Few positions in sports invite more scrutiny than that of the closer in baseball. Every baserunner is accompanied by worry, every save and blown save are recorded and discussed. Being a closer is a thankless job.
Because I’m a glutton for agony, I’ve created a timeline that looks at every closer the Tigers have had in the last 50+ years, since 1961 when the American League first expanded.
WARNING: The following article may cause nightmares. Proceed with caution and have TUMS nearby if you have a squeamish stomach.
Terry Fox (1961-1963, 1965)
Prior to the 1960s most games were completed by the starting pitcher and relievers were not valued that much (with a few exceptions). A relief pitcher was a failed starting pitcher and they were seen as guys you brought in to mop up when things got out of hand. Many relievers still aspired to being starters or were used in spot starts when needed to spell the four-man rotations used in that era. Conversely, on the occasions when managers felt they needed a reliever to come into the game in a tight spot, they frequently used one of their starters. Most of the good starting pitchers saw action at least a few times in-between their starts. In 1965 for example, Mickey Lolich made seven relief appearances in addition to his 37 starts.
Fox was a talented pitcher with a strong arm but he only had two pitches: a fastball and a slider. He also struggled with his accuracy and was prone to giving up home runs. In 1961 he gave up the 58th homer of the season to Roger Maris. Fans didn’t love or hate Terry Fox, they simply didn’t pay that much attention to a relief “ace” at that time.
Stats with Detroit: 55 saves, 17 blown saves (76.4 percent save conversion rate)
Larry Sherry (1964,1966)
Sherry was a product of the rich Dodgers’ farm system that pumped out dozens of great pitchers in the 1950s. But Sherry never got a chance to be a starter because he was buried behind so many great Dodgers. The tall righty also had trouble throwing strikes. He usually walked four to five batters per nine innings, which is bad today but was even worse back in the 1950s and 1960s. But Sherry knew how to pitch: he was from a baseball family. His brother Norm was a catcher who also came up with Brooklyn. Larry saved 82 games in his 11-year career, which was a decent total back in those days. The Tigers traded him to Houston in the middle of the 1967 season when he was pitching terribly.
Stats with Detroit: 37 saves, 11 blown saves (71.1 percent save conversion rate)
Fred Gladding (1967)
This behemoth looked the part of the ace reliever of the 1960s: tall, husky, bespectacled, with a crew cut. Gladding was from Flat Rock, Michigan and he was a fan favorite in his seven years with the Tigers. But someone had to be sent to the Astros in 1968 to complete the trade for Eddie Mathews, and Houston wanted Gladding. Sadly he missed out on being part of the magical ’68 season.
Stats with Detroit: 33 saves, 11 blown saves (75.0 percent save conversion rate)
Pat Dobson (1968)
The ’68 Tigers didn’t have one guy who was closing out games — games weren’t being closed out by relievers yet. But Dobson and John Hiller pitched the most near the end of games out of the bullpen. Rather than getting saves (Dobson and rookie Daryl Patterson tied for the team lead with seven) the bullpen got wins — Hiller got nine. Dobson was a very good pitcher but his future was in starting: he would later win 20 games with the Orioles and 122 in his career before an arm injury.
Stats with Detroit: 16 saves, 6 blown saves (72.7 percent save conversion rate)
Don McMahon (1969)
The best relief ace the team had in the 1960s, but the 39-year old McMahon was past his prime in ’69. He’d been acquired during the 1968 as postseason insurance and he pitched well (2.02 ERA in 20 games down the stretch). He wasn’t pitching quite as well in 1969 when he was dealt to the Giants in August. He rekindled his career and ended up pitching until he was 44.
Stats with Detroit: 12 saves, 3 blown saves (80.0 percent save conversion rate)
Tom Timmermann (1970)
Timmermann was a homegrown talent and was supposed to be the Tigers first real shutdown guy out of the pen. He was big (6’4 and well over 200 pounds) and he threw really hard. In 1970 he set a team record with 27 saves when he pitched in 61 games out of the bullpen. But that success was mostly a matter of opportunity, as Timmermann’s ERA was over 4.00 in a low-offense era.
In the early 1970s, the Tigers had a number of pitchers in their system who were being groomed to fit the new “fireman” role out of the bullpen, and Timmermann shared closer duties the next few years, never again saving more than four games. In 1972 he was placed in the rotation and pitched well, helping the Tigers to the postseason. The team traded him at the trade deadline in 1973 to the Indians for Ed Farmer, another relief pitcher.
Stats with Detroit: 35 saves, 10 blown saves (77.8 percent save conversion rate)
Fred Scherman (1971)
He pitched five seasons for the Tigers but 1971 was the only season he was given a prominent role out of the bullpen, and that was because John Hiller had a heart attack. Scherman saved 20 games and pitched in 113 innings in 1971, making one start. Like Sherry and Gladding, Scherman also ended up in Houston, traded after the 1973 season for the immortal Gary Sutherland.
Stats with Detroit: 34 saves, 16 blown saves (68.0 percent save conversion rate)
Chuck Seelbach (1972)
Teamed with Scherman as the main guys out of the bullpen in 1972. Seelbach did a nice job, appearing in 61 games. In 1973 he hurt his arm early in the season and he didn’t pitched much after that. Seelbach was out of baseball at the age of 26 and became a high school history teacher.
Stats with Detroit: 14 saves, 3 blown saves (82.4 percent save conversion rate)
John Hiller (1973-1976, 1978)
The left-hander from the Upper Peninsula debuted with Detroit in 1965 but didn’t get a chance to pitch in save situations until after his heart attack, which occurred prior to the 1971 season. He missed all of ’71 and most of ’72 and lost a lot of weight. He was a different guy when he came back, not just physically. He had a new outlook on life and he was calmer.
In ’73 he had the best season any reliever had ever had up to that point: he saved a record 38 games, led the league with 65 appearances, and he won 10 games out of the pen too. He had a 1.44 ERA and pitched 125 innings while striking out 124. Hiller finished fourth in American League Cy Young Award voting and also fourth in AL Most Valuable Player voting.
He never saved as many games after 1973, but part of that was the fact that the team stunk for a few years and also his managers jerked him around. Ralph Houk utilized Hiller in a different way than Billy Martin had in ’73, using him in the earlier innings, like Oakland used Rollie Fingers. Hiller threw 150 innings in 1974 and 245 in 1976-77. He was a rare lefty who was just as tough on right-handed batters. Due to his longevity and remarkable effectiveness, he still ranks as the best reliever the Tigers have ever had. A note on his blown saves: Hiller was frequently called in to games in the sixth and seventh innings and asked to pitch the rest of the way. He was not used as a three-out reliever, so he did have more innings to blow some save opportunities.
Stats with Detroit: 125 saves, 63 blown saves (66.5 percent save conversion rate)
Steve Foucalt (1977)
For some stupid reason Jim Campbell decided to trade Willie Horton after the 1976 season (he thought Willie was over the hill), and in return he got Foucalt, a husky redheaded right-hander from the Rangers who bore a resemblance to “The Skipper” from Gilligan’s Island. Foucalt saved 13 games for Houk in his only full season in a Detroit uniform. He was waived by the team in August the next year, as Hiller was once again the favored closer.
Stats with Detroit: 17 saves, 5 blown saves (77.3 percent save conversion rate)
Aurelio Lopez (1979-1980, 1983)
The Tigers stole Lopez from the Cardinals, nabbing him in a multi-player deal in December of 1978. The Tigers got Lopez and outfielder Jerry Morales for minor league pitcher John Murphy and pitcher Bob Sykes. Some people thought Murphy was going to be really good (including apparently the Redbirds), but he never made The Show. Meanwhile, the 29-year old Lopez proved what a powerful arm can do when given a chance.
“Senor Smoke” saved 21 games in 1979 (third in the AL) and even got a few votes for the AL Cy Young Award in his first season in a Detroit uniform. The next year he saved 21 more and won 13 games, but off-the-field troubles cost him his role as the ace reliever. After gaining some weight and contracting gout (due to an unhealthy diet of spicy Mexican food), Lopez was demoted to a lesser role by manager Sparky Anderson in ’81. But after an injury in ’82, Lopez was back in 1983 as Sparky’s main man out of the pen, and the fastball specialist from Mexico was an All-Star as he saved 18 games. After Willie Hernandez showed up (more later on him), Lopez was still a valuable weapon, giving Sparky a powerful bullpen. Lopez, who was very popular with Tiger fans, also ended up in Houston after his Detroit days, going to the Astros as a free agent in 1986.
Stats with Detroit: 85 saves, 24 blown saves (78.0 percent save conversion rate)
Kevin Saucier (1981-1982)
A one-year wonder, Saucier was the first headcase the Tigers employed as their bullpen ace. In 1981 the eccentric lefty caught fire in his first season with the Bengals. Saucier appeared in 38 games during the strike-shortened season, posting a sparkling 1.65 ERA while saving 13 games. During an eight-game stretch in mid-August he saved five games, twice throwing more than two innings as he helped lift the Tigers into a first place battle.
When he would convert a save, the flamboyant Saucier would stomp off the mound in an exaggerated manner, slapping teammates on the back and giving hand-stinging high fives. He was sort of like a more-pumped-up Mark Fidrych. He started the next season as Sparky’s closer and pitched brilliantly in April and May, but in June he started to complain of a tired arm, and by July he was on the disabled list with a bum shoulder. He never pitched in the big leagues again.
Stats with Detroit: 18 saves, 4 blown saves (81.8 percent save conversion rate)
Willie Hernandez (1984-1986, 1989)
His story is pretty well known: acquired just as spring training was ending in 1984; went on to save 32 of 33 save opportunities that year; was named AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. Hernandez had an amazing screwball (he always had), but in ’84 he really had it going and he absolutely dominated opposing batters, many of whom had never seen him before. In ’85 he saved 31 more games and pitched well, but the Tigers didn’t get to the postseason again so his performance was overlooked. He was still a great reliever in ’86 (he made the All-Star team for the third straight time), but by this time things were starting to sour in Motown for Hernandez. The first sign of trouble was when he insisted on being called “Guillermo” during a bad stretch of pitching in ’86. Detroit fans loved Willie, but they never took to Guillermo for some reason.
It’s hard to believe now, but in 1987 when he struggled, Hernandez was actually booed at Tiger Stadium. He had 15 saves in 1989 when he left the mound at Tiger Stadium with a sore shoulder during a game in mid-August against the Yankees. He never pitched in the major leagues again and his career was over at the young age of 34. In his post-career, he’s been welcomed back to Detroit favorably by fans.
Stats with Detroit: 120 saves, 28 blown saves (81.1 percent save conversion rate)
Eric King (1987)
Regular closer Willie Hernandez missed time due to a sore arm three times before the All-Star break in 1987, and by early July he was a non-factor. Breaking form, Sparky decided to turn to youngster King, a 23-year old who had pretty much been a starter during his minor league career. He didn’t pitch all that well, but he did save nine games in ’87, though only one after September 1st. He lost his job to Mike Henneman in late August.
Stats with Detroit: 16 saves, 8 blown saves (66.7 percent save conversion rate)
Mike Hennman (1988, 1990-1995)
By September 5, 1987, Henneman was the only relief pitcher Sparky Anderson had faith in. Considering Henneman was a rookie and Sparky preferred veterans, that was pretty amazing. Henneman did a fine job, mixing up his pitches and keeping them low in the strike zone (or just out of the strike zone). Hee pitched in many tight spots down the stretch as the Tigers hunted the Blue Jays. In the penultimate weekend during the three-game series against Toronto at Tiger Stadium, Henneman saved the Friday game (with two innings of one-hit relief), and won the Saturday game as he pitched three innings of no-hit relief from the 10th inning on. He wasn’t available for Sunday’s finale, but Frank Tanana came through with his epic shutout to clinch the division title.
The man with the dimple in his chin went on to serve as Detroit relief ace longer than any other pitcher (seven full seasons) and retired as the franchise leader in games finished and saves. He’s not remembered very fondly because he was never flashy or dominating (plus he followed Hernandez), but Henneman was a good reliever for the Tigers for several years.
Stats with Detroit: 154 saves, 40 blown saves (79.4 percent save conversion rate)
Gregg Olson (1996)
I’m not sure why he has two “g’s” at the end of his first name, but maybe it stands for “Good Gawd!”
Stats with Detroit: 8 saves, 2 blown saves (80.0 percent save conversion rate)
Todd Jones (1997-2000)
Ernie Harwell dubbed Jones “The Rollercoaster” for good reason: he had a lot of ups and downs and fans were freaked out as they watched him.
By the time Jones was the Detroit closer, the “closer” role as we know it today was in place. Jones was trotted out in the ninth inning exclusively in save chances. He never had great stuff, which is why the fans didn’t take to him that much, but Jones could keep hitters off balance and he rarely got rattled. In his first stint in Detroit, Jones became the first Tiger with four seasons of 20 saves or more and he set a team record with 42 saves in 2000 (which led the AL).
There was a Rollercoaster sequel too, but more on that below.
Stats with Detroit: 235 saves, 39 blown saves (85.8 percent save conversion rate)
Matt Anderson (2001)
Anderson probably had the best arm of any pitcher to ever be the Detroit closer, but he proved to be a disappointment. The former overall #1 pick in the MLB draft, Anderson was supposed to be a star, but he only succeeded in impressing the radar gun. The tall, slim right-hander could throw a baseball 103 miles per hour but he didn’t exactly know where it was going. As a result he only spent seven years in the major leagues, the first six with the Tigers. He saved 22 games in 2001 but his ERA was a miserable 4.82 and he only pitched in 56 innings. He finally flamed out with Detroit in 2003, suffering one of his many arm injuries.
Stats with Detroit: 26 saves, 11 blown saves (70.3 percent save conversion rate)
Juan Acevedo (2002)
Remember him? Be happy that you don’t.
Stats with Detroit: 28 saves, 7 blown saves (80.0 percent save conversion rate)
Franklyn German (2003)
The 2003 Tigers were so bad that their team leader in saves only had five (both German and Chris Mears had that many). They just didn’t have many save opportunities. German had a good arm and some people thought he might be a fine closer, but he was never able to tame his wild streak. In ’03 he walked 45 batters in 44 innings. Yes, really.
Stats with Detroit: 7 saves, 5 blown saves (58.3 percent save conversion rate)
Ugueth Urbina (2004)
This stretch is brutal isn’t it? Urbina had once been a great relief ace, saving 102 games in a three-year span for the Expos in the 1990s and 40 for the Red Sox in 2002. But his time in Detroit was far less successful and more controversial. Urbina was surly and unpredictable. He somehow made it through the entire ’04 season without missing time due to an injury, but he didn’t make many friends in the clubhouse, due to his cranky personality. Later, after he left Detroit and was under contract with the Phillies, Uribina was arrested in his native Venezuela for attempted murder and kidnapping. He served seven years in prison before his release in 2012.
Stats with Detroit: 30 saves, 5 blown saves (85.7 percent save conversion rate)
Fernando Rodney (2005, 2009)
There isn’t enough relish in the world to cover this hot dog, but he did have a good arm. Rodney served as an apprentice for a couple of years in the Detroit pen and then missed the entire 2004 season due to arm injury. He wasn’t that effective in ’05 as closer (nine saves), but in 2009 he saved 37 games and became the Rodney we all know (with the crooked cap and the mound antics).
He saved more than 200 games after leaving Detroit as a free agent following the 2009 season. Would the Tigers have won a few more pennants or a World Series with Rodney in their bullpen from 2010-2014? Maybe or maybe not, but it would have been interesting with him in the closer role during Detroit’s run as the top dog in the AL Central. As of 2017, the 40-year old Rodney was still serving as a closer for the Diamondbacks.
Stats with Detroit: 70 saves, 26 blown saves (72.9 percent save conversion rate)
Todd Jones (2006-2008)
It wasn’t the prodigal son returning, it was more like the goofy son returning home to live in the basement. Jones was 38 years old when Dave Dombrowksi brought him back via free agency in 2006. It was perfect timing for Jones, who had never pitched for a winning team in Motown. The ’06 team won 95 games and Jones saved 37 of them in a ninth inning role. He was on the mound when the Tigers eliminated the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs and he got a save in the World Series. He saved 38 games in 2007 and 18 more in 2008 before a career-ending arm injury in August.
Despite his ups and downs, Jones holds the Detroit franchise record for career saves and is the only Tiger to have six seasons of 20 saves and five of 30 or more. His save rate is the second-highest of any Tiger closer, so maybe this rollercoaster wasn’t so scary after all?
Stats with Detroit: 235 saves, 39 blown saves (85.8 percent save conversion rate)
Jose Valverde (2010-2012)
Maybe Valverde is even more of a hot dog than Rodney, know that I think about it. “Papa Grande” arrived as a free agent in 2010 and he carved a unique place in Tigers’ lore for many reasons. First, he was a flashy pitcher who loved to dance, prance, and untuck on the mound. Second, he enjoyed a phenomenal season in 2011 when he pitched in 75 games and saved 49 games in 49 chances. He was a huge reason that the Tigers advanced to the ALCS.
Jose saved 35 more in 2012 as the team went to the World Series, but the shine was off his star. It was very apparent that Valverde had lost a lot off his stuff in ’12, and after he blew Game Four against the A’s in the ALDS he was never again trusted by Tigers’ fans. He hit the free agent market after the World Series but Detroit shocked everyone by resigning him to a deal just as the 2013 started when the rest of MLB passed on the veteran closer. Predictably, Valverde was still terrible, lost his job, and was demoted to Toledo to work things out. But when he still stunk up the mound he was released by Detroit in August. And that’s the last Detroit saw of “The Big Potato.”
Valverde’s save conversion rate is the highest in Tiger history. He was 3-for-4 in save opps in the playoffs for the Tigers.
Stats with Detroit: 119 saves, 11 blown saves (91.5 percent save conversion rate)
Joaquin Benoit (2013)
The Tigers elevated setup man Benoit to the role of closer in 2013 with pretty disastrous results. Benoit was up and down all year, finally getting on a roll in time to help the team to a third straight division title. But in the postseason he surrendered a grand slam to David Ortiz in the eighth inning of Game Two of the ALCS to blow a game that Detroit seemed to have in hand. The Tigers lost that game instead of going up two games to none and failed to get to the World Series. Benoit was allowed to leave via free agency in the offseason.
Stats with Detroit: 28 saves, 11 blown saves (71.8 percent save conversion rate)
Joe Nathan (2014)
Signing a 39-year old closer to a three-year, $29 million deal? What could go wrong? Well…not that I want to say “I told you so,” but “I told you so.”
Nathan was finished when he arrived in Detroit, it’s that simple. Not only that, but during the 2014 season when he was struggling and being booed at Comerica Park, he decided it would be a good idea to make an obscene gesture to the fans. Then he wondered why he got booed more. Detroit eventually ate more than half of his contract and severed ties with him after he saved 36 games in two years.
Stats with Detroit: 36 saves, 7 blown saves (83.7 percent save conversion rate)
Joakim Soria (2015)
Where do you go after you’ve made a high-profile mistake with a big name free agent? You pick an easy stop-gap solution. That’s what Soria was. He’d been an effective closer for the Royals, saving 160 games in five years from 2007 to 2011. While Soria cloed out games pretty well for Detroit (88.8% success rate), he didn’t last a full season with the Tigers because the team had a fire sale at the trade deadline in 2015. They got JaCoby Jones in return, so it turned out pretty well.
Stats with Detroit: 24 saves, 3 blown saves (88.8 percent save conversion rate)
Francisco Rodriguez (2016-2017)
The Tigers didn’t get the K-Rod who at one time was lighting up radar guns with the Angels in the early 2000s. They got a declining pitcher who relies on location and a slider that dips at the lower edges of the strike zone. For one year, Frankie was able to employ that deceptive strategy successfully: he saved 44 games in 49 chances and generally doing a fine job. Unfortunately as of 2017, major league hitters have started to lay off the slow stuff and force Rodriguez to toss his high-80s fastball across the plate, often with bad results for the Tigers. As of early 2017, Detroit fans seem fed up with Frankie and he’s been demoted to setup man.
Stats with Detroit: 51 saves, 10 blown saves (83.6 percent save conversion rate through June 12, 2017)
Justin Wilson (2017-)
One man’s failure is another man’s opportunity. When Francsico Rodriguez blew two saves in mid-May, he lost his job and Brad Ausmus elevated Justin Wilson to the role of closer. He’s the fifth pitcher to be named closer of the team since 2013. In 2016, Wilson got six save chances out of necessity when KRod was not available, and he didn’t do well. blowing five of them.
Wilson may have something going for him: he’s lefthanded. The two best relievers the Tigers have ever had were southpaws (John Hiller and Willie Hernandez). As of mid-season in 2017, Wilson hasn’t seen enough action to be evaluated in the role full-time.
Stats with Detroit: 6 saves, 6 blown saves (50.0 percent save conversion rate through June 12, 2017)
Who was your favorite Tigers’ closer?