When you think of prominent pitchers in the 1980s, there are some names that jump to the forefront – Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Dennis Eckersley – but rarely does Willie Hernandez come up. Clemens, Hershiser, Gooden, Valenzuela, and Eck were forces to be reckoned with and enjoyed long major league careers. Hernandez had a very short, but impactful stint as one of the best pitchers in baseball and may not get the credit he deserves. Former Detroit Tiger Willie Hernandez is the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday.
Willie Hernandez’s career began when signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1973. After three minor league seasons, the Puerto Rico native was snatched away by the Chicago Cubs in the 1976 Rule 5 Draft.
Hernandez made his major league debut on April 9, 1977, having made the Cubs’ opening day roster at the age of 22 – and made an immediate impact. He made 67 appearances (one lonely start) and logged effective numbers: In 110 IP he posted a 3.03 ERA and 1.109 WHIP – a reliable bullpen arm by any measure.
He went on to log somewhat less impressive numbers between 1978 and 1983, with the worst two years of his career in 1979-1980. His WHIP spiked in 1979 with a 1.570. He had a handful of saves in a few years, with his organizational high of 10 in 1982, but was mostly a disappointment in Chicago after ‘77.
On May 22, 1983, the Cubs traded him back to the Phillies for Bill Johnson and Dick Ruthven. He went on to record another decent performance for the Phils that year – 63 appearances, 95 innings, a 3.29 ERA, and a 1.244 WHIP. But the following spring training, the Phillies dealt Hernandez and Dave Bergman to the Detroit Tigers for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss. The trade changed everything for Hernandez.
Willie Hernandez posted one of the most significant years any reliever has ever thrown in 1984 for the Tigers. He appeared in 80 games – all of which were relief appearances – and registered 32 saves. That is a pretty high number of appearances (enough to lead the majors), but the rest of his numbers don’t jump off the page. He threw 140 1/3 innings (leading all relievers), striking out 112. Again, a lot of innings for a reliever, but he wasn’t striking out batters with the regularity of an Aroldis Chapman or a Mariano Rivera.
Where Hernandez set himself apart was his ability to keep batters off the basepaths and runs off the board. In those 140 1/3 innings, he issued just 28 unintentional walks (he put eight batters on base intentionally). In addition, he allowed only SIX home runs. This performance translates to opponents batting a mere .194/.252/.254 against Hernandez, with a .236 BABIP in 548 plate appearances. Hernandez made everyone he faced at the plate into a light-hitting, easy out. This utterly dominant performance was recognized with Hernandez’s first All-Star Game appearance, as well as the 1984 Cy Young Award and the 1984 AL Most Valuable Player award.
Oh, and the 1984 Tigers won the World Series. Not bad for an undrafted free agent who was subsequently drafted as a Rule 5 player.
Hernandez represented the Tigers in the All-Star Game again in 1985 and 1986, putting up All-Star caliber numbers in ’85, but settling back down to Earth a bit in ’86. He never replicated that 1984 season, and after posting numbers more typical of his Chicago years in 1987-88, he struggled in 1989 and was ultimately released by the Tigers, ending his career.
Hernandez is proof positive that any pitcher can put it all together and have a near unhittable season. He was not blowing hitters away at any point in his career – he never put up the gaudy strikeout numbers that most typical high-pressure closers do. But he was the best pitcher in the game in 1984, relying on a repertoire of mostly standard pitches with a flummoxing screwball mixed in, and that combination resulted in some of the fewest walks issued and home runs allowed any of us may ever see over the course of a season.