With the last two nights' train wrecks in the rear view mirror, let's look much farther back at who has closed for the Tigers. Can we learn anything from their backgrounds?
Todd Jones finished 401 games for the Tigers. It feels like a generation ago that he came up with the Astros in 1993. He joined the Tigers in 1997 and had two stints, the last one ending in 2008. He played for eight teams in a 16 year career, so many desired his services but he quickly wore out his welcome. A WHIP of 1.41 and 7.3 strikeouts per 9 innings are numbers more like a middle reliever or journeyman than a closer. He was a starter for the first four years in the minors, with numbers that looked nothing like a prospect. After two years of closing in AA and AAA, he was called up for good.
Mike Henneman finished 369 games for the Tigers over nine seasons. Preceding Todd Jones by only a year, Henneman and Jones provided continuity in the closer role. Whereas Jones came from the Astros, Henneman was dealt to Houston for Phil Nevin. Nevin may have been the worst defender I ever saw in person, but he went on to a 12 year career. Jones and Henneman pitched together for Houston in 1995, when the Astros were led by Craig Biggio and finished in second place. Henneman's minor league career was four years as a reliever, with rather pedestrian numbers until 18 brilliant innings at Toledo earned him a call-up in 1987. Henneman is currently the pitching coach of the West Michigan Whitecaps. No word on whether the girls still flock to see his cleft chin.
John Hiller finished 363 games for Detroit over a 15 year career interrupted by a heart attack. He also started 43 games. A product of Ontario, his career predated the era of the one inning closer, and he tended to pitch the eighth and ninth innings to earn a save. Hiller's 1973 season is one of the best ever by a closer. He pitched in 125 innings in 65 games, finished 60, earned 38 saves, had an ERA of 1.44, a WHIP of 1.02, struck out nearly 9 per 9 innings, and walked less than 3 per 9 innings. For you sabermeticians, his ERA+ was 283. Pedro Martinez exceed that in 2000, can you find another better season by ERA+, ever? In 1974 Hiller won 17 games, never starting a game. Hiller was a mediocre starter his first couple minor league seasons, blossoming when he moved to the bullpen in AA.
Willie / Guillermo Hernandez closed 279 games in a six year career with the Tigers. He was a swingman for the Cubs for seven years with only modest success. His single season with the Phillies in 1983 was productive, but nothing that indicated a CY Young season was next. In 1984 he finished 68 games though he only earned 32 saves, with an ERA of 1.92 and WHIP of 0.94. Apparently Sparky Anderson wanted him on the mound at the end of the game without worrying about whether it was technically a save situation. Hernandez was a starter for three years in the minors with the Phillies. Oddly, six years after his last big league appearance and at age 40, he pitched in 22 games for the Yankees' AAA club. Their shortstop was Derek Jeter.
Aurelio Lopez finished 245 games for the Tigers over a seven year span, even saving 14 games in 1984 in tandem with Hernandez. His 10 and 1 record in 1984 was marred only by a late season appearance in a meaningless game that Sparky regretted, but Lopez's 1983 season may have been even better with an ERA of 2.81 and WHIP of 1.18 in 115 innings. Like Hiller his outings tended to be two innings, predating the era of the rigidly defined closer. And like Henneman, his next stop after Detroit was Houston. Sadly he died young at age 44. Who knows about his minor league numbers, they were mostly in the Mexican League where I suspect he threw a lot of innings.
Jose Valverde has entertained us at the end of 204 games. While his best years were with the Diamondbacks, he came to Detroit from Houston. His minor league career was about five seasons as a closer with Bruce Rondon-like high strikeout and walk rates. About 200 innings readied Papa Grande for the majors.
Fernando Rodney finished 179 games from 2002 through 2009. As he is currently struggling with the Rays, who are loaded with young arms, I predict he will soon be traded to Houston.
So what have we learned from this unscientific survey of the Tigers' closers? Can we apply anything in searching for a solution that can get this very talented and underperforming bunch into the playoffs? If the Houston connection must be maintained, perhaps the answer is to trade for Jose Cisnero. Or Bruce Rondon may provide six years of reliability, before a trade to Houston in 2020. But it would be refreshing to consider converting a starter, as it worked well with Hiller and Hernandez. Drew Smyly, anyone?