Hiller ranks among the greatest relievers in baseball history


I’ve written thousands of words about the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, I used to work there, and I wrote a lot of words for the Hall of Fame.

I’ve written over and over again about how Lou Whitaker was short-changed in his only year on the writers’ ballot. I’ve written several articles touting Alan Trammell as a Hall of Famer, in fact I have pointed out that he compares favorably to Derek Jeter in peak value and is better than Barry Larkin and several others in career value.

You may have read a series of blog posts right here at Detroit Athletic Co. where I argued the Hall of Fame merits of Jack Morris, a candidate who doesn’t have the statistical résumé of other pitchers, but who possesses many of the traits of an ace who normally earns a plaque in Cooperstown.

Over at a website called Wahoo Sam, which I contribute to, I have made predictions for the last several years as to how the writers’ balloting would come out. If I say so myself, I have been pretty accurate.

I’ve even examined the Hall of Fame cases of Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich, two members of the 1968 World Championship Tigers who I must admit I admire very much. Although I’m biased, the two have a stronger Hall of Fame case than you may think, Freehan should be in, in my opinion. Mickey admitted to me once during an interview that he felt “I’m a player who is in the group that’s just outside the Hall of Fame.”

So why would I write more about the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Because I’m willing to admit that I can learn new things and my mind can change. Recently I delved into some numbers while updating my list of all-time player rankings over at WahooSam.com. I’m not an expert on baseball statistics, but I do like to understand the numbers side of the game. I think new analytics have helped us understand how baseball games are won and lost, and how rosters can best be built. I enjoy that part of the game.

I can’t tell you how WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is figured exactly. It’s like the recent movie “The Big Short”, which deals with the financial crisis of 2008. There’s a lot of technical Wall Street financial jargon in the film, I don’t understand all of it, but I understand quite a bit, and I have a good grasp of the general ideas. In the case of banking and financing I can tell bullshit when I see it. I feel the same way about baseball stats. WAR isn’t bullshit. It’s the best stat we have as a single measurement of how much a player has contributed to his team. The sabermetric crowd would agree.

As I plowed through a spreadsheet that had the top 500 relief pitchers in baseball history according to WAR, I noticed something very surprising, and embarrassingly so. John Hiller might be the best left-handed relief pitcher the game has ever seen. He also deserves to be ranked in the top 10 all-time as a relief pitcher.

Consider this: Hiller’s career WAR of 30.9 ranks seventh all-time according to Baseball-Reference. However, a closer examination of the list shows that three of the pitchers ahead of Hiller are credited with numbers they accrued as starters. The website’s statistical list doesn’t differentiate among the games pitched by those players in relief and as starters. Dennis Eckersley, Tom Gordon, and Bobby Shantz all rank ahead of Hiller, yet they each started a lot of games. The other three pitchers ahead of Hiller (Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage, and Hoyt Wilhelm) started only a small percentage of games in their career (all three had more than 95 percent of their career games come in relief). But when you isolate the performance of Eckersley, Gordon, and Shantz to just their relief appearances (and other top relievers too), Hiller leapfrogs them easily. The new rankings are this:

MOST WAR, Relief Pitchers Career
1. Mariano Rivera … 56.4
2. Hoyt Wilhelm  … 40.2
3. Goose Gossage … 39.3
4. Lee Smith … 29.6
5. John Hiller … 28.7
6. Trevor Hoffman … 28.4
7. Billy Wagner … 28.1
8. Kent Tekulve … 26.3
9. Rollie Fingers … 26.0
10. Dan Quisenberry … 25.4
11. Bruce Sutter … 24.6

And here’s where the three I mention above fall to after removing their WAR as starters. Still good figures for a relief pitcher.

Tom Gordon … 22.2
Bobby Shantz … 20.7
Dennis Eckersley … 19.3

Which led me to think about our old friend John Hiller, who spent his entire 15 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. He ranks fifth all-time in WAR among relief pitchers, and he’s the first southpaw on the list. Sure, he’s not in the same league as the top three (Mo, Wilhelm, Goose), but who is? Yet there he is, a solid fifth on the list, ranking ahead of Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. Hiller also ranks ahead of Trevor Hoffman, who will become eligible for the HOF very soon and who everyone thinks will get in eventually.

Why doesn’t John Hiller get more respect? His name was on the BBWAA ballot only once, in 1986 when he got 11 votes (2.6%). Also on the ballot that year was a reliever named Roy Face, who toiled mostly for the Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a good pitcher, but his career WAR was 20.9, well below that of Hiller. In subsequent years Hiller has been eligible to be considered by the Hall of Fame’s veterans committees, but his name has never made the final ballot. Given his credentials, one has to wonder why.

Cooperstown is still trying to figure out how to honor relief pitchers. The role has changed dramatically over the years. At one point, relievers were leftover starters who came in when the starting pitcher had blown the game. Then relievers became more specialized, and by the 1970s we saw the advent of the “fireman” epitomized by Fingers, Gossage, Sparky Lyle, and yes, Hiller.

It’s probably Hillers’ career saves total that works against him. Most voters and HOF veterans committee members are not sophisticated enough to look at peripheral stats, especially when it comes to a difficult position like relief pitcher. The voters find it much easier to assess relief pitchers based a simple stat like saves. Hiller had 125 saves, a total that ranks 103rd in baseball history. When he retired it was in the top 25, and at one point he held the single-season record with an (at the time) eye-popping 38. Hiller rebounded mid-career from a heart attack that he suffered in his 20s. His story is an inspirational one. But still, he’s garnered little attention at all since hanging up his spikes in 1980 and retreating to Michigan’s upper peninsula, which is harder to get to than upstate New York and Cooperstown.

If you’re not comfortable with the “fancy pants” WAR stat, there are many other stats that support Hiller as one of the best lefties and best relievers period in baseball history. His ERA+ (adjusted ERA to the era he pitched) is 136, which is one of the five best for the “firemen” era of relievers. The leaders in ERA+ are mostly guys who pitched in relief the last 10-20 years, when closers are facing 3-4 batters per outing. Hiller averaged nearly six batters faced per relief appearance, and nearly 40% of his appearances in relief were multi-inning. That means Hiller was facing more batters and getting more outs, yet his ERA was still stellar. Current relievers have a much better chance to keep their ERA low when they only face a few batters per outing.

John Hiller will probably never get on the Hall of Fame ballot again, let alone earn election. But based on the numbers, he was one of the best relief pitchers in history and he should be remembered for that.