Friday, May 01, 2020

All-Time Top Fifteen Tigers Relievers

Where does right hander Aurelio Lopez rank among Tigers relievers?
Photo source: VintageDetroit.com

Last year, I wrote a series of posts listing the all-time top ten Tigers at each position ad earlier this year, I listed the top forty starting pitchers.  These lists can be found at the links below:

Catchers
first basemen
Second Basemen
Shortstops
Third Basemen

This post does the same thing with relievers, but this time there are going to fifteen pitchers.  The original plan was to select ten relievers, but I realized that there were a number of pitchers prior to the 1970s who were swing men not fitting neatly into either the starter or reliever role.  Some examples were Hank Aguirre, Al Benton, Johnny Gorsica and Hal White.  The inclusion of swing men expanded the pool enough where 15 slots seemed appropriate.

In the article ranking starters, I noted that pitchers are more difficult to rank because their roles have changed dramatically over the decades and this is even more true for relievers.  In the first part of the 20th century, pitchers were expected to finish what they started and thus threw a lot more complete games than they do now.   The percentage of complete games decreased gradually over the decades, but was still over 25% in the 1970s.  Since then, the downward trend in complete game percentage has steepened even more to the point where a complete game is now a rare occurrence.  As a result relievers are now used a lot more than they used to be.

Not only are relievers used more often now, but they have also become much more specialized.  In the 60s and 70s, the best relievers commonly pitched multiple innings and they came into games in all different situations often at the manager's whim.  Now, there are closers who only pitch the ninth inning with a lead of three runs are less and typically enter the game with nobody on base.  The specialized nature of modern bullpens goes beyond the closer role with many teams having designated seventh and eighth inning pitchers and pitchers who only pitch to left-handed batters (although that's probably going to change now with the three batter minimum rule).

Changes in pitcher usage mean that relievers now pitch fewer innings and are judged by how they fit their role, saves for closers for example.  This makes it difficult to compare a reliever like Todd Jones, the all-time Tigers saves leader to a pitcher like John Hiller who piled up insane innings by today's standards, but didn't get a lot of saves and perhaps hurt his ERA and WHIP by pitching so many innings.

The Wins Above Replacement (WAR) Statistics at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs were somewhat helpful for sorting pitchers.  However, WAR seems less useful for relievers than it is at other positions.  Reliever success, especially for more recent pitchers, is highly dependent on how they perform in specific situations and WAR does not do a good job at capturing that.  Measures like Win Probability Added (WPA) and Run Expectancy Based on 24 Base-Out States (RE24) are designed to better capture situational performance.  However, these statistics are also flawed in that they tend to give pitchers credit for things that other pitchers did or didn't do such as putting runners on base.  Additionally, WPA, is sometimes too heavily influenced by one or two very high leverage appearances.  Some other criteria I used were games, innings, ERA+ and OPS+ Against.

For those unfamiliar with the above mentioned advanced measures, descriptions can be found at the links below:

bWAR
fWAR
WPA
RE24
OPS+

While both WARs were used in the rankings, any mention of WAR below is Baseball-Reference WAR.  Keep in mind that there isn't any one statistic which should be used to evaluate players.  That is something I have always preached on this blog and elsewhere, but I think it's even more true for relievers.  

At any rate, the pitchers are ranked in the table below.  Comments for each pitcher follow.

Table 1: Statistics for All-Time Top 15 Tigers Relievers
Rk
Player
Years
G
GS
IP
bWAR
fWAR
RE24
WPA
1
John Hiller
1965-1980
545
43
1,242
31
11
138
15
2
Mike Henneman
1987-1995
491
0
699
13
10
74
15
3
Willie Hernandez
1984-1989
358
0
483
9
6
59
9
4
Aurelio Lopez
1979-1985
355
4
693
10
4
48
12
5
Todd Jones
1997-2008
480
0
479
4
6
23
11
6
Al Benton
1938-1948
296
126
323
19
14
62
9
7
Hank Aguirre
1958-1967
334
138
1,179
18
15
67
5
8
Doug Brocail
1997-2000
236
0
252
7
5
51
6
9
Terry Fox
1961-1966
207
0
344
8
1
48
9
10
Joaquin Benoit
2011-2013
205
0
199
5
3
38
7
11
Jose Valverde
2010-2013
226
0
223
4
2
25
6
12
Fred Gladding
1961-1967
217
1
337
7
2
37
5
13
Al Alburquerque
2011-2015
241
0
225
5
2
28
4
14
Alex Wilson
2015-2018
245
0
261
5
2
23
2
15
Joel Zumaya
2006-2010
171
0
209
4
3
28
2
Source: Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com

1. John Hiller

Hiller was one of baseball's greatest comeback stories, remarkably recovering from multiple heart attacks in January, 1971 to become one of baseball's elite relievers two years later (Larry and Rob Hilliard, Society for American Baseball Research).  The Canadian lefty finished 4th all-time in WAR among relievers.  Hiller's best season was 1973 when he posted a 283 ERA+ plus and league-leading 38 saves in 125 innings.  His 54 RE24 that year was the best for any reliever in MLB history.  

Hiller's 1974 season was not as dominant as 1973, but he was a workhorse with some unusual numbers for a reliever: 17-14 record in 150 innings.  Before converting to a full-time reliever, posting a 126 ERA+ in 128 innings, Hiller was an effective swing man for the 1968 world championship team   

2. Mike Henneman

The second spot on this list was a choice between the fantastic peak of Willie Hernandez and the longer steady career of Mike Henneman.  Henneman had six seasons of WAR rounding to two while Hernandez had only two:
Hernandez 4.8
Henneman 3.3
Hennenan 2.3
Hernandez 2.0
Henneman 2.0
Henneman 1.9
Henneman 1.8
Henneman 1.7
Hernandez 1.2
Other relevant statistics showed a similar story.  

Henneman's best season might have been his rookie campaign in 1987 when he came out of nowhere to help the Tigers win one of the most memorable pennant races in team history.  The former Oklahoma State University hurler was recalled from Toledo on May 11 with the Tigers 11-18 and he was a key factor in them going 87-46 the rest of the way.  He posted a 143 ERA+ in 97 innings and finished fourth among AL relievers with 2.5 WPA.  

3. Willie Hernandez

Guillermo Hernandez was acquired from the Phillies along with first baseman Dave Bergman for outfielder Glenn Wilson and utility man John Wockenfuss during spring training in 1984.  And what an acquisition he was.  The slender southpaw appeared in nearly half (80) the Tigers games that season posting a 204 ERA+ and 41 OPS+ (under 100 is good) in 140 innings.  He also saved 32 games in a row - a big deal at that time - before blowing his first save in the last weekend of the regular season.

Hernandez incredibly won both he Cy Young and MVP Awards for his efforts in 1984.  Did he deserve to win both awards as a reliever?  Maybe not, but Table 2 below shows that Hernandez's  8.6 WPA that year was the best single season WPA for a reliever in MLB history.  Hiller's 1973 season (8.4 WPA) was second best.    

Table 2: All-Time Single-Season WPA Leaders
Rk
Player
WPA
Year
Team
1
Willie Hernandez
8.651
1984
DET
2
John Hiller
8.393
1973
DET
3
Doug Corbett
7.808
1980
MIN
4
Stu Miller
7.298
1965
BAL
5
Dan Quisenberry
7.014
1980
KCR
6
Rich Gossage
6.976
1975
CHW
7
Troy Percival
6.585
1996
CAL
8
Eric Gagne
6.572
2003
LAD
9
Aurelio Lopez
6.57
1979
DET
10
Tug McGraw
6.519
1972
NYM
Source: Baseball-Reference.com

4. Aurelio Lopez

A long-time Mexican League pitcher, Lopez did not establish himself in the majors until age 29 with the Cardinals in 1978.  The Tigers acquired him from the Cardinals before the 1979 season along with outfielder Jerry Morales in exchange for pitchers John Martin and Bob Sykes.  Senor Smoke dominated the American League in 1979 with a 181 ERA+ in 127 innings and led all pitchers with 6.6 WPA (which was the ninth best for a reliever all-time).  While overshadowed by Hernandez, Lopez was also a key performer on the 1984 championship team including six shutout innings in post-season.

5. Todd Jones

After some of the best single season performances for relievers in the 20th century, the Tigers have hit a drought this century.  One consistent, although sometimes maddening performer was Todd Jones.  Dubbed roller coaster by legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell due to his penchant for pitching in and out of ninth inning jams, Jones nevertheless closed out win after win in two stints with the Tigers (1997-2001 and 2006-2008).

Because he allowed so many base runners (1.46 WHIP during his time with the Tigers), Todd's overall statistics were not extraordinary for a reliever: His 113 ERA+ and 90 OPS+ were the worst of the 13 pure relievers on this list.  However, Jones seemed to have a rare ability to get outs when necessary which contributed to 11 WPA (fourth highest among Tigers relievers).  Even if you think "getting outs when necessary" is more luck than skill, what matters in retrospect is that he did it.  It's not like we are trying to project his future performance. 

6. Al Benton

Benton was a swing man who didn't fit neatly in either the starter or reliever categories, but would have made a top 40 list of all Tigers pitchers.  In 126 starts and 170 relief appearances, Benton finished 21st among Tigers pitchers in bWAR (18.9) and 20th in RE24 (61.9).  The Oklahoma native also finished in the top 10 in the American League in bWAR three times as a Tiger.  Benton was the only pitcher to face both Babe Ruth (1934) and Mickey Mantle (1952)

According to Bill Nowlin of the Society for American Baseball Research, Benton notoriously made a name for himself after his career:
 Indicted in May 1957 on charges of driving a stolen car from Sacramento to Oklahoma City three years earlier, Benton had been located in June at a hotel in Pontiac, Michigan. He fled when he learned that the agents had found him, and it took until October to arrest him in Salinas, California. He was also sought by Detroit police for questioning regarding cashing some phony checks. In January 1958, his attorney said that the check forgery charges had been dismissed after a $150 money order had been sent to make restitution. Benton was reportedly working at the time as a car salesman in Los Angeles.     

7. Hank Aguirre

Henry John Aguirre was another swing man who ranked 22nd among all Tigers pitchers in bWAR (18.1) and 17th in RE24 (67.2).  His best season with the Tigers was 1962 when he made 22 starts and 20 relief appearances and combined to lead the league in ERA+ (185) and WHIP (1.051) in 216 innings.

As a rookie for the Cleveland Indians in 1956, Aguirre struck out Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams the first time he faced him. Aguirre later asked Williams to autograph the ball and the slugger reluctantly agreed.  A couple of weeks later, the "Splendid Splinter" pounded Aguirre's first pitch for a home run. While rounding the bases, Williams shouted to Aguirre, "Get that ball, and I'll sign it, too."

8. Doug Brocail

Brocail was a nondescript but very effective setup man for Todd Jones from 1997-2000.  The Pennsylvania right hander averaged 60 games per year with a .668 OPS and 155 ERA+ and 12.7 RE24 (tied with Joaquin Benoit for the best annual average of any Tiger reliever).

Brocail was involved in a number of big trades during his career.  He was acquired from by the Astros from the Padres in an 11-player trade in 1994.  The Tigers got him from the Astros (along with Jones) in a nine-player deal in 1996.  The Bengals then returned him to Houston in a six-player deal in 2000.

9 Terry Fox

Terrance Edward Fox, a steady pitcher with excellent control, was the Tigers main closer before closers were cool leading the team in saves from 1961-1963 and finishing in the top five in the league in 1961-1962.  He also finished in the top ten among all AL pitchers in Win Probability added in 1962 and 1965.

According to BaseballLibrary.com, Fox allowed Roger Maris' 58th home run in 1961:

September 17, 1961: In Detroit, Roger Maris triples off Terry Fox in the 7th to put the Yanks ahead, Detroit ties it and, then in the 12th, Maris faces Fox again with Tony Kubek on 2B. Maris steps out of the box to watch a long skein of Canada geese fly over Tiger Stadium, then steps in a belts the first pitch for his 58th homer of the year.

10. Joaquin Benoit

Joaquin Antonio Benoit Pena averaged 66 innings, 145 ERA+, .629 OPS and 12.7 RE24 in three years with the Tigers.  He was used mostly as a set-up man, but became a successful closer in the second half of 2013 after taking over for Jose Valverde saving 22 consecutive games at one point.  Unfortunately, Benoit is best remembered for allowing a big home run to Boston's David Ortiz in post-season that year.  


While pitching for the Rangers in 2002, Benoit recorded a seven-inning save, which was the longest save in MLB history.  


11. Jose Valverde


Valverde was the Tigers closer from 2010-2012 and was particularly effective in 2011 saving 49 games in 49 opportunities, the most saves ever for a Tigers reliever.  Papa Grande was an emotional pitcher who was demonstrative in celebrating saves and he had lots to celebrate that year.  


It is tough to choose between Brocail, Fox, Benoit and Valverde.  Any of them could have been #8 on this list, but Valverde really only had two strong years as he started to run out of gas in 2012 and imploded in 2013.  He also pitched poorly in post season allowing 15 runs in 10 innings over five series.  


12. Fred Gladding


Gladding compiled a 132 OPS+, 85 OPS+ against in 337 innings as a Tiger.  


Some Gladding trivia:

His .703 wining percentage (26-11 record) with Detroit was the highest for any Tigers pitcher with .200 or more games.
His .016 batting average (1 for 63) was the lowest non-zero batting average in MLB history.  

13. Al Alburquerque


Al Alburquerque easily has the best name on this list and also had an almost un-hittable slider.  Alburquerque had the best strikeout percentage of any Tigers pitcher with 200+ innings punching out 28.7% of batters faced.  Another way of putting it was that he struck out 11 batters per nine innings while nobody else had as many as 10.  In 2011, he had an amazing 13.9 k's per nine innings.   


14. Alex Wilson


With his low strikeout (5.8 K per nine innings) and walk (2.1 BB per nine innings) rates, Wilson profiles more like a pitcher from an earlier era than one from the high octane modern era.  Everyday Alex was remarkably consistent for a low strikeout pitcher averaging 66 innings, a 135 ERA+ and 1.16 WHIP in four years as a Tiger reliever.  


15. Joel Zumaya


Nineteen-year old Joel Zumaya teamed with fellow rookie Justin Verlander to help lead the Tigers to the pennant in their remarkable 2006 breakout year.  Zoom held opposing batters to a .187 batting average and struck out 99 over 83 innings and was particularly good with runners on base finishing seventh in the American League with a 3.7 WPA.  The right-handed fire-baller regularly threw over 100 MPH reaching as high as 104.8.  


Zumaya also lived life off the field over 100 miles per hour injuring his wrist supposedly playing Guitar hero during the 2006 post-season.  He later famously hurt his shoulder helping his father move boxes from the attic during the California wild fires.  He never could stay healthy and never had another season where he reached 40 innings.  Despite the lack of full seasons, Joel's final numbers were dominant enough to gain the final spot on this list.  


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