When you think of the truly great closers in the history of baseball, you generally aren’t scrolling through the Detroit Tigers all-time roster. Despite that fact, the Tigers have had some special seasons turned in by some of their closers. A strong argument could probably be made for 4 of the 5 members of this list to be the top rated closer in Tiger history. Let me know what you think by voting in the poll at the end of the article.
#1 – Willie Hernandez (1977-1989 – played with Tigers from ’84-’89) – Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez came to Detroit in a trade from the Phillies in the offseason just prior to the 1984 season along with Dave Bergman in exchange for Johnny Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson. Willie, a lefty, would screwball his way to the single greatest season of relief pitching in Detroit Tigers history. Hernandez was 9-3 in 1984 with a 1.92 ERA over an astounding 140 innings pitched. He had 32 saves (only 1 blown save) and 112 K’s. For his efforts, not only did he help power the “Bless You Boys” Tigers to the 1984 World Series Championship but he was also awarded the AL Cy Young Award and the American League MVP trophy. He is one of only 4 relievers in MLB history to win a league MVP title. He was an AL All-Star in 1984 and won the ’84 TSN Pitcher of the Year Award as well. Willie made 3 straight AL All-Star games from 1984-1986. He saved 2 games during the ’84 World Series, allowing 1 run. Despite pitching just 6 years in a Tigers uniform his 120 saves rank 4th in team history. He was 36-31 with a 2.98 ERA during his run in Motown but never again had a season resembling what he accomplished in 1984.
#2 – John Hiller (1965-1970, 1972-1980) – Hiller played his entire career with the Detroit Tigers. His career was interrupted when he suffered a heart attack in January of 1971. He missed all of ’71 and about half of the ’72 season. Hiller’s 125 saves rank 3rd in Tigers history. For his career, the lefty was 87-76 with a 2.83 ERA. His 1,036 strikeouts rank 12th in team history and his 545 appearances are the most of any Tiger, starter or reliever. When he returned from his heart attack full time in 1973, he posted a major league record 38 saves that stood until 1983. The 38 saves were also a team record until 2000 when Todd Jones recorded 42.That ’73 season was far and away the career year for Hiller as he posted a 10-5 record, 124 K’s, and a 1.44 ERA. In 1974, he won 17 games as a reliever, the most in American League history. He was 9-6 with a 2.39 ERA for the ’68 World Series championship team. Hiller won the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Hutch Award (for his fighting spirit and competitive desire) in 1973 and was an AL All-Star in ’74.
#3 – Aurelio Lopez (1974-1987 – with Tigers from ’79-’85) – “Senor Smoke” was a dominant reliever for the Tigers during his 7-year stretch in Detroit. He won 10 or more games 3 times and saved over 20 games twice. Piggybacking Willie Hernandez’s Cy Young year in 1984, Lopez also posted his career season as he went 10-1 with a 2.94 ERA and 94 K’s in 71 games, covering 137.2 innings, and he even found time to save 14 games as the setup man/backup closer. He wasn’t too shabby in his first year as a Tiger either, going 10-5 with a 2.41 ERA, tying his career-high in saves with 21 and posting a career-best 106 strikeouts. He struck out over 90 batters 5 times while with the Tigers. Overall, he was an impressive 53-30 with a 3.41 ERA in 355 games as a Tiger. Lopez threw 6 scoreless innings in the ’84 playoffs. He was named an AL All-Star in 1983. Lopez was tragically killed in a car accident the day after his 44th birthday in his home country of Mexico, where he was serving as Municipal President of his hometown city of Tecamachalco.
Todd Jones (1993-2008 – with Tigers from ’97-’01 and ’06-’08) – Todd Jones, despite being known as a bit of a 9th inning rollercoaster is far and away the all-time saves leader in Tiger history with 235. He was 23-32 with a 4.07 ERA during his 8 years as a Tiger. Jones was an AL All-Star with the Tigers in 2000 and also named the 2000 AL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year; the season in which he posted a career-high 42 saves. Upon returning to the Tigers in 2006, Jones saved 37 games, helping push the Tigers to a World Series appearance. Jones was not a power closer, relying on a slow curve ball and low 90’s heat, traits that often led to putting a lot of runners on base and placing him firmly on the hot seat in the minds of Tiger fans. He retired from baseball in September of 2008. Perhaps his most notable moment as a Tiger came way back on September 27th, 1999, when Jones threw the final pitch at Tiger Stadium, striking out Kansas City’s Carlos Beltran.
Mike Henneman (1987-1996 – first 9 seasons with Tigers) – Henneman was a model of consistency during his time in Detroit. His 154 saves rank 2nd all-time on Detroit’s list. He saved over 20 games in a season 5 times for the Tigers. As a Tiger, he was 57-34 with a 3.05 ERA covering 491 games. As a rookie, the right-hander was a key component in the Tigers 1987 playoff appearance. He was named the 1987 Rookie Pitcher of the Year as he went 11-3 with a 2.98 ERA with 7 saves in 55 games. Taking over as the everyday closer in 1988, he saved 22 games and posted a career-low 1.87 ERA. He was an AL All-Star in 1989.
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