Rank this reliever
(I’ve been at this one a while, and it’s just too long — so here’s Part 1.)
One name has been removed from these tables of relief WAR leaders. Most of you will twig it quickly, but let me be coy for now. Where would you rank this guy among the best relievers of all time? (All WAR figures are from Baseball-Reference, unless specified.)
Relievers – Career WAR leaders
(Min. 80% of games in relief to qualify;*
Hall of Famers in bold italics)
|4||? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?||29.6||1242.0||2.4|
* See the wisdom of the “80% of games” standard: All on this list had at least 65% of their innings in relief, and all but Miller had at least 78%. Even a slightly lower threshold would admit some pitchers to this leaderboard whose innings as starters comprised more than half their career total.
Mystery man doesn’t just benefit from bulk innings. His WAR/100 IP also ranks 4th among this group (above all four Hall of Famers), and 16th among the top 200 relievers in total WAR. Only Mariano can match or beat him on both counts.
Relievers – Best 3-year WAR
(90% of games in relief during the span;*
for each player, only the top value among overlapping spans is listed)
|2||? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?||14.8||????-??||4.3|
* I raised the line from 80% to 90% for this list and the next, to keep the focus on relief work. The 80% line lets in those like Derek Lowe 2000-02, John Smoltz 2003-05 and others who actually had most of their innings as starters and got significant WAR from that role. I made an exception for Gossage, a starter in ’76 sandwiched between two fantastic relief years that by themselves totaled 14.0 WAR. His stats shown are for those years only. There is no other pitcher similarly situated.
Relievers – Best 6-year WAR
(same rules as above)
|2||? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?||23.3||683.1||161||58||48||100||????-??||3.4|
In these short-span tables, too, it’s more than just innings that lift our mystery man. His WAR/100 IP ranks 4th of 8, and 3rd of 5.
(By the way, his 4-year total of 18.7 WAR is the best ever by a reliever, but I didn’t want to stack the deck too much.)
Out of curiosity, I made a primitive stab at defining “very good” relief seasons. Since 1961, if we rank by WAR all relief seasons of 60+ innings, the 90th percentile falls at 2.6 WAR. So … The most relief seasons worth at least 2.6 WAR belong to:
- Rivera, 12 seasons
- Wilhelm, 8 seasons
- Gossage and ?????, 6 seasons
His career ERA+ of 134 in 1,242 innings is 23rd among all modern pitchers with 1,000 IP. Among relievers, only Wilhelm and Franco topped him on both counts. (And Franco took 20 years of regular work to get there; our man got his in 13.)
So, where would you rank him? Top 10? Top 5?
He retired holding the season saves record. Yet he never pitched in an All-Star game, and got 2.6% of the Hall of Fame vote in his one year on the ballot.
This year is the 40th anniversary of John Hiller‘s record-setting season. He’ll turn 70 in April.
Leaving the Hall out of this
This essay is an appreciation, not a Hall of Fame argument. I do rate Hiller above 2 of the 4 current HOF relievers, but I see that more as a knock on those elections than as a “me-too” case for Hiller.
I’ll say just this about the Hall and let it go: I would be happy if it included only Wilhelm, Gossage and (eventually) Mariano. But I think Hoffman’s getting in, and maybe Lee Smith (he’s been around 50% of the vote lately), perhaps even Billy Wagner. I think Hiller has a better case than all but Rivera, Wilhelm and the Goose, and the Hall of Stats agrees. But I’d be happy just to see his work remembered a little better than it seems to be.
(For the record, Fangraphs takes a dimmer view of Hiller. I don’t get it. Given Hiller’s raw data for 1973-78 combined — a huge K rate, a good HR rate, a suspect defense, and an actual 2.45 ERA in a park that favored hitters — I don’t see how they peg his FIP at 3.02 for that span.)
Beyond the Saves record
If you know just one thing about John Hiller on the diamond, it’s his brilliant 1973 season — 38 Saves, a record that stood for 10 years; 4th place in the Cy Young Award and MVP votes. But there are better measures of that magical year:
- 1.44 ERA, in 125 innings — Best ERA since 1918 by an ALer with 100+ IP.
- One unearned run. RA/9 ranks 5th all-time with 100+ IP. In the live-ball era, only Gibson ’68 was better.
- 283 ERA+ ranks 5th all-time for 100+ IP. Since 1881, only Pedro has topped Hiller in both IP and ERA+. (That’s 1881.)
- Stranded 71 of 84 inherited runners (85%) — Best strand rate ever with 25+ saves and 50+ IR (out of 77 such years). Since Hiller, only Dan Quisenberry had 30+ saves and 80+ IR; no 30-save man since ’89 had even 50 inherited runners.
- Win Probability Added ranks #2 all-time by a reliever, edged by Willie Hernandez in his ’84 CYA/MVP season. No RP has reached 6.6 WPA since Hernandez. (The “perfect” years by Lidge and Valverde notched 5.3 and 4.1 WPA, and K-Rod’s 62-save record tallied 3.5 WPA. Modern saves just don’t tingle the WPA meter.)
- 7.9 WAR ranks #2 all-time by a reliever, edged by Gossage in ’75. Just 5 other reliever years reached 6 WAR; none since ’86 have reached 5 WAR.
That would be Hiller’s lone year with more than 15 saves, but not his only great season or notable feat:
- His 15.4 WAR over the next 5 years has been topped by just 8 relievers in any 5-year span (<40 starts).
- 17 wins in ’74 — #2 all-time in relief (and tied but once).
- His 1975 K rate — 11.1 SO/9 in 71 innings — was through 1983 the 2nd-highest ever for 50+ IP, and 124% above the league average. (By comparison, Craig Kimbrel’s insane 2012 rate of 16.7 SO/9, the highest ever for 50+ IP, was 117% above the league average.)
- In 1967, Hiller threw shutouts in his first 2 career starts, and fell 3 outs shy of a 3rd straight. He finished with 6 shutouts in 43 career starts, the highest career rate of any post-war pitcher with at least 5 shutouts. (Just one of his shutouts came in 1968.)
One of my favorite Hiller feats came in a blown save on July 11, 1976. He entered in the 7th with a man aboard, but let in the tying runs. So he pitched on, through the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th … In the 12th, a walk to his 20th batter filled the bags, with no outs and righty Hal McRae coming up, batting .347. Hiller stayed in the game — and escaped on a couple of grounders. Detroit scored in their half to win. He earned 0.333 WPA, twice that year’s median for converted saves. The 5.1-IP stint didn’t seem to hurt him; from there through year’s end, Hiller tossed 61 innings with a 1.48 ERA.
Hiller had a dozen relief games worth at least 0.500 WPA, 3rd most in the expansion era. No one in the last 20 years has more than 4 such games; there were 6 in the majors last year, by 6 different pitchers. No one’s had 2 in a season since 2004.
In 1973 and again in ’74, Hiller logged 5 straight relief games worth at least 0.150 WPA — the longest such streaks in those years, matched once each by 2 others. It’s been equaled once in the last 6 years. In the 10 games, Hiller had 9 saves and a win, allowing 1 run on 6 hits in 21 IP, stranding all 12 inherited runners. In all 9 saves, he entered with the tying run on base or at bat; he came in before the 9th in all but one.
*END OF PART 1*
Thanks for making it this far! When we return — if you’re still with us — we’ll trace the secret source of Hiller’s hefty WAR during his prime years, and sketch the differences between Firemen and Closers.
Subscribe to: RSS feed