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Last week, we looked at the All-Time Detroit Tigers reliever. So who is Aurelio Rodriguez setting up on the Motor City Bengals’ team for the ages? The honor of closer goes to none other than Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez.
Hernandez signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973, but didn’t break into the majors until 1977 with the Chicago Cubs. He had success in middle relief for Chicago, posting a 16-9 record with 3.03 ERA that year, and a little higher, but still respectable 3.77 ERA in 1978. Trying to capitalize on his time in the bullpen, the Cubs tried Willie as a starter and it failed spectacularly to the tune of a 1-9 record with an ERA north of 4 ½.
A return to the pen lifted Hernandez back to respectability and he was traded mid-year to the Phillies in 1983. That year the Phillies made the World Series, where Willie pitched in three World Series games, spanning four innings, and was perfect aside from a walk.
I was five years old when the Tigers shipped Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss to the Phillies for Hernandez and Dave Bergman, so I don’t really know what fans thought they were getting in Willie Hernandez. The Tigers were a team on the cusp in 1983 and were adding veteran parts like Hernandez and Darrell Evans (still my all-time favorite Tiger) in hopes it would push them over the top in ‘84.
Probably not many people expected Detroit to start 35-5, win 104 games, and claim the franchise’s fourth World Championship, but probably no one expected the type of season that Willie had.
Keep in mind, these were the days of two and three inning saves and Hernandez thrived. He appeared in 80 games—many in which a save was not on the line, saving 32, allowing just five homers in 140 innings. 140 innings! To put it in perspective to today’s closer—in Jose Valverde’s magical season of 2011 when he went 49-for-49 in save opportunities, he threw just 72.1 innings.
In those 140 innings, he struck out 112, blew only one save, and posted an ERA of 1.92. It was just a stunning season for a slightly above average pitcher to that point. He appeared in six games in the 1984 World Series and was fittingly on the mound to record the final out of Game 5 to clinch the Tigers most recent World Championship. At the time, he became one of only two relievers to win the MVP award (Dennis Eckersley became the fourth about a decade later). He also, of course, won the Cy Young.
He remained fairly steady for the Tigers through 1986, but began to decline sharply in 1987 and beyond. Willie ultimately lost his job to a new closer, Mike Henneman, and was cut in August 1989. Though he would try a few comebacks, he’d never pitch in the majors again.
While he had a really small window, that window was historical. Not many relievers came out of nowhere to have a season like that and then quickly fade back into obscurity. While some MCB staffers tabbed Henneman, John Hiller, and Todd Jones as franchise best closers, ultimately the majority picked Willie.
After all, none of those other guys helped bring a World Series to Detroit.
Next week, we’ll take a look at two players—the All-Time Designated Hitter and best player to come off the bench when the game is on the line.
Scroll through the spreadsheet to read our posts about the others.