The importance of relief pitching has increased in the last 35 years as managers utilize their pitching staffs much differently than they did the first 100 years in baseball history. Teams now routinely carry seven relievers on their roster. Here are the five best relief pitchers to toe the rubber for the Tigers.
#5. Todd Jones (1997-2001, 2006-2008)
The pitcher who Ernie Harwell dubbed “The Rollercoaster” often made things interesting as he closed out games for the Tigers during two different stretches with the club. In his first stint with Detroit the Tigers were pitiful, yet Jones still managed to lead the league with 42 saves in 2000. That says a lot more about the potential to misinterpret the importance of the save statistic than it does about his ability. In his second stint with the Tigs, Jones was a smarter pitcher, relying more on guile and deception. He saved 37 games for the 2006 Tigers as they won the pennant. He holds the franchise record for saves with 235.
#4. Jose Valverde (2010-2013)
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Jose Valverde was a valuable pitcher for the Detroit Tigers as they marched to the playoffs in 2011. That season “Papa Grande” converted all 49 of his save opportunities and he didn’t allow any of the runners he inherited to score. He was fifth that season in Cy Young voting and was also 3-for-3 in save opportunities in the playoffs. Valverde relied heavily on sharp downward movement from his slider and a sneaky fastball. But by mid-season in 2012 he was very hittable and the rest of his career in Detroit was spent giving fans mini-heart attacks whenever he entered the game. Still, Valverde saved 119 games which ranks fifth all-time in franchise history. He was the closer on two Tigers’ teams that went to the playoffs and one that advanced to the World Series. And you have to admit that “The Big Potato” was entertaining.
#3. Aurelio Lopez (1979-1985)
On many teams, Lopez would have been a closer, but Sparky Anderson often used Lopez in tandem with a left-handed reliever or as a setup man after Willie Hernandez was acquired. Lopez had a talent that has always been coveted in baseball: he could throw the ball past big league hitters. The Mexican-born right-hander pitched more than 115 innings four times for the Tigers out of the pen. Though, as stated, he wasn’t always used as a closer, he still saved 85 games in his seven seasons in Detroit.
#2. Willie Hernandez (1984-1989)
In 1984 Willie Hernandez was as lights out as any other reliever has ever been in major league history. That year, his first in Detroit, the lefty pitched in 80 games and converted his first 32 save opportunities before blowing a save on the last weekend of the season in a meaningless game. He continued his dominance in the post-season and was named AL Cy Young Award winner, as well as MVP. The next season he saved 31 games. His 120 saves ranked second all-time at the time and rank fourth now behind Jones, Henneman, and Hiller.
#1. John Hiller (1965-1980)
Unless you understand how different the game was in Hiller‘s day, it can be difficult to look at his career and see just how great he was. In his time, relievers were generally converted starters (as was he), who were brought in to mop up or to pitch the last few innings of a tight game. Managers rarely used more than one or two relievers per game and the concept of a closer was years away. After he was made into a reliever, Hiller often came into games in the seventh and pitched three innings of relief. Hence, in 1974 he won 17 games out of the bullpen. In 1973, after coming back from a heart attack(!), Hiller led the league in saves with 38 (a new AL record), in games pitched, and also won 10 games. Six times the lefty posted an ERA under 2.50, fashioning a sparkling 1.44 ERA in ’73. As a spot starter he wasn’t too bad either, making 12 starts in 1968 while twirling his way to a 2.39 ERA. He retired owning every relief pitching record for a Tiger, including his 125 saves and more than 1,000 innings out of the pen.