Modern bullpens are integral to a team’s success. In the past, failed starters worked out of the pen. That changed in the fifties and sixties as managers brought in “firemen” to squash rallies. In the late 1980s, Tony LaRussa began using a closer for one inning to end games and set up men to bridge the gap between starter and closer. Today, bullpens often feature seven or eight pitchers. The following are the greatest relievers in Tiger history with two additions. Denny McLain is a starting pitcher and Jamie Walker was a left handed specialist. The former was added to fill the final roster spot while the latter represents the change in the game. The pitchers are listed in alphabetical order.
Mike Henneman (1987-95): Mike Henneman helped save the Tigers in 1987. The bullpen struggled early and the once great Willie Hernandez lost his effectiveness. The rookie Henneman came in to 55 games, pitched 96.2 innings, and won 11 times. The Tigers lost the ALCS to Minnesota, but found an All Star. Henneman assumed the closer role and pitched like an old time reliever. He pitched at least 84.1 innings in his first five seasons and won 10 or more games in relief three times. Henneman went 57-34 with 154 saves in his nine Tiger seasons.
Willie Hernandez (1984-89): Sparky Anderson saw Willie Hernandez pitch in the 1983 postseason for Philadelphia and wanted the lefty on his staff. Detroit traded for Hernandez in the offseason and he became the closer. In 1984, Hernandez saved 32 games in 33 tries, pitched 140.1 innings in relief, and led the league in games (80) and games finished (68). He won the Cy Young, MVP, made his first All Star game, and led the Tigers to the world championship. Hernandez had an equally strong 1985 with 31 saves, 106.1 innings, and 0.900 WHIP. The lefthander made the All Star squad in 1985 and 1986, but became less effective in 1987. He saved 85 games from 1984-86, but slumped to 8 in 1987. He bounded back in 1988 with a solid campaign, but age ended his career in 1989.
John Hiller (1965-80): John Hiller is the greatest reliever in Tiger history. He only made one All-Star team was overshadowed by Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Sparky Lyle, but was an elite reliever. He led the league in saves and finished fourth in both the Cy Young and MVP vote in 1973. Hiller did win the Hutch Award after coming back from a heart attack. He won in double digits three times, with a high of 17 in 1974. The lefty saved 125 games in 15 seasons for the Tigers. In another generation, he would have saved significantly more games.
Todd Jones (1997-2001, 2006-08): Todd Jones gave fans and managers ulcers. He always seemed to walk a tightrope between victory and agonizing defeat. It did not seem like a Todd Jones appearance unless he loaded the bases. Despite this, he saved 319 games in his career, 235 with Detroit, and is the Tigers all-time saves leader.
Aurelio Lopez (1979-95): Aurelio Lopez served in all capacities for the Tigers. He closed, set up, pitched long relief, and started. He topped 100 innings four times in seven seasons making him indispensable out of the bullpen. Lopez made the 1983 All Star team and won the clinching game of the 1984 World Series. In 1984, Senior Smoke went 10-1 with a 2.94 ERA. Overall, Lopez went 53-30 with 85 saves and 3.41 ERA in his Tiger career. Amazingly, he pitched 713 innings in seven seasons.
Denny McLain (1963-70): Denny McLain won 122 games and two Cy Young Awards in five seasons. From 1965 to 1969, he won 16, 20, 17, 31, and 24 games. McLain was the 1968 American League MVP and Cy Young winner. He repeated as Cy Young winner in 1969. Innings and scandal finally took their toll on McLain’s arm and he became ineffective. Detroit traded him to Washington after the 1970 season.
Jamie Walker (2002-06): Modern bullpens come complete with left-handed specialists. Jamie Walker is the best lefty specialist in Tiger history. He pitched in good times and bad. Walker joined Detroit in 2002 and played on the 119-loss 2003 squad. The lefty proved vital in the 2006 pennant run. Walker pitched five seasons for Detroit and compiled a 12-12 record, 3.33 ERA, and most importantly for his position, a fine 1.174 WHIP.