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The Detroit Free Press

Celebrate 'Pi Day' (or 'Pie Day') with some great Detroit Tigers of the past

By Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press,


Today is March 14 — better known as one of our favorite “holidays”: “Pie Day.”

Ah, a day to celebrate the many fantastic pies out there — lemon meringue, banana crème, strawberry rhubarb, or even pepperoni — as well as, say, Baseball Hall of Famer Pie Traynor (who spent seventeen distinguished seasons at third base for the Pittsburgh Pie-rates) or even lesser-known outfielder Felix Pié. (OK, OK, it’s pronounced, “Pee-yay,” but the dude had a career .298/.313/.422 line against the Detroit Tigers, so we’re working him in here.)

Or perhaps even MLB’s pie-adjacent players of the past, from former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel (though he was a Tigers 15th-rounder before that) to outfielder Quintin Berry (another former Tiger) to little-used right-hander Rocky Cherry (who pitched against the Tigers once)?

Then again, to be accurate, it’s actually “Pi Day,” thanks to the date: 3/14, better known as the start to the mathematical ratio of a circumference to its diameter — pi. (Well, the ratio is closer to 22/7, but that looks more like a 2022 Tiger’s ratio of strikeouts to walks than it does a holiday.) Pi, of course is an infinite number starting at 3.14 … and continuing … 159265359 … and on and on ….

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There aren’t a lot of mainstream baseball statistics featuring 3.14 or any variation with a slightly off-the-mark decimal point (just stick with us on this): For pitchers, there’s ERA (where it’s good); for hitters, we have to go with .314, and then we get batting average (good), on-base percentage (not so good) and slugging percentage (awful).

Still, that got us thinking (once we’d had a slice of pie or two) about which Tiger perfectly idealizes this nerd holiday, especially as the organization doubles down on math and science under new president of baseball operations Scott Harris. Let’s work through the math, shall we?

Batting average: Keen on Harvey!

Only one player has hit .314 over his entire career with the Tigers: Infielder Harvey Kuenn, who played 1,049 games with the Tigers over eight seasons (1952-59). It’s a run that included an AL Rookie of the Year nod (1953), seven seasons with an All-Star appearance and the 1959 AL batting title, before he was infamously traded, straight-up, for AL home run champ Rocky Colavito just before the start of the 1960 season. (Kuenn, a Wisconsin native, later gained fame as manager of the 1982 AL champion Milwaukee Brewers — still the franchise’s only pennant.) That’s certainly a well-rounded career worth of, well, pi.

But taking a slightly closer look at his career average, we see Kuenn went 1,372-for-4,372 — that’s actually a batting average of .3138151875571821. That’s still pretty good, but it’s not quite 3.14159… well, you get it; maybe we can do better. Perhaps on the pitching side of things?

ERA: Foucault swings just shy

Leon Foucault was a French mathematician who came up with a pendulum that demonstrated the rotation of the earth. Consider it an early pitch clock. He was not, however, a Detroit Tiger, having lived from 1819-68. Still, that’s gotta be a good sign on our nerd-quest that the lone Tiger with a 3.14 ERA with the franchise that shares his surname, right? Steve Foucault was a Minnesotan righty who landed with the Tigers for 68 relief appearances in 1977-78. He allowed 39 earned runs over 111⅔ innings, for an ERA of 3.143283582080169 — that’s reaaaaally close to pi … but “Price Is Right” rules say no going over, and by .0017 or so, he just slightly is. Hmmm … perhaps we gave up on the hitters (as the past few seasons have taught us to do) a little too quick. What about the sluggers (or not-so-sluggers, as it were)?

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Slugging percentage: A pair of anti-hitters

Just two Tigers have slugged .314, according to Larry Sherry, a California-born right-hander who had 35 at-bats with the Tigers over four seasons (1964-67), and Jim Morrison, a Florida-born, infielder who picked up 191 at-bats with the Tigers from 1987-88. (Side note: Both Morrison and Foucault — the pitcher, not the mathematician — are South Georgia College alumns. That’s … weird.) Sherry had 11 total bases, for a slugging percentage of .3142857142857143 — over our target — while Morrison (remember, technically a professional hitter) had 60 total bases for a slugging percentage of .3141361256544503. Again, reaaaally close, but … ugh. That bad a hitting performance, over parts of two seasons, should hardly be remembered. But maybe there’s something in on-base percentage?

On-base percentage: Seven slices of pi to share

Yes, it turns out there are seven Tigers with .314 OBPs with the franchise, ranging from Rabbit Robinson back in 1904 to (more recently) Rajai Davis in 2014-15. (The others: Bob Jones, 1917-25; Jake Wood, 1961-67; Leon Roberts, 1974-75; Mike Heath, 1986-90; and Chris Gomez, 1993-96.) We won’t drop all their exact figures here — that’s a lot of digits, even for an article all about pi.

We’ll just note that of the seven, Jones, at .314098565190268, comes the closest to pi without going over — that’s a difference of just 0.000607001687110476. (Which, yes, is still not as close as Morrison’s slugging percentage, but that was a truly ugly number to remember.)

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Jones, aka “Ducky,” spent seven seasons with the Tigers; although he was never a great hitter (especially as the 1920s brought a new era of offense to the majors), his glove kept him in the Tigers’ lineup at third base more often than not.

So as you celebrate “Pi Day,” or “Pie Day” with a bit of your favorite sweet dish, or your favorite pizza (even if that’s square, we guess), raise a slice to Harvey, Steve and Ducky, the Tigers’ “Masters of Pi.”

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