Detroit Tigers: Willie Hernandez trade paid off in a big way

Willie Hernandez, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Willie Hernandez, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers traded for pitcher Willie Hernandez before the 1984 season. He was a huge part of their championship run.

Just before the 1984 season began, the Detroit Tigers acquired Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman from the Philadelphia Phillies for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss. It may not have seemed like a huge deal at the time, but it turned out to be one of the best trades in Tigers history.

Coming into 1984, Hernandez was a 29-year-old southpaw who’d had a solid, if not spectacular, seven-year career, mostly as a reliever. He’d spent most of that time with the Chicago Cubs before they traded him to the Phillies during the 1983 season. For his career, he’d been 34-32 with a 3.72 ERA.

The Tigers put him in their bullpen for 1984, and he delivered big-time. He worked an incredible 140 1/3 innings, leading the league in both appearances (80) and games finished (68) while posting a 1.92 ERA. Though Sparky Anderson also used Aurelio Lopez to close some games that year, Hernandez got the bulk of the opportunities, collecting 32 saves with only one blown save.

This was back when closers often worked multiple innings at the end of a game for a save, unlike today, when most closers only come in for the ninth inning. Of Hernandez’s 32 saves, 18 of them were at least two innings in length.

For his efforts, Hernandez won both the AL Cy Young and MVP Awards, both a rare feat for a relief pitcher. 1984 was a strange year in that regard, as two of the top three AL MVP finishers were closers, with Dan Quisenberry of the Kansas City Royals taking third place. (Kent Hrbek of the Minnesota Twins took second.)

And let’s not forget about Bergman, who got the bulk of the time at first base that year and put up a respectable 2.1 WAR. Bergman actually hung around with the Tigers all the way until 1992 and was a solid part-time player, batting .259 in Detroit while actually collecting more walks (268) than strikeouts (248), a nice feat.

This wasn’t a totally lopsided trade, however. Wilson was an All-Star with the Phillies in 1985, driving in 102 runs, and had a couple more decent seasons with them. (Wockenfuss didn’t do much in two years in Philadelphia.) Still, when we consider that the Tigers got a championship thanks largely to Hernandez’s efforts, the trade was well worth it.

Hernandez never replicated his 1984 success, though he continued to be an effective reliever for the Tigers until they released him after the 1989 season. Still, for what he was able to do for that 1984 championship team, that alone made this an overwhelmingly successful trade for the Detroit Tigers.