Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Closer Look: John Hiller's Amazing Comeback

After his stellar 1973 season, John Hiller won so many awards that he can’t even count them all. The accolades included the Sporting News “Fireman of the Year,” the “Comeback Player of the Year,” the Hutch Award, and the Babe Didrikson Award. But the award that remains the most special to Hiller was the “Heart of the Year” Award from the American Heart Association, previously given to the likes of Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon. From 1972-1976, the recipients were Pearl Bailey, Nixon, Hiller, Henry Fonda, and astronaut “Deke” Slayton. That’s heady company, and Hiller remains the only athlete to receive the award.

John Hiller was three months shy of his 28th birthday when he suffered a heart attack in January of 1971. The left-hander from Toronto had a decent career going with the Detroit Tigers, with a 23-19 record and 2.98 ERA in just over 400 innings. In 1967, he had pitched shutouts in his first two starts in the majors. Used mostly in relief with occasional starts, he tied an American League record in 1970 with seven straight strikeouts, and concluded that season on a high note with a two-hit shutout of the Indians.

Then his life caved in. “Why me?” he wondered, but he didn’t have to look very far. Like a number of other pitchers who came up with the Tigers in the mid-70s – Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, and Fred Gladding – he had considered conditioning optional, especially in the off-season. A heavy smoker, he had watched his weight balloon to 220 on a 6’1” frame. By the time he got out of the hospital, he weighed 145. He quit smoking, curtailed his drinking, and had an intestinal bypass to facilitate weight loss. Placed on the Voluntarily Retired list, he got a job selling furniture, began running, and gradually worked himself into shape. His eventual playing weight stayed around 165-175.

Despite getting “in the best shape of my life” by the end of 1971, Hiller’s road back to the majors was a tough haul. The Tigers were leery of taking him back because a Detroit Lions player named Chuck Hughes had died that season of a heart attack. There was no precedent for a ballplayer coming back from a heart attack. The Tigers did agree to take him to spring training, but designated him a coach and left him in Florida when the 1972 season began. Nearly broke, stuck in Florida with his wife back home in Minnesota, he refused to give up, fighting for his baseball life with reluctant Tigers executives.

Finally his persistence wore them down, and he rejoined the Tigers in July. He pitched well, recording a 2.05 ERA in 25 games. His lone victory was an important one during the last weekend of the season with the division title on the line; he one-hit the Brewers through six innings and finished with a 5-hitter, winning 5-1. His hard work to come back had been validated, but the best was yet to come.

In 1973, Hiller put together one of the finest seasons ever by a relief pitcher. The major statistics give an idea of how superbly he pitched – he set a major-league record with 38 saves, pitched 125 1/3 innings in 65 appearances, struck out 124 while yielding only 89 hits, and had a 10-5 record with a sparkling 1.44 ERA. His performance deserves close examination, as it represents the workload faced by many top relievers of his generation. “When the manager told you to pitch, you pitched,” Hiller recalls. And his manager in 1973, Billy Martin, wanted him to pitch all the time. Hiller warmed up in 41 of the team’s first 44 games, appearing in 17 of them. From May 16 through July 8, he pitched 22 times, logging 34 2/3 innings, and allowed just one run. Only three times all season did he allow more than one run in a game, and he blew just three saves. Of the 84 baserunners he inherited, only 12 scored. With runners in scoring position, opponents batted a paltry .131 against him.

Several years ago, the folks at Rolaids, who give out the annual award for relief pitchers, created what they call the “Tough Save”. It answers critics who assert that there are too many “cheap” saves, such as when a reliever enters in the ninth inning with a three-run lead. (How many times did Hiller enter in that low-stress situation in 1973? Zero.) For a “tough save,” you have to face at least the tying run on base when you enter; starting the ninth inning with a one-run lead isn’t tough enough by this definition. I have researched dozens of individual relief seasons, and nobody had a higher percentage of tough saves than Hiller did in 1973. Exactly half of his 38 saves qualified. He believed that facing runners made him a better pitcher thanks to the rush of adrenalin and increased concentration. A closer look will show just how he responded to pressure.

April 26, at Texas, 3-2 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 2nd – retired Dick Billings.

May 5, vs. Texas, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 3rd -- retired all 5 batters.

May 18, vs. Boston, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 1 out, tying run on 2nd – retired Carl
Yastrzemski, walked Orlando Cepeda intentionally, retired John Kennedy.

May 28, vs. Oakland, 4-3 lead, 8th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 1st – got Reggie Jackson, then retired side in 9th.

June 5, at California, 5-2 lead, 6th inning, bases loaded – fanned Winston Llenas, then pitched one-hit ball over final three innings.

June 27, vs. Milwaukee, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 0 outs, tying run on 2nd – fanned first two batters, then intentional walk, retired final batter.

July 1, vs. Baltimore, 4-3 lead, 7th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 2nd – retired Don Baylor, then allowed one hit in final two innings.

July 2, at Cleveland, 4-3 lead, 8th inning, 2 outs, runners on 1st and 3rd – fanned John Lowenstein, retired side in 9th.

July 3, at Cleveland, 5-4 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – retired all five batters.

July 10, vs. Texas, 4-3 lead, 7th inning, 0 outs, runners on 1st and 2nd – retired side while allowing just a walk, had 5-3 lead starting 9th and won 5-4.

July 30, at Baltimore, 4-3 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runner on 1st – walked Bobby Grich, then fanned Paul Blair to end game.

August 7, vs. Oakland, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – got Billy Conigliaro to hit into double play, then struck out the side in the 9th (Bert Campaneris, Billy North, Sal Bando).

August 8, vs. Oakland, 3-2 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runners on 1st and 2nd – got Mike Andrews on fly out to end game.

August 11, vs. Chicago, 4-2 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 3rd – fanned Jerry Hairston and Carlos May, then retired side in order in the 9th.

September 2, vs. Cleveland, 2-1 lead, 7th inning, 0 outs, runner on 1st – 3 innings of two- hit ball to win 2-1.

September 4, vs. New York, 2-1 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runner on 3rd – got Graig Nettles.

September 9, at Boston, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 1 out, runner on 1st – walked Dwight Evans, then retired Tommy Harper and Luis Aparicio.

September 14, vs. Milwaukee, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 0 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd – gave up run on sacrifice fly, then two scoreless innings to win 2-1.

September 21, vs. Boston, 3-1 lead, 6th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – walked Carl Yastrzemski but got Orlando Cepeda on inning-ending double play; allowed 1 hit over final three innings.

There you have John Hiller at his best, doing the job time and time again with no margin for error. By comparison, today’s average closer faces such peril only two or three times a season. Look at it this way: from 2000-2003, only five teams had a higher four-year total of tough saves than Hiller’s 19 in 1973, and the leading individual pitcher (Keith Foulke) had 15. From 2000-2003, Mariano Rivera recorded a mere 13 tough saves out of 154; that’s 8.4%, compared to Hiller’s 50%. Have no doubts about the man’s heart.

Today, most managers avoid making relievers pitch more than a couple of innings, fearful of giving the opposition a second look at any pitcher’s stuff. Not so with Billy Martin managing John Hiller in 1973. Hiller faced at least 10 batters 19 times; in those games, he pitched 74 2/3 innings (that’s right, averaging nearly 4 innings per outing) and yielded only 14 runs for a 1.69 ERA. His most remarkable effort came on July 22 at Texas, when Martin brought him in with nobody out in the 2nd inning, trailing 3-0. Hiller held the Rangers scoreless over the next eight innings, striking out 10. The Tigers tied the game and sent it into extra innings. In the 10th inning, Hiller allowed a single and walk and was relieved with one out; the reliever allowed a game-winning hit that pinned a tough loss on our man. Two weeks later he pitched more than five innings against the Yankees before losing on a Horace Clarke home run in the 14th, this time bested by New York reliever Lindy McDaniel, who pitched 13 innings in relief. Those were the days!

Hiller kept up his good work in 1974, going 17-14 with a 2.64 ERA for a team that finished last. He was still going strong in 1978 with a 9-4 record and 2.35 ERA when he received what he regarded as his highest compliment in baseball. Ralph Houk, his manager since 1974, was retiring after the season, and in his final game he phoned the bullpen and asked Hiller to get warm. “I’d like to see you pitch one more time,” Houk told his favorite pitcher. Hiller gave him what he wanted: a strikeout and a foul popup.

Hiller retired from pitching in 1980 with a lifetime 87-76 record and 2.84 ERA in 545 major league games. He is now enjoying retirement in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, participating in Tigers fantasy camps and wondering why today’s pitchers aren’t pushed to throw more innings. He looks back on his heart attack as a blessing. “It made me a better person and a better pitcher,” he says. In 1973, it made him one of the best relievers ever.

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