There is unhappy news for Detroit Tigers fans, and baseball generally, on Tuesday morning. Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez, legendary reliever for the 1984 World Series champion Tigers has passed away at the age of 69. MLB Insider reporter Hector Gomez was first with the sad news.
Hernandez is best remembered for his incredible 1984 campaign. With the right-handed Aurelio Lopez as his superb setup man, Hernandez was Sparky Anderson’s weapon to close out games, throwing 140 1⁄3 innings of relief with a 1.92 ERA and putting up a 3.2 fWAR season out of the bullpen to help lead the Tigers to their last World Series title. In the process, Hernandez won not only the 1984 AL Cy Young award, but the Most Valuable Player award as well.
Former American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Willie Hernandez has passed away at the age of 69. pic.twitter.com/mrxbg3ilwI— Héctor Gómez (@hgomez27) November 21, 2023
Hernandez was born in 1954 in Aguada, Puerto Rico. He became a bit of a southpaw prodigy, hitting 100 mph as a teenager, and was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973. He didn’t make it as a starting pitcher with the Phillies, and was actually selected away from them in the Rule 5 draft of 1976 by the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs used him in relief, and eventually Hernandez developed a cut fastball and his trademark screwball, the pitch that transformed him into a dominant reliever.
Hernandez was traded back to the Phillies in 1983, and helped lead them to the NL pennant. The left-hander tossed 115 1⁄3 innings with a 3.28 ERA on the year. He made three appearances in the 1983 World Series with a 0.00 ERA.
In 1984, the Phillies traded Hernandez and Dave Bergman to the Detroit Tigers for John Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson, and the rest is Detroit sports history. Manager Sparky Anderson rode Hernandez hard that year, with many appearances of two or even three innings, while often pitching two or three days in a row. He responded with perhaps the greatest season ever by a reliever.
By this point, Hernandez’s command had been refined, and he was simply unhittable most of the time. His cut fastball and screwball combination became iconic, and his consistent dominance in 1984 was incredible to see. Hernandez recorded 32 straight saves, finally blowing one in late September of the year. He remained lights out in the World Series, and went on to win the AL Cy Young and MVP awards, over Dan Quisenberry and Kent Hrbek, respectively, in what was truly a remarkable achievement for a reliever.
Hernandez would remain a Tiger through the 1989 season, when he retired from major league baseball. He had several more excellent years from 1985-1987 before the mileage finally caught up to him. He attempted a few comebacks after elbow surgery but never was able to recapture anything like his top form. After his playing career ended, Hernandez managed his own construction company and then operated a ranch in Puerto Rico.
In more recent years health problems took their toll, and so it was a treat in 2019 when Hernandez returned to Comerica Park to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. As it turned out, that was his last major public appearance in Detroit.
Beyond his performance with the Tigers and Phillies, Hernandez remains one of the key figures, along with others like Goose Gossage, in the development of the modern bullpen game. Hernandez, Rollie Fingers, Jim Konstanty, and Dennis Eckesley remain the only relievers to ever win the MVP award.
He will remain a Detroit sports legend, and we offer our condolences to all who loved him.