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Tigers’ Top 5 relief pitchers: Beck’s take

@beckjason
June 8, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only. If you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jason Beck’s ranking of the top five relievers in Tigers history.

• Tigers' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP

1. John Hiller, 1965-80
Key fact: Leads all Tigers relievers, and fourth among all MLB relievers, in career Wins Above Replacement

Hiller’s career sounds like a movie script, a part-time starter who suffered an offseason heart attack, underwent intestinal bypass surgery, lost 50 pounds, quit smoking, reported to Spring Training as a Minor League instructor, worked out while serving as the pitching coach at Class A Lakeland, learned a changeup, returned to Detroit and found his best years as a full-time reliever. A year after Hiller returned, he posted what stands as the second-best season by bWAR (7.9) from a reliever in Major League history.

The numbers from Hiller’s 1973 season rival that of Willie Hernández 11 years later. Hiller led the Majors with 38 saves in 42 chances, half of them five outs or longer. He pitched 125 1/3 innings, allowed just 89 hits and racked up 124 strikeouts. He tossed 8 1/3 innings of one-run relief with 10 strikeouts in a game in mid-July after No. 4 starter Joe Coleman was pulled with nobody out in the second. Not wearing down, Hiller pitched 150 innings in relief in ‘74, leading the team in both wins (17) and saves (13) without making a single start. He pitched for six more years in Detroit, mainly as a heavy-workload closer.

Among Major League pitchers who made 80 percent of their appearances in relief, Hiller’s 31.0 bWAR ranks fourth all time. The three ahead of him -- Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage -- are all Hall of Famers.

2. Willie Hernandez, 1984-89
Key fact: 1984 American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner

For a relief pitcher to win a Cy Young Award is difficult, even in this era when bullpens are more important than ever. For a reliever to win that and an MVP Award is a rarity. Not only is Hernández one of just three relievers to pull off the double, he was a runaway winner in MVP voting from a dominant 1984 Tigers team that had no shortage of worthy candidates. He was that good, even though he shared the closer role with Aurelio Lopez until the middle of the season.

It’s not just that Hernández converted 32 saves in 34 opportunities, or 35 of 37 including the postseason. It’s that 21 of those 32 regular-season saves required more than three outs. Six of them lasted three innings or longer. With a screwball and a cutter, Hernández finished with 140 1/3 innings that year, just 28 fewer than No. 4 starter Juan Berenguer, and still dominated. He allowed just 96 hits, including six home runs, and walked just 36 batters. He then recorded the final outs of the AL Championship Series and the World Series.

Hernández never enjoyed that kind of success again, but he was an All-Star closer for three seasons before sharing the job with Mike Henneman in 1987. Still, in a role where pitchers often don’t last long, Hernández’s three-year peak rivals the great closers of his era. It certainly justifies the trade the Tigers pulled off to acquire him from Philadelphia in Spring Training of 1984 for former first-round Draft pick Glenn Wilson.

3. Aurelio López, 1979-85
Key fact: 19-4 record, 46 saves, 2.43 ERA in 1983-84

While Hernández swept the awards in 1984, the Tigers’ biggest step to success that year was the pairing of Hernández with López as a devastating lefty-righty duo that could eat innings and finish games. Before Hernández’s arrival, López was the prototypical power closer, given the nickname Señor Smoke for his fastball. He spent a decade pitching in his native Mexico, with cups of coffee for the Royals and Cardinals interspersed, before the Tigers traded for him in ‘79. He succeeded Hiller as closer under new manager Sparky Anderson, racking up back-to-back 21-save seasons, struggled through ‘82, then added a screwball to his arsenal to confound hitters. His ‘84 numbers, including a 10-1 record, 2.94 ERA, 14 saves and 7.1 K/9, ended up overshadowed by Hernández.

4. Todd Jones, 1997-2001, ‘06-08
Key fact: Tigers career leader with 235 saves, All-Star in 2000

No, Jones wasn’t flashy, and his season numbers were never particularly dominant. But if you needed three outs in a big situation, he could find a way to get them. He racked up 42 saves on a 79-win Tigers team in 2000, was traded away the next year, then returned as a free agent to provide veteran presence at the end of a young, hard-throwing bullpen in ‘06. While Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney brought the heat, the 38-year-old Jones compiled clutch outs for 37 saves that season, four more in Detroit’s playoff run, then 38 saves the next year.

5. Jose Valverde, 2010-13
Key fact: Two-time All-Star, 49-for-49 in saves in 2011

The Tigers had their struggles putting together dominant bullpens over the last decade, but for Valverde’s first two years in Detroit, Papa Grande was one of the most effective closers in the game. His 2011 season is among the best in franchise history, perfect in save opportunities while leading the league with 49 saves, 75 appearances and 70 games finished. It wasn’t always pretty -- he once had a 60-pitch, four-out save in ‘10 -- and his Tigers tenure didn’t end well, but his mound antics were fun while they lasted.

Honorable mentions
The key to Mike Henneman was his consistency -- five seasons with 20-plus saves, six consecutive seasons with 60-plus appearances, four consecutive seasons with 90-plus innings and seven straight seasons with a Fielding Independent Pitching between 2.93 and 3.67. He was a do-everything rookie in the 1987 Tigers bullpen before taking over at closer down the stretch.

Joel Zumaya will always be remembered for his incredible rookie season in 2006, when the 21-year-old’s triple-digit fastball was too much for AL hitters. He struck out 97 batters over 83 1/3 innings, with his fastball topping out at 103 mph, but injuries denied him a chance to have anywhere near that kind of season again.

Joaquin Benoit was one of the best setup men in the league for two-plus seasons before he got his chance at closer midway through the 2013 season. He’ll always be remembered in Detroit for the David Ortiz grand slam in Game 2 of the ALCS, but his clutch ninth innings down the stretch helped the Tigers reach that point.

Fernando Rodney had a much better career after leaving the Tigers as a free agent in 2010, but he was outstanding as a setup man during Detroit’s run to the World Series in ‘06 and effectively wild as a closer in ‘09.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.