Monday, February 20, 2012

John Hiller: The Greatest Comeback in Baseball History

John Hiller recovered from a heart attack to pitch one of the best seasons ever for a reliever in in 1973 (Photo credit: Baseball Almanac)

I've been writing a lot lately about the greatest starters in Tigers history in terms of both careers and single-seasons, but I have not said as much about relievers.  So, I'm going to spend a little time today discussing John Hiller, who had arguably the best season for a reliever in the history of baseball.  

 In a recent article at High Heat Stats,  John Autin noted that John Hiller accumulated more bWAR (Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com) in the 1970s than any other reliever.  He adds that Hiller is seventh on the all-time list of relievers with 28 bWAR.  Autin's article inspired to me look more closely at Hiller's best season in 1973. 

One first has to understand that the Hiller story is remarkable even without the numbers.  After spending parts of six seasons as a swing-man for the Tigers, he suffered a massive heart attack on January 11, 1971 at the age of 27.  After such a life-threatening event, coming back to pitch in the majors again at all was an incredible feat on its own.  As far as I know, he is the only player to have returned to the majors after suffering a heart attack.   

Like many players in those days, Hiller did not take good care of himself and his unhealthy lifestyle contributed to the early heart attack. His recovery started with experimental intestinal bypass surgery designed to help him lose weight.  He also underwent several lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, cutting down his drinking and eating healthier.  Finally, he worked out harder than he ever had in his life.

He was on a mission to get back to the majors, but even after the doctors gave him the OK to try it, the Tigers were reluctant to give him that chance.  After Hiller missed the entire 1971 season, the Tigers offered him a job as a minor league pitching instructor and later as a batting practice pitcher in 1972.  Hiller took those positions because he needed the money, but he had other ideas.  He continued to work on his strength and his pitches on the side in hopes of returning to the mound. 

Billy Martin, perhaps the only manager who would have been bold enough to give Hiller an opportunity, let him pitch in July, 1972 less than two years after his attack.  The determined southpaw went on to post a 2.03 ERA in 44 innings as a starter and reliever.  He also came out of the bullpen to win game four of the playoffs versus the Athletics. 

What came next was one of the most amazing seasons any reliever has ever had.  Mr. Hiller saved 38 games in 1973, a major league record which would stand for ten years.  He also posted an ERA+ of 286 in 125 innings over 65 games and accumulated 35 pitching Runs, the fourth highest total ever for reliever.

Going beyond ERA-based statistics, Hiller's 6.9 bWAR was the second highest in history for a reliever, trailing only White Sox reliever Goose Gossage's 7.0 in 1975.  Because he was generally used in high-stress situations and was so successful, Hiller's Win Probability Added (WPA) of 8.4 was also the second highest ever.  The only one better was attained by another Tigers reliever - Guillermo Hernandez with 8.7 in 1984.

Hiller's 1973 save total does not sound like a lot by today's standards, but closers were used much differently in those days.  They were generally brought into the highest leverage situations regardless of the inning or whether their team was ahead, behind or tied.  A comparison between Hiller's 1973 season and Jose Valverde's 2011 campaign highlights the differences:  
  • Hiller came into games with the Tigers in front in about two-thirds (68%) of his appearances.  In contrast, current closer Jose Valverde came in with the Tigers in the lead 84% of the time.
  • Hiller inherited base runners in 52 of his appearances while Papa Grande inherited base runners in just three of his games.
  • Hiller pitched more than one inning 39 times and two or more innings 27 times.  Valverde, on the other hand, never pitched more than one inning.
Indeed, closers were not even called "closers" in 1973.  They were called "Firemen" and the man, who was on his death bed just two years earlier, put out the fire time after time to complete perhaps the best comeback in baseball history.

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