John Hiller is a forgotten man. His statistics do not stand out compared to modern relief pitchers. However, Hiller held Tiger and Major League records for saves. The lefty returned from a heart attack to amass his greatest campaigns. In the end, Hiller was a premier reliever and survivor.
The Detroit Tigers signed John Hiller as an amateur free agent from Toronto in 1962. He debuted September 6, 1965 and appeared in five September games. The youngster made one appearance in 1966. Altogether, he pitched 8 Major League innings in 1965-66 and allowed 2 earned runs. The reliever performed well when finally given a chance. In 1967, Hiller went 4-3 with 3 saves in 65 innings. His ERA was a respectable 2.63 and WHIP 1.015.
Hiller and the 1967 Tigers missed the World Series by a game. In 1968, they won the pennant going away with Hiller pitching 128 innings. His ERA dropped to 2.39, WHIP increased slightly to 1.117, and he struck out 78 batters while compiling a 9-6 record and 2 saves. The Cardinals rocked Hiller in the World Series to a tune of a 13.50 ERA in a couple of appearances. Despite the poor performance, the Tigers managed to win the World Series in seven games.
Detroit's left handed reliever continued to pitch a lot of innings. He totaled 203.1 over the next two seasons and 87 appearances. Then, Hiller suffered a major setback. On January 11, 1971, the 27-year-old suffered a major heart attack and missed the entire season. The Tigers brought him to spring training 1972 as a coach while he rehabilitated his mind and body. Hiller returned to the team in July and proved pivotal down the stretch. He appeared in 24 games, posted a 2.03 ERA and 1.173 WHIP, saved 3 games, and recorded a 1-2 record. His only win came in the final weekend as the Tigers held off the Red Sox for the AL East crown. The Tigers lost a thrilling five game series to Oakland, but Hiller performed well. He allowed 3 hits, a walk, and no runs in 3.1 innings in the series. Hiller won Game 4 when Detroit rallied in the tenth for the victory.
The postseason defeat and heart attack did not slow Hiller. He enjoyed his finest campaign in 1973. Overall, he went 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and 1.021 WHIP. The Tiger led the league in games (65), games finished (60), and saves (38). He broke the Major League save record of 37 set by Clay Carroll in 1972. Hiller was the first Tiger since Al Benton in 1940 to lead the league in saves and the first since Harry Coveleski in 1915 to lead in games. The saves record stood for a decade. Dan Quisenberry broke it with 45 in 1983. It remained the lefty record until Dave Righetti saved 46 in 1986. Hiller's mark topped the Tiger record books until Todd Jones posted 42 in 2000. Additionally, he finished fourth in the MVP and Cy Young voting that year. He won the Hutch Award, Comeback Player of the Year, and Fireman of the Year.
Hiller did not rest on his laurels and was not done breaking records after the historic 1973 season. First, he won 17 games in relief to set the American League record. He still holds the record as of the end of the 2013 season. Second, he set the team record for career saves in 1974. Terry Fox held the old record of 55. Hiller tallied 13 to finish the season with 67 career saves. He held the franchise record until 1993. Additionally, the pitcher made his only All Star appearance, and received MVP and Cy Young votes for the second, and final, time.
The lefty continued to perform for the Tigers over the next four seasons. He showed signs of decline in 1979 with a 5.22 ERA in 43 appearances. Hiller returned for one more go around in 1980. He broke Hooks' Dauss team record for appearances and retired. Hiller finished with a 87-76 record, 2.83 ERA, 125 saves, 545 games, 1,242 innings pitched, 1,036 strikeouts, and 1.268 WHIP. He held the Major League single season save record, was fourth in career saves for the American League at retirement, and still holds the AL record for wins in a season by a reliever. Additionally, Hiller holds the Tiger record for appearances. He held the franchise record for career saves until 1993 and the single season record until 2000.
The game changed and buried John Hiller's statistical contributions. However, in his prime, Hiller was an elite weapon. He set records with his appearances,collected awards, and tallied MVP votes. A heart attack could not stop the Tiger ace, but natural decline eventually did. In the end, Hiller remains the Tigers' all time greatest relief pitcher.