Willie Hernández dies at 69: Former Tigers closer won MVP, Cy Young and World Series in 1984

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MLB relief pitcher Willie Hernández has died at the age of 69, the Tigers announced Tuesday. Hernández, a left-hander, was signed from 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 1976 Rule 5 draft. He was a reliever for the Cubs for seven seasons with varying success, including an excellent rookie year in 1977 where he had a 3.03 ERA. in 110 innings of work, good for 3.2 WAR.

During the 1983 season, Hernández was traded to the Phillies, then the following offseason he was shipped to the Tigers in a four-player trade. It would ultimately be the deal that paved the way for the best season of Hernández’s career, as well as his development as a screwball and cutter.

Those 1984 Tigers started the season 35-5, won 104 games in the regular season, then went 7-1 in the postseason en route to a World Series title. Hernández saved three games in these playoffs and was outstanding, continuing a forgettable year.

During that regular season, Hernández played 80 games out of the bullpen, going 9-3 with 32 saves in 33 opportunities. He had a 1.92 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 112 strikeouts against just 28 walks in 140 1/3 innings. The 4.8 WAR is one of the 25 highest marks ever achieved by a reliever. Not only did Hernández make his first All-Star Game, but he also won by AL Cy Young and AL MVP.

Hernández is one of 11 pitchers in history to win both the MVP and Cy Young awards in the same season. Here is the list :

  • Don Newcombe, 1956
  • Sandy Koufax, 1963
  • Bob Gibson, 1968
  • Denny McLain, 1968
  • Vida Blue, 1971
  • Rollie Fingers, 1981
  • Willie Hernandez, 1984
  • Roger Clémens, 1986
  • Dennis Eckersley, 1992
  • Justin Verlander, 2011
  • Clayton Kershaw, 2014

Hernández’s lasting memory in the baseball world will be that glorious 1984 season. It ended, fittingly, with the World Series closing with a two-inning save.

Hernández underwent 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 died by putting a pacemaker in my heart and I wake up later. Because God has my heart, so no one is going to disturb my heart. No one is going to touch my heart.”

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