Friday, June 15, 2007

John Hiller: The Tigers' Most Flexible Pitcher Ever

What I'm about to tell those of you who have only been following baseball since the 1990s is going to certainly sound like a fable -- something constructed from the mind of a loon.

But there was a time when pitchers actually wore several hats -- those of starter, middle reliever, set-up man, closer. Whenever you needed their arms, they were ready to take the ball.

One of my favorite Tigers of all time is John Hiller. There's so much to like about Hiller it's hard to know where to start. There we go -- let's talk about starts.

Hiller could start. He was a lefty with a high leg kick and a whip-like arm who could strike out guys like the Nolan Ryans and Randy Johnsons of the world. In fact, on my fifth birthday (as it turns out) -- on August 6, 1968 -- Hiller struck out the first six Indians to face him. That's still a team record, and might be close to an MLB record as well. For his career, Hiller made 43 starts, completing 13 of them (not a bad pct. for a spot starter). Of those 13 CG, six were shutouts.

Hiller could relieve. That much we know more than anything. But he could relieve anytime. He wasn't just a closer. He had a nice and tidy career ERA of 2.83, with 125 saves. His penchant for throwing strikes and racking up the Ks served him well in the bullpen, too. He could get a single out in the ninth inning, or give you five innings of long relief to save a tired bullpen.

Oh -- and there was the whole heart attack thing, too.

A trimmer Hiller, post-heart attack

Hiller was a chubby dude until January, 1971, when he suffered a heart attack at age 27. His career figured to be over; why wouldn't it? It was a freaking heart attack.

But it wasn't over -- not by a longshot.

Hiller came back at the end of the 1972 season, thinner but not any less effective. I'll never forget the image of him in the Tigers locker room after the team clinched the AL East crown. Mocking his heart condition, Hiller stuck a fan under his jersey to simulate an over-active heartbeat.

The next season, Hiller came back with a vengeance. He set a then-record with 38 saves in '73. Granted, a few were generous, recorded before baseball made a rule change to make saves a little tougher to get. But only a few were that way. Most were under the same pressure-packed situations the closers of today face.

I'm sure Hiller was a favorite among his managers, too, for his flexibility. Think about today's pitchers. How many would you entrust to start one week, set up the next, and close the next? Or even within the same week? But Hiller was that trustworthy -- year after year. AND he was lefthanded -- a bonus.

He quit suddenly in 1980, at age 37. His last game pitched was on May 27. There was nothing wrong with him. He just didn't feel he had the competitive fire in him anymore.

He walked away, and the last great, flexible Tigers pitcher walked away with him.


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