Revolutionary Pitcher

Puerto Rico native Willie Hernandez helped change perception about relievers with historic 1984 campaign

September 21, 2012
(NBHOF Library)

By Connor O’Gara 

Willie Hernandez was part of a baseball revolution in the 1980s. No longer was a starting pitcher expected to finish his battles. Instead, specialty hurlers were called upon in relief to close out games in the late innings. Few executed this new closer position as well as Hernandez, especially in 1984. 

The Aguada, Puerto Rico native led the Detroit Tigers to the 1984 World Series title. Hernandez took home the 1984 American League Cy Young and MVP awards after posting a 1.92 ERA with 32 saves in 140.1 innings of work. He became the second closer after Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers to receive both honors in the same season. Because of Hernandez’s dominance, the Tigers were 96-0 in games in which they entered the ninth inning with a lead.

“If you ask me, is he the reason we won? I’d say yes. He’s a very big reason why,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who skippered the Tigers that season.

Hernandez’s success as a closer came after stints with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies in which he had a limited role in the bullpen. However, Hernandez was not called upon strictly in save situations with the Tigers. His 80 appearances and 68 games finished were both tops in the big leagues in 1984.

“If I miss two days in a row, my arm gets weak,” Hernandez said. “I’ll throw on the side if I have to, and I tell Sparky (Anderson) to get me in there.”

Hernandez’s 1984 campaign jumpstarted a streak of three straight All-Star Game appearances with the Tigers. While Hernandez did not repeat his MVP season, he finished his 13-year career with a 3.38 ERA and 147 career saves in 744 appearances.

It’s been 28 years since Hernandez took the baseball world by storm as a closer. After watching greats like Hernandez, Fingers and Dennis Eckersley dominate the position, every team in Major League Baseball has since made an official ‘closer’ spot on its depth chart. Hernandez’s groundbreaking season was one his Hall of Fame manager reminisced about.

“Willie made all my decisions easy,” Anderson said. “Once I put him in the game, I didn’t have to do much else. After all, you can’t get much better than perfect. Willie had a once-in-a-lifetime season.”

Check out bios of other Latin Legends here

Connor O’Gara was the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. 

For information on how to apply for the Class of 2013 Steele Internship Program, click here