Best Five: Greatest Relief Pitchers in Detroit Tigers History

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. The 2011 Detroit Tigers have routinely had seven reliever son their roster. Here’s 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 seemed to make things interesting as he closed out games for the Tigers in two different stints 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 Mike Henneman (1987-1995)

When he first came up, Henneman was shaky as a closer, blowing one out of every four save opportunities his first four seasons. But he settled in and became a better closer. His forte was keeping the ball low and getting groundouts or strikeouts. He saved 154 games as a Tiger during a period when the team was aging and not that good anymore, but it was a franchise record until Jones eclipsed it.

#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 by teams: 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 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.

Up next: Five Greatest Managers in Tiger history

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.