Return of the ‘Fireman’

Using your best reliever in high-leverage situations dates back to John Hiller in the 1970s

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This postseason, as you no doubt have noticed, has been all about the shifting roles of relief pitchers. It has been fun to watch — like watching history in fast forward. The transformation began with an old-fashioned decision by Baltimore’s Buck Showalter to keep his best reliever, Zach Britton, in bubble wrap because the game was tied, a decision Buck drowned with. It continued with Terry Francona’s dazzling use of Cleveland’s super-reliever Andrew Miller in high-leverage middle inning situations.

In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy tried to close out the Chicago Cubs with a tedious batter-by-batter matchup strategy, and that didn’t work out. Thursday night in Washington, the Nationals’ Dusty Baker tried his own version of that with a record-breaking six-pitcher inning. That one didn’t work out either.

And finally, there was the Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who decided to call for season-long closer Kenley Jansen with nobody out in the seventh and let him pitch until his arm fell off. Jansen threw more pitches than he ever had in a major league game and, when he’d run out of juice, Roberts went to the pen to bring out Game 4 starter and living legend Clayton Kershaw, which led to a stirring final two outs and a Dodgers victory.

But before looking ahead to see what it all might bring, let’s look back at the remarkable story of John Hiller and his 1973 season for the ages. His past just might be baseball’s future.

* * *

John Hiller grew up in Canada, just outside of Toronto, and so he grew up loving hockey, not baseball. He used to say that he would have given up one year of professional baseball for just one game as goaltender of the Maple Leafs.

But his talent was for throwing a baseball. “He has a weight problem,” Baseball Digest reported in 1967, “but that can be cured. Looks promising.” The best Canadian pitcher in baseball history before Hiller arrived on the scene was probably a Deadballer named Russ Ford, who won 99 games (though 26 of those was for the Buffalo Buffeds of the Federal League). In 1965, though, two Canadians made their debut. One was Hiller. The other was future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins. It was a Canadian bumper crop.

Hiller began his career as a multi-use pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-to-late 1960s. He started. He relieved. He did whatever was asked. He pitched effectively for the World Champion Tigers in ‘68. He was less effective in ‘69. He rebounded a bit in 1970. He seemed destined to be someone on one those of middling baseball cards that show up in every pack.

Then, in January of 1971, something shattering happened to John Hiller: He had three heart attacks on the same day.

Doctors were able to save his life, of course — it wouldn’t be much of a baseball story if they had not. But they told Hiller that his baseball career was over. Hiller, of course, refused to accept it. The Sporting News recounted Hiller’s wonderfully understated conversation with Tigers GM Jim Campbell after he returned from the hospital.

HILLER: “I’ll be a little late for spring training.”

CAMPBELL: “What’s the matter?”

HILLER: “I had a little heart flareup.”

CAMPBELL: “When did this happen?”

HILLER: “January. I was in the hospital for four weeks and now I’m home.”

CAMPBELL: “Why didn’t you say anything?”

HILLER: “I didn’t want to worry anybody.”

Hiller’s recovery was movie stuff.  He returned home to Duluth, Minn., and worked as a furniture salesman. But during various breaks and his lunch time, he worked out. The doctors would not let him even throw a baseball — not entirely sure why — but he ran two miles every day. He swam at least a mile. He played various sports like paddleball. He lost 40 pounds and dropped his cholesterol to what one of his doctors called “the level of a 12-year old.”

“The doctors have never even hinted that I’d be able to pitch again,” he admitted to reporters in early 1972.

Even after doctors cleared him to go to spring training, the Tigers remained doubtful. The entire sports world — but particularly people in Detroit — were still traumatized by the on-field death of Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes. He had collapsed while running to the huddle toward the end of a Lions-Bears game in 1971, and he died shortly afterward of a massive heart attack.

The Tigers reluctantly agreed to let Hiller come back, but only as a minor-league instructor. And it was during his time as an instructor that Hiller picked up a new kind of change-up, one that would complete his pitching arsenal. Mixing his good fastball with a wipeout slider and that new change-up, he became a whole new pitcher. He threw so impressively enough for scouts that the Tigers called him up in early July even though he had not pitched in a single minor-league game. He gave up a bomb to Dick Allen in his first appearance back. But he allowed just two runs in his next 11 appearances. The Tigers determined he was back.

***

On October 1, with the Tigers closing ground on the first place Red Sox, Hiller got a start against Milwaukee, and he threw a complete game, allowing just one run. In the ALCS against Oakland, he made three appearances and did not allow a run. The Tigers’ manager decided that Hiller was ready to become something new.

That Tigers’ manager was a son of a gun named Billy Martin.

Billy Martin is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he might not ever get there, but the man was a fantastic manager. He was not fantastic because of his famous rage — that’s part of what kept him from becoming legendary. He was fantastic, I think, because he was not just willing to break with the times, he INSISTED on it. The man smashed conventions, broke all the dishes, did what other managers were too earthbound to do. If he needed to have his starters finish every game to win, he’d do that (in 1980, Oakland starters went at least eight innings 105 times, most in the last 70 seasons). If he thought a star like Reggie Jackson should bunt (either for strategic reasons or just to humble the man), he would make Reggie Jackson damn well bunt no matter what the fallout might be. He would send Rickey Henderson EVERY SINGLE TIME the guy got on base.

Heck, if he wanted to shake up the team, he might put all their names in a hat and draw a lineup out of a hat.*

*This has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but I can’t let the opportunity pass to tell the story of Detroit’s August 13, 1972 game against Cleveland. It was the first game of a doubleheader. The Tigers had lost four in a row and 10 of their last 13. They were fading. Martin was going out of his head. So that day he decided to pull the lineup out of a hat. And, man, that lineup was a gem.. Thirty-seven year old slugger Norm Cash led off (for only the second time in his career). Ed Brinkman (he of the .300 career slugging percentage) hit clean up. Al Kaline and Bill Freehan didn’t even make it into the lineup.

And so what happened? Magic happened of course. The Tigers won 3-2. They beat Gaylord Perry, who would go on to win Cy Young Award. And the key player? Cleanup slugger Eddie Brinkman, who doubled home the tying run and scored the winning.

In 1973, Martin decided to make John Hiller into a weapon. All year, whenever the Tigers got into a big situation — didn’t matter the inning, didn’t matter how many or few hitters were on base, all that mattered was that Martin felt that buzz of uncertainty — he brought in John Hiller.

The baseball term “high leverage” was not a thing in 1973. Neither was the statistic Win Probability Added. But Martin brought Hiller into every high-leverage situation the team faced — when the season ended, Hiller had what to that point was the highest Win Probability Added of any relief pitcher in baseball history. Nobody knew it then, but it was also the sixth-highest WPA for ANY pitcher since 1930, higher than any Sandy Koufax year, higher than Bob Gibson’s 1968 season, higher than Tom Seaver’s 1969 year.

Win Probability Added is just that — you add (and subtract) the win percentages based on what a pitcher or hitter does. It is a quirky and contentious statistic because it makes some outs much more valuable than others. Retiring the first batter of the game, for instance, will be worth much less than getting an out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the pitcher’s team up by one one run.

In other words, it’s the perfect statistic to quantify Hiller’s 1973 season. He came into clutch situations time after time after time. And he was spectacular. Martin brought Hiller in to tie games, in to close games, in the early innings, in the middle innings, in the late innings. Nine times, Martin brought Hiller in just to get the final out. Four times, Martin brought Hiller in and left him out there for at least four innings. Hiller saved 38 games, a then-Major League record. But he also won 10 games because Martin kept using him in non-save situations too. He came in with 84 runners on base, which is a lot. He stranded 71 of them, which was mind-blowing.

How amazing of a year was it? Baseball Reference calculates he was 8.1 wins above replacement that year. That WAR is the second-best ever for a reliever (behind only Goose Gossage’s absurd 1975 season) and ahead of many of even the great starting pitching seasons. Nolan Ryan, for example, never had an 8.1 WAR season. But more to the point, modern day closers can’t even come close to that kind of production. Mariano Rivera is the best modern day closer, just about everyone would agree, and he never had more than 5.0 WAR in a season (and that 5 WAR season was before he became a closer — his WAR high as a closer is 4.3).

If you add Trevor Hoffman’s TWO best seasons together, it doesn’t add up to 8.1 WAR.

But maybe you don’t like WAR as a statistic, especially for relievers. There are numerous other ways to quantify how much more valuable John Hiller was in 1973 than any of the star closers of the last 25 years. And it was something new. Yes, there had been relief pitchers who were used in many different situations — Hoyt Wilhelm, Dick Radatz, Tug McGraw, Mike Marshall among others — and were extremely valuable. But no reliever — not even Mike Marshall, who pitched practically every day — had ever been used in so many important situations.

In many ways, Hiller was the first “Fireman,” a term that gained much more popular usage in the 1970’s. He was called to put out fires. And over the next decade or so, the fireman reined. Goose Gossage in 1975 was an extraordinary fireman. Bruce Sutter threw 107 innings in 1977 and had a 6.5 WAR, which would have led the National League this year.

Jim Kern in 1979 for Texas … Doug Corbett for Minnesota in 1980 … Willie Hernandez in his 1984 MVP season … these were firemen. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry set the record with 26 saves pitching at least two innings. The next year, he had 27, which remains the record. Bill Campbell in 1977 had 11 THREE inning saves. Gene Garber (remember him?) had 13 career FOUR inning saves. Rollie Fingers got to the Hall of Fame as a fireman; he had 131 career multi-inning saves, which is the most all time. Lee Smith was a fireman early in his career (though he morphed later into a more modern closer) Kent Tekulve was a fireman. Sparky Lyle … Jeff Reardon … Gary Lavelle … Roger McDowell, among others.

***

So what happened? When talking about the modern closer, we’re talking about a pitcher who, with only rare exceptions, comes into the game to start the ninth inning when his team has a (relatively) small lead. That’s his job. Get three outs. The modern closer really began to gain acceptance in the late 1980’s. Most people consider Tony La Russa to be the creator of the modern closer because of the way he used Dennis Eckersley in Oakland.

But, in truth, the true father of the idea might be, drum roll please, Pete Rose. Before 1987, no reliever in baseball history had even 20 one-inning saves in a season. But in 1987, Rose’s Cincinnati Reds had a dreadful starting pitching staff. And they had a 26-year-old John Franco. Rose decided to make him really the first modern day closer — 25 of Franco’s 32 saves were the one-inning variety. That was basically unheard of.

By 1990, the one-inning reliever had arrived. That year, Dave Righetti had 32 one-inning saves, a ridiculous total. But he was trumped by Chicago’s Bobby Thigpen, managed by Jeff Torborg. Thigpen utterly smashed the major league record for saves with 57. It was awesome enough that he finished fifth in the MVP voting. But 41 of those saves were one-inning saves. It turned out that one-inning saves were a lot easier to rack up than the old fireman saves.

And it went from there. In 1992, three pitchers had 25 or more one-inning saves. In 1993, it jumped to seven pitchers. By 1998, it was 11. In 2015, 18 different pitchers had 25 or more one-inning saves.

This list showing percentage of saves that are exactly one inning is revealing:

1975: 16.1% (lowest percentage in modern baseball history — age of the fireman).

1985: 23.1% (about average for all years leading up to it).

1995: 63% (the age of the one-inning closer is upon us).

2005: 78.1% (the era of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman).

2015: 84.2% (just down from the all-time high of 87.6% in 2013).

That’s how much of a copycat world we live in. But now, for the the first time in 30 years, we see managers really questioning the wisdom of the one-inning closer. The percentage of one-inning saves has declined each of the last three years — not by much, but every little bit counts. And this playoffs is showing the power, at least in a short series, of breaking the chains and using your best reliever in multiple situations, in stretching him out, in challenging his limits.

Yes, some will say that it’s all well and good to break the chains in the playoffs but over a long season you need structure. Maybe. Some will say that over 162 games, pitchers need specific roles to succeed. Maybe. But perhaps we underestimate what modern closers can do. Perhaps we can look back, to the remarkable story of John Hiller. At some point during his crazy comeback, he was asked how he did it. And he said, “You never know what you can do until you’re given the chance.”