Who is the best relief pitcher in Tigers' history? Todd Jones has 235 saves, 81 more than the man behind him. Fred Gladding and Terry Fox both logged 300+ innings in the 1960s with a 2.70 and 2.77 ERA, respectively, to lead that statistic. Willie Hernandez won the 1984 Cy Young and MVP award as the Tigers cruised to a World Series title. Mike Henneman has the highest ERA+, George Cunningham has the best FIP, and Aurelio Lopez has the best nickname. None of these guys are the best, however. That title belongs to John Hiller, the #23 player on our countdown.
John Hiller was born on April 8th, 1943 in Toronto, Ontario, making him the first Canadian and second international player on our list. He grew up playing hockey (duh) and took up baseball during the offseason. He was better at the latter, and signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1962. After a couple years as a starter in the minors, he spent most of the 1965 season pitching in relief for the Double-A Montgomery Rebels. He made his big league debut on September 6th of that season and logged his first career save later that month, striking out Gene Freese of the Chicago White Sox with a runner in scoring position to hand the Tigers a 5-4 win.
Hiller spent most of the 1966 season in the minors as well. He made the big league club out of Spring Training, but only made one appearance before catching pneumonia. He was sent down and struggled somewhat, allowing a 4.45 ERA in 87 innings. He got the call back to the big leagues in July of 1967 and did not disappoint. In his first 11 appearances, Hiller notched a win and three saves while allowing a 2.45 ERA. He got a chance to start in late August and threw back-to-back shutouts before finally allowing a run* in the ninth inning of his third start, also a Tigers win. Hiller jumped between the bullpen and the rotation in September and finished the year with a 4-3 record and 2.63 ERA.
*Hiller allowed a pair of singles and was taken out of the game, while reliever Fred Lasher let one of the two inherited runners score.
During the 1968 season, Hiller made a career high 12 starts, most of which came in the second half of the season. He only made a pair of relief appearances during the World Series, including a four-run meltdown in Game 4 (a 10-1 Tigers loss) where Hiller failed to record an out. He made 13 more starts over the next two seasons, allowing a 3.50 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 203 1/3 combined innings. He tied a then-American League record with seven consecutive strikeouts during a start against the Cleveland Indians on the last day of the 1970 season, Mayo Smith's last game as Tigers manager.
Disaster struck during the 1970 offseason. Hiller suffered a severe heart attack on January 11th, 1971 and he underwent bypass surgery and a lengthy recovery that cost him the entire 1971 season. To this day, Hiller may be the only Major League player to recover from a heart attack and resume his playing career. During his recovery, he learned how to throw a changeup from one of the Tigers' minor league coaches.
The change-piece would make all the difference in the world for Hiller, who allowed a 2.03 ERA in 44 1/3 innings in 1972, less than two years removed from his heart attack. His 1973 season is arguably the most dominant season for a reliever in franchise history. Hiller made 65 appearances and logged 125 1/3 innings that season, allowing a 1.44 ERA and accumulating 2.9 fWAR. His 38 saves that year set a Major League record at the time. Only Hiller's 1974 season and Willie Hernandez's 1984 campaign resulted in more fWAR for a Tigers reliever, while his 8.1 rWAR in '73 dwarfs the other two. Speaking of 1974, Hiller amassed a 17-14 record despite not making a single start. He made the All-Star team -- the lone appearance of his career -- and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting.
Hiller would continue to dominate throughout the better part of the 1970s, allowing a 2.42 ERA and logging 103 saves from 1972 to 1978. He threw at least 120 innings in four of those seven seasons and only once finished with an ERA above 2.65. He would not last much longer, however. In 1979, Hiller tallied a career-worst 5.22 ERA and injured his left shoulder late in the season. He made 11 appearances in 1980 with a 4.40 ERA before retiring in late May that year. Hiller was the last of the 1968 Tigers to play in the major leagues.
Going back to the statistics cited in the first paragraph, Hiller ranks just below those mentioned in every category. His 2.83 ERA is tied for ninth among Tigers pitchers all-time and sixth among those with at least 1,000 innings pitched. His 134 ERA+ is just below Henneman's 136, and he sits third on the franchise's save list. He sits head and shoulders among other Tigers relievers in terms of WAR with 31.2 rWAR in just 1242 career innings.