While Willie Hernandez wasn't the most popular left-handed pitcher to utilize a screwball in the 1980s -- that distinction belongs to Dodgers southpaw Fernando Valenzuela -- but he did win the Most Valuable Player Award in 1984. Hernandez's amazing season takes a special place in Tigers lore thanks to the team's incredible 104-58 record and World Series title that year, the most recent championship in franchise history. While his last few seasons were not quite so spectacular, he was still able to win a landslide vote and become the #45 player on our countdown.
Guillermo Hernandez y Villanueva was born on November 14th, 1954 in Aguada, Puerto Rico. He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1973 and began his professional career as a starter with the Class-A Spartanburg Phillies. He went 11-11 with a 2.75 ERA in 190 innings in 1974 as a 19 year old. He earned a call-up to Double-A in 1975, where he continued to dominate. After an 8-2 start with a 2.97 ERA, Hernandez was promoted to Triple-A, where he finished out the season with a 3.26 ERA in 60 innings.
The 1976 season would not prove to be quite so successful for Hernandez. Still in Triple-A, he went 8-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 135 innings. The Phillies, unimpressed with his 2.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio, removed him from their 40-man roster that offseason. The Chicago Cubs selected Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft and turned him into a reliever. He repaid their faith by allowing a 3.03 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 110 innings. His walk rate doubled in his second big league season, but he was able to utilize a 79% strand rate to keep his ERA at a respectable 3.77 in 59 2/3 innings.
Things didn't go so well for Hernandez over the next few seasons. His high walk rate stuck around in 1979, but his BABIP jumped and strand rate nosedived, resulting in a 5.01 ERA in 79 innings. Despite his struggles, the Cubs gave him a few spot starts in 1980. They didn't go very well. Hernandez was 1-9 with a 4.40 ERA in 108 1/3 innings. This resulted in a demotion to the minors to begin the 1981 season. His numbers did not improve, but he was recalled after the midseason strike. He allowed a 3.95 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, prolonging his career for at least one more year.
Hernandez bounced back in 1982, allowing a 3.00 ERA in 75 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 2.25, his best ratio since his rookie year. He was even better in the early part of 1983, striking out 18 batters to six walks in 19 2/3 innings before the Cubs traded him to the Phillies. He pitched well for the Phillies down the stretch, logging seven saves in 95 2/3 innings as his team won the NL East title. He did not appear in the NLCS, but allowed just one walk in four innings in the World Series. Despite his scoreless efforts, the Phillies lost to the Baltimore Orioles in five games.
Desperate for another left-handed reliever to complement Aurelio Lopez, the Tigers sent outfielder Glenn Wilson and utility man/backup catcher/batting stance god John Wockenfuss to the Phillies for Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. The trade was not well received by Tigers fans at first. Wockenfuss was a fan favorite and Wilson was seen as a promising young outfielder after posting a .739 OPS in his first two seasons. The 1984 season would change their minds in a hurry.
Sparky Anderson provided some early hype for Hernandez, mentioning him as a possible MVP candidate. The idea, viewed about as laughable then as it would be now, would turn out quite prophetic, even if it didn't seem so at first. Despite the team's torrid start, Hernandez ended April with a 4.86 ERA after allowing eight runs in a 9 2/3 inning stretch. After that, however, he was untouchable. He allowed three runs in 24 1/3 innings in May, racking up 19 strikeouts to four walks.
His dominance would continue throughout the summer as the Tigers kept on winning. He posted a sub-2.00 ERA in June, July, and September, with August's 2.30 ERA his only "blemish." He also logged 32 consecutive saves, then a major league record. Overall, he allowed a 1.50 ERA from May onward, striking out 97 batters in 123 1/3 innings. He was given both the American League Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player awards, both of which were the franchise's first since Denny McLain won the MVP and a pair of Cy Youngs in the late 1960s.
Hernandez acknowledged the efforts of Lopez, his teammate and co-closer for most of the '84 season. Lopez's 2.94 ERA was not as dominant as Hernandez's, but he went 14 for 16 in save opportunities. The duo were one of the most dominant righty-lefty bullpen tandems in big league history, and served as the backbone of the Tigers' World Series run. Hernandez allowed two runs in 9 1/3 innings during the playoffs, logging three saves. Lopez, meanwhile, pitched six scoreless innings and won Game 5 of the World Series.
While his 1984 performance rates head-and-shoulders above any other season of his career, Hernandez was an All-Star in both 1985 and 1986. He allowed a 2.70 ERA in 106 2/3 innings in '85, but blew seven saves in 38 opportunities. This did not matter much in the grand scheme of things, as the Tigers finished 15 games behind the first place Toronto Blue Jays. His save percentage dipped even more in 1986 when he went 24-for-30 with a 3.55 ERA, his highest since joining the Tigers. Still, his peripherals were quite good -- a 3.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.22 WHIP are nothing to sneeze at -- and he made his third consecutive All-Star appearance.
Hernandez's role in the Tigers bullpen became increasingly marginalized in 1987. His 49 innings pitched was his lowest total since joining the team, and by season's end rookie Mike Henneman had all but locked down the closer job that had once belonged to Hernandez. This point was cemented in place when Hernandez only appeared in one game during the 1987 ALCS, recording just one out. He had a decent season in 1988, saving 10 games with a 3.06 ERA, but a 5.74 ERA in 31 1/3 innings in 1989 led to his release after the season. After a few failed comeback attempts with multiple teams, Hernandez retired in 1995.
One of the keys to Hernandez's success with the Tigers was his ability and willingness to change his pitching repertoire midway through his career. While pitching for the Cubs and Phillies in 1983, he started utilizing a cut fastball and screwball. It had a major effect on his command while improving his strikeout rate. He only walked 71 total batters from 1984 to 1986 and struck out at least 76 hitters in each of those three seasons.
Hernandez, like many Tigers closers over the years, shared a love-hate relationship with the fans. His 1984 season set unreasonably high expectations for his future with the team, but overall he proved to be an effective reliever for a club who had bullpen troubles before his arrival. Despite the boos he heard while struggling later in his career, Hernandez has always expressed his love for the organization. Said Hernandez in 2009: "Even when they have a bad ballclub, I follow them, because they gave me good memories. I played for three different teams, but I want to be known as a Tiger, and I will always be a Tiger."