractors booed themselves hoarse. The Tigers as a franchise were in the midst of building a team with aspirations of getting back to the playoffs, yet Inge dominated discussions. Fans would rather talk about him than superstars like Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
It all fell apart in 2011, however, as Inge hit below the Mendoza line, batting .197 in 269 at-bats. He was sent to Triple-A Toledo for a stint and the writing was on the wall. Inge played just eight games for the Tigers in 2012 before he was designated for assignment in June, ending the near half-decade long debate.
Inge spent more than a decade in a Tigers uniform and while he was a solid performer for part of the time, the final few years overshadowed his early successes. He will always be the most scrutinized player in Detroit Tigers history.
Stats courtesy of http://baseball-reference.com.
Matt Durr is a reporter from Michigan who has followed the Detroit Tigers his entire life. He has covered University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University athletics for Annarbor.com. Follow him on twitter @mdurr84.
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