John Hiller is still the best reliever the Tigers have ever had


John Hiller set the single-season saves record in 1973, and in 1974 he won 17 games in relief for the Detroit Tigers.

Selecting a closer for my all-time Tigers team is a piece of cake.

I won’t go by saves totals, because that is a flawed and bogus statistic. Recent decades have seen huge changes in how relievers are used, and pitchers now can get cheap saves just by being designated the “closer” and getting called in the ninth inning every time there’s a save opportunity. The guy who leads the franchise in this category with 235 is Todd Jones, who really wasn’t a very good pitcher by any reasonable measure.

Number two on the all-time franchise saves list, Mike Henneman, was a good reliever: he had 154 saves in his nine Detroit seasons. Quite reliable and sometimes overpowering, he had a very good 136 ERA-plus as a Tiger.

Neither was Willie Hernandez a slouch in his six Detroit seasons, including his magical 1984 MVP year. Guillermo was great, much like his successor Henneman. With a 135 ERA-plus and 120 saves, Hernandez was a welcome sight in the 1980s. He’s fourth among Tigers in career saves. (Right behind him is Jose Valverde, with 119 — further proof that the save stat alone isn’t meaningful).

John Hiller had 125 saves as a Tiger — and that was in the 1970s, when pitchers didn’t routinely pick up saves by protecting three-run leads in the ninth inning. Hiller had a marvelous and unique career. His 134 ERA-plus isn’t the only measure of his greatness. Hiller pitched two or more innings in many of his relief outings, back in the days when bullpen members didn’t have rigidly set roles. As a converted former starter, Hiller was versatile and could come out of the bullpen anytime during a game as Tiger skippers made maximum use of their amazing relief ace.

Hiller had to reinvent himself as a pitcher after he lost all of 1971 and some of 1972 because he suffered three heart attacks and underwent intestinal bypass surgery to lose weight. Before his health crisis, he was a young gun with a hard fastball; after it, he was a savvy pitcher with a slider and a wicked change-up — and a remarkable comeback story.

Even before his heart attack, Hiller was a starter-reliever, a “swing man.” He made 43 starts in his 15-year career, all of it spent in Detroit. The most he made were in the 1968, when he started 12 games. That was also the year he pitched a remarkable “complete game” out of the bullpen. On August 20 against the Yankees, he came into the game with no outs in the eighth inning and stayed on the mound through the sixteenth inning, when the game ended in a 3-3 tie.

In 1974, Hiller had what is arguably one of the best reliever seasons of all time. He was 17-14 for a team that finished 72-90. He pitched 150 innings in 59 games, all in relief. But the previous year, 1973, was even better: he pitched 125 innings, all in relief, in 68 games, and had 38 saves, at the time an MLB record. Hiller that season had an incredible 1.44 ERA and an amazing ERA-plus of 283 (that’s not a misprint), by far the best ever for a Tiger. His WAR that year was 8.1, eighth-best ever for a Tiger pitcher, and his career WAR of 31.2 is tenth-best ever for a Detroit hurler — and on both those franchise pitching leaderboards he is the only reliever.

John Hiller was a gamer in every sense, with talent, heart, and soul, and if I were managing the All-Time Tigers team, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him out of the bullpen at any point in any game where a true fireman was needed to put out the flames.



About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the “Sunday Punch,” Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell.