For MLB relief pitcher Willie Hernández has died at age 69, the Tigers announced Tuesday. Hernández, a lefty, was signed out of his native Puerto Rico as an amateur free agent in 1973 by the Phillies. He reached Triple-A in the organization before the Cubs selected him in the Rule 5 draft in 1976. He was a reliever for the Cubs for parts of seven seasons to varying success, including an excellent rookie year in 1977 when he had a 3.03 ERA in 110 innings of work, good for 3.2 WAR.
During the 1983 season, Hernández was traded back to the Phillies and then the following offseason was shipped to the Tigers in a four-player swap. It would end up being the deal that paved the way for the best season of Hernández’s career, along with his development of a screwball and cutter.
Those 1984 Tigers started the season 35-5, won 104 games in the regular season and then went 7-1 in the playoffs en route to a World Series title. Hernández saved three games in those playoffs and was outstanding, continuing a year for the ages.
In that regular season, Hernández appeared in 80 games out of the bullpen, going 9-3 with 32 saves in 33 chances. He had a 1.92 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 112 strikeouts against just 28 walks in a whopping 140 1/3 innings. The 4.8 WAR is one of the 25 highest marks ever by a reliever. Not only did Hernández make his first All-Star Game, but he also won by the AL Cy Young and AL MVP.
Hernández is one of 11 pitchers in history to win both the MVP and Cy Young award in the same season. Here’s the list:
- Don Newcombe, 1956
- Sandy Koufax, 1963
- Bob Gibson, 1968
- Denny McLain, 1968
- Vida Blue, 1971
- Rollie Fingers, 1981
- Willie Hernández, 1984
- Roger Clemens, 1986
- Dennis Eckersley, 1992
- Justin Verlander, 2011
- Clayton Kershaw, 2014
The lasting memory in the baseball world of Hernández will be that glorious 1984 season. It ended, fittingly, with him closing down the World Series for a two-inning save.
Hernández had heart surgery to install a pacemaker in 2009 and, after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Tigers game in 2009, said the following, via Detroit News: “I passed away putting a pacemaker into my heart and I wake up later on. Because God’s got my heart, so nobody is going to bother my heart. No one is going to touch my heart.”