Nokes was drafted by the Giants in the 20th round of the 1981 amateur draft. He debuted in the major leagues on September 3, 1985 against the visiting Philadelphia Phillies, collecting two hits in four at bats. In 1987, his rookie year, he had his finest statistical season, batting .289, hitting 32 home runs, (at the time a record for a rookie Catcher) and driving in 87 runs. In that year, he was elected to the American League All-Star Game roster, won the Silver Slugger Award, selected to the Topps Rookie All-Star team, and finished third in voting for the American League Rookie of the Year award. He was also named the Tigers Rookie of The Year.