John Hiller, ace reliever of the ’70s (part 2)
(Click here if you missed Part 1.)
“Justify my WAR”
How can we reconcile John Hiller‘s high WAR value — 4th among career relievers, #2 on the 3-year and 6-year lists — with his 125 career saves, the fewest by far of the top 16 in reliever WAR? Saves don’t factor into WAR, of course, but there is a correlation for the top closers. Out of 9 RPs with 15+ WAR who can match his WAR-to-IP ratio, 8 had more than twice his saves.
Focusing on Hiller’s peak of 1973-78, we can see that he pitched very well, and often, averaging a 161 ERA+ and 114 innings. He was 5th in relief innings, and 1st in ERA+ among all pitchers with 400+ IP in that span. He averaged just over 2 IP per relief game, a close 2nd to Goose among the 66 guys with 200+ relief games, well ahead of Fingers (1.73) and Lyle (1.77).
But why does that 6-year span rate the second-best WAR ever by a reliever?
One word sums it up: Leverage. It doesn’t take a save chance to make a high-leverage situation. A tie game with men on base has far more leverage than starting the 9th clean with a 2- or 3-run lead.
Besides his workload and overall effectiveness, John Hiller had the highest average leverage index (aLI) of the 54 relievers with 300+ IP from 1973-78.
We’ll get to those details in a moment. But first, the circumstances that put Hiller on the spot so often.
Working without a net
Detroit from 1967-72 ran 1st or 2nd five times, ending with a division crown under Billy Martin. But their stable core had grown old together; by ’73 the lineup averaged 33, the rotation 32, and they faded fast. From 1973-78, the Tigers averaged 22 games behind (never less than 12), which kept Hiller out of the national spotlight in his peak years.
The talent drain hit the bullpen hardest. A thin rotation meant that anyone who had a good month in relief soon found himself starting.
So from 1973-78, Hiller was the Detroit bullpen — to a degree that’s hard to compass. In a nutshell:
- 2.37 ERA in 619 relief innings for Hiller, with 8.6 SO/9
- 3.87 ERA in all other Detroit relief innings, with 5.5 SO/9
- While Hiller averaged a 2.37 ERA in 103 relief innings, their #2 guy in relief IP each year averaged a 4.14 ERA in 74 IP.
- Just once did any bullpen mate reach 0.9 WAR — one solid season from Steve Foucault, 1977 (3.15 ERA, 74 IP, 1.8 WAR).
With no good setup man or second finisher, any tight spot was Hiller time.
In relief games with an aLI of 1.5 or higher — B-R’s standard for high leverage — Hiller amassed 58% of Detroit’s innings from 1973-78. That’s a greater percentage than the 3 contemporary HOFers over their best 6-year spans: Fingers 52% (1973-78), Gossage 47% (1975 and ’77-’81), and Sutter 45% (1977-82).
In games with very high leverage — an unofficial term I’ve coined for aLI 2.5 and up — Hiller took an amazing 78% of Detroit’s innings. Fingers had 59% of such innings in his best span, Sutter 55%, Gossage 49%.
Among all RPs from 1973-78, Hiller was #1 with 166 very-high-leverage innings, 11 more than #2 Fingers; just 3 others had 115+. He was #2 with 362 high-leverage innings (Fingers #1 with 399, Marshall #3 with 354, no others over 300). And he had the highest percentage of his total innings comprised by hi-lev IP — Hiller 47.2%, Fingers 45.2%, Marshall 43.1%, Lyle 42.8%.
The tighter the spot, the better he pitched
Here’s everyone with 200+ high-leverage innings from 1973-78 (games with aLI of 1.5 or higher), ranked by ERA in those innings. Hiller was #2 in both IP and ERA:
|1||Rich Gossage||136||Ind. Games||30||30||.500||2.06||49||288.2||199||66||15||141||286||1.18|
|2||John Hiller||166||Ind. Games||40||36||.526||2.41||65||362.1||292||97||23||188||348||1.32|
|3||Sparky Lyle||164||Ind. Games||34||28||.548||2.46||63||296.2||273||81||12||105||166||1.27|
|4||Dave LaRoche||158||Ind. Games||20||24||.455||2.72||61||241.2||193||73||12||136||202||1.36|
|5||Steve Foucault||131||Ind. Games||27||30||.474||2.84||35||250.2||232||79||18||105||153||1.34|
|6||Gary Lavelle||147||Ind. Games||27||24||.529||3.04||32||219.1||234||74||8||102||147||1.53|
|7||Terry Forster||105||Ind. Games||13||21||.382||3.06||44||200.0||194||68||9||99||155||1.47|
|8||Bill Campbell||147||Ind. Games||33||28||.541||3.22||49||288.1||270||103||18||143||194||1.43|
|9||Charlie Hough||124||Ind. Games||23||35||.397||3.24||35||225.1||179||81||14||155||164||1.48|
|10||Al Hrabosky||184||Ind. Games||39||24||.619||3.26||53||251.1||224||91||14||101||225||1.29|
|11||Tug McGraw||127||Ind. Games||27||32||.458||3.42||32||234.1||210||89||13||107||138||1.35|
|12||Rollie Fingers||226||Ind. Games||44||45||.494||3.43||97||399.0||394||152||22||126||329||1.30|
|13||Pedro Borbon||143||Ind. Games||26||21||.553||3.47||30||210.1||245||81||13||66||71||1.48|
|14||Randy Moffitt||164||Ind. Games||22||29||.431||3.49||51||227.0||232||88||17||89||140||1.41|
|15||Mike Marshall||179||Ind. Games||42||46||.477||3.56||50||354.0||377||140||15||142||224||1.47|
|16||Gene Garber||142||Ind. Games||29||28||.509||3.67||42||228.1||231||93||19||79||167||1.36|
Hiller’s hi-lev ERA was 23% better than the aggregate of the other 15 guys on the list (2.41 vs. 3.12).
Now the leaders in very-high-leverage innings for 1973-78 (aLI 2.5+), ranked by ERA. Hiller is #1 in IP, #2 in ERA:
|1||Dave LaRoche||89||Ind. Games||7||12||.368||1.94||37||106.2||83||23||3||79||107||1.52|
|2||John Hiller||88||Ind. Games||20||18||.526||2.01||38||165.2||136||37||8||105||148||1.45|
|3||Rich Gossage||60||Ind. Games||11||17||.393||2.28||23||106.2||89||27||3||62||108||1.42|
|4||Bill Campbell||80||Ind. Games||17||16||.515||2.85||28||142.1||136||45||5||84||87||1.55|
|5||Steve Foucault||63||Ind. Games||12||14||.462||2.86||17||113.1||109||36||5||61||58||1.50|
|6||Sparky Lyle||91||Ind. Games||18||18||.500||2.86||35||148.0||154||47||4||69||85||1.51|
|7||Tug McGraw||63||Ind. Games||7||20||.259||3.31||18||100.2||109||37||4||62||53||1.70|
|8||Tom Murphy||68||Ind. Games||6||22||.214||3.40||25||98.0||123||37||2||68||38||1.95|
|9||Charlie Hough||62||Ind. Games||12||19||.387||3.44||16||96.2||88||37||2||79||62||1.73|
|10||Darold Knowles||82||Ind. Games||13||16||.448||3.50||15||90.0||95||35||2||59||50||1.71|
|11||Rollie Fingers||107||Ind. Games||19||24||.442||3.84||45||154.2||177||66||8||72||133||1.61|
|12||Al Hrabosky||88||Ind. Games||20||14||.588||3.92||22||98.2||99||43||5||63||84||1.64|
|13||Mike Marshall||83||Ind. Games||12||25||.324||4.56||27||134.1||173||68||3||71||87||1.82|
In very-hi-lev innings, LaRoche, Hiller and Gossage were on a separate plane of ERA — and Hiller had 55% more such innings than both. His very-hi-lev ERA was 38% better than the aggregate of the other 12 on this list (2.01 vs. 3.24).
And that’s the biggest reason why Hiller was the runaway relief WAR leader for 1973-78, with only Gossage within 10 WAR.
Of course, that only shows his dominance for that 6-year peak, whereas others surely peaked at different times. OK, but he also dominated in reliever WAR for the ’70s in total: #1-Hiller, 26.5 WAR; #2-Gossage, 20.1; #3-Lyle, 17.0; #4-Fingers, 15.1. His ERA+ was #1 among the 58 RPs with 400 innings in the decade.
A simpler measure
Since there is some controversy over how the WAR methods gauge relief work, let’s try a simpler measure of effectiveness: ERA+.
Closers often have better ERA+ than the old-time firemen, but they work fewer innings under less pressure. Hiller from 1973-78 logged 683 innings with a 161 ERA+. Dozens of relievers have topped 600 IP in a 6-year span, but how many did that with at least a 150 ERA+? Hiller is one of five:
- Wilhelm, 1960-65 through 1964-69 (best ERA+ of those spans was 182)
- Quisenberry, 1979-84 through 1982-87 (best ERA+ was 172)
- Hiller, 1970-76, 1972-77 and 1973-78 (best ERA+ was 165)
- Lyle, 1972-77 (160)
- Gossage, 1975-80 (150)
Suppose we knock the innings down to 450 (75 per year over 6 years) but raise the bar to 165 ERA+. That yields 10: Wilhelm, Goose, Sutter, Eck, Hiller, Quiz, Rivera, Keith Foulke, Jeff Montgomery and Tom Burgmeier.
“Those ’70s Saves”
By current standards, Hiller’s 125 saves and 66% conversion rate seem piddling. Even with the big year, his 1973-78 peak averaged 17 saves. How quaint!
But the times were so different. There were just seven 30-save seasons in those 6 years. League leaders averaged 27 saves (outside of Hiller), with a low of 21. The average AL team had 28 saves, and many teams used tandems; 20% of all team-years from 1973-78 had two or more guys with 10+ saves. Just one guy had significantly more saves than Hiller in that span: #1-Fingers, 156; #2-Lyle, 106; #3-Marshall, 101; #4-Hiller, 100; #5-LaRoche, 89.
Cy Young Award voting shows that the save had not yet come to define the relief ace. The 22 relief seasons getting CYA votes in this span averaged 23 saves, 11 wins and 129 innings. Sparky Lyle won the CYA with 26 saves (5 behind the leader) and a modest 76% conversion rate — but he also had 13 wins, 137 IP and a 2.13 ERA. Mike Marshall won his CYA with just 21 saves, and he “blew” 12 chances — but he also had 15 wins, 208 IP and a 2.42 ERA. The six who got 1st-place votes averaged 26 saves and 13 wins. Others got CYA votes with save totals of 6, 9, 10, 12 and 13.
Since ace relievers weren’t defined by saves — nor was strategy devised to maximize both their save totals and success rates — what save chances they did get were much different than those of today, mooting any cross-era comparisons. And that’s especially true of Hiller:
They lasted longer — In half of his career blown saves (32/63), Hiller entered in the 7th inning or before, including 9 times in the 6th; just 13 of them began in the 9th or later. And when he blew the save, he usually stayed on a while. Hiller averaged 5.3 outs in saves (about the same as the top 10 in saves for the period), but 6.4 outs in blown saves (0.7 more). Last year’s MLB rates were exactly 3 outs in saves, and 2.4 outs in blown saves.
They usually began with someone on base — Hiller inherited 1 or more runners in 69% of his save chances, 2 or more runners in 43%(!) and bases full in 8%, averaging 1.2 inherited runners. Just 23% of last year’s save chances inherited any runners; they averaged 0.4 inherited runners overall, and less than 0.3 for the 20-save men.
And this I had to triple-check before I could believe it. In actual saves:
- Average inherited runners — 1.2 for Hiller / 0.26 for all saves in 2012
- 1 or more runners — 69% for Hiller, 15% for all saves in 2012
- 2 or more runners — 45% for Hiller, 9% for all saves in 2012
- Bases loaded — 8% for Hiller, 2% for all saves in 2012
- Average aLI — 2.38 for Hiller, 1.94 for all saves in 2012
- Average WPA — 0.20 for Hiller, 0.10 for all saves in 2012
Blown saves weren’t all disastrous — 29% of Hiller’s blown saves scored positive on the WPA scale, either because the situation was so stacked against him that holding the lead was unlikely to begin with, or because he pitched on after losing the lead. Last year, just 5% of blown saves scored positive WPA.
Could he have been a stud closer?
Lots of guys have one big year in saves. Jeff Brantley, Antonio Alfonseca, Derek Lowe, Jose Jimenez, Mike Williams and others had one year of 40+ saves and no more of 30+. Could Hiller have kept it up after ’73, if he’d been used that way?
I can’t see what would have stopped him. His career relief ERA was 2.76, but 2.23 in save tries; that works in any era. What does a good closer need? Cool under pressure. A strikeout pitch. No platoon weakness. Can work back-to-back days. Check, check, check, and mate.
Pressure? Few in the ’70s were better in the clutch. Among all pitchers in the decade with at least 250 IP in these situations, Hiller’s OPS ranked 10th with men in scoring position (1st among relievers), and 12th in high-leverage spots (6th among RPs).
You want strikeouts? From 1973-78, Hiller led all relievers in strikeouts, SO/9 and SO%, his SO% a whopping 81% above the AL average. Compare to Jonathan Papelbon, the whiff leader among the top closers for the last 6 years: his SO% was 71% above his leagues’ average. For the ’70s in total, Hiller’s SO/9 was 5th of 236 pitchers with 500+ innings, well ahead of Gossage and Fingers. His SO% was 62% above the AL average, his SO/9 was 3 full Ks above (8.02-5.02). Plenty of firepower, no matter how you slice it.
Platoon balance? His splits were almost identical, and both excellent — .229/.228 BA, .651/.646 OPS. Among the 63 southpaws in his contemporary group, Hiller ranked 5th in OPS vs. RHBs.
Back-to-back? Hiller didn’t do that as much as Marshall, Fingers or Campbell, partly because of his longer stints. But he did it often enough, and with better results than those “Everyday Eddies”. Out of 46 pitchers with 40+ relief games on zero rest from 1973-78, Hiller ranked 6th in ERA (2.08) and 8th in OPS (.627) in those games.
In his career, Hiller pitched on no rest 89 times, 147 innings, 146 Ks, 2.20 ERA, covering 15% of his relief innings. Modern closers get about 25% of their innings on no rest, but then, they’re usually coming off a shorter stint than Hiller was. Here’s the top 150 in no-rest innings since 1946; Hiller’s 9th in ERA.
A sampling of his short-rest feats:
- A rare case of “closer” usage: 8 saves in 8 days, no runs, stranded all 9 inherited. (1973-6-26 to 7-3) He had saves in 10 straight appearances, still a Detroit record.
- 3-inning saves on consecutive days, the second one high-leverage. (1974-4-27 to 28)
- 3 straight days, 27 batters, all high-leverage, stranded all 6 inherited. (1975-5-17 to 19)
- 3 games in 2 days, 35 batters. Faced 17 for a win, sidestepping 2-on/1-out to preserve a tie. The next day, 5 outs to close the first game of a doubleheader. Wouldn’t you know, he was needed in the nightcap, facing the tying run in the 7th and 13 batters overall for the save. (1976-7-24 to 25)
- 31 batters over 2 days. First he entered with 1 out in the 7th, a man on 2nd and a 1-run deficit. He throttled that threat, then put up 6 more zeroes, facing 23 batters in a no-decision worth 0.700 WPA. (Detroit won in the 16th.) The next day, he was summoned for a 2-inning save, facing 8 batters. (1978-5-16 to 17)
- 21 batters over 2 days. Tied in the 7th, bags juiced, 1 out? Cue the lefty! Two Ks killed that rally, and 3 more scoreless innings got him the win, escaping his own bags-full, 1-out jam in the 10th. Worked 7 batters the next day for another win. (1978-9-22 to 23)
- 4 straight days, 27 batters, 1 unearned run, stranded both inherited. (1973-9-1 to 4)
- 3 straight days, 27 batters. Faced 18 for a win, then 4 and 5 batters for saves the next 2 days. (1975-4-26 to 28)
- 3 games in 2 days, 19 batters. Faced 14 in a doubleheader, winning both (Eduardo Rodriguez lost both on walk-offs, a wild pitch and then a HR). Faced 5 batters the next day, stranding 2 inherited to hold a 1-run lead. (1976-6-1 to 2)
- 3 straight days, 16 batters, no runs, stranded all 5 inherited. The first 2 games were mega-leverage, each preserving a 1-run lead in the 8th with 2 aboard — 3rd-and-2nd with 1 out, then 2nd-and-1st with no outs. The 3rd game was, I dunno, just “getting in some work” in the season finale, nailing the last 2 outs with a man aboard in a 2-run loss. (1978-9-29 to 10-1)
- On 2 days’ rest after a 1-hit shutout, he relieved and went another 9 scoreless innings. With 1 day’s rest, he came on to strand the bases loaded with a strikeout in a 1-run game. Another rest day, then he pitched 8.1 innings, losing 2-1 on an unearned run let in by a reliever in the home 9th. All this in a late-August pennant race. (1968-8-20 to 27)
I counted 18 times that Hiller had 2+ IP on consecutive days, with several back-to-backs of 3+ innings. When’s the last time someone went 3+ two days in a row? Nobody did it last year. Thirty-four times he went 2+ IP after pitching the day before, and 10 times he went 3+.
I think he would been a terrific closer. But I’m glad he wasn’t.
* END OF PART 2 *
You deserve a medal for making it this far, even if you just skimmed. Still to come: The loneliness of the long-distance closer; how Hiller was passed over for All-Star recognition; and various odds & ends.
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