Hiller was the focus of one of baseball’s greatest feel good stories when he came back to the diamond after suffering a heart attack and stood batters on their heads in 1972. The great left-handed fireman was one of the top relief specialists of his day.
A native Canadian, Hiller spent his entire career in the Detroit Tigers organization. The southpaw made his Major League debut in 1965 but didn’t see extensive action until 1967. In ’67 – considered his rookie season – John had a 5-t0-1 strikeout to walk ratio. His breakout year came in 1968 however when he led the Tigers to a World Series championship. During the regular season, Hiller posted a 2.39 ERA. Although John struggled in the Fall Classic, his Tigers still triumphed over the St. Louis Cardinals, due in large part to the moundwork of one Mickey Lolich.
In 1970 John surrendered just 82 hits in 104 innings worked on an ERA three points above 3.00. He was ready to capitalize on a fine showing in the first year of the 1970s but then his career came to a sudden halt. Hiller suffered a heart attack and missed the entire 1971 season. Many thought that his career was over but Hiller was determined to get back on the hill. John fought his way back and won back his job in Detroit’s bullpen for the 1972 season. Enjoying a terrific comeback year, Hiller had a tidy 2.03 ERA in 44 innings.
Two years removed from a heart attack, Hiller had a monster year in 1973 when he led the American League in saves (38) and games pitched (65). He finished fourth in both the Cy Young and MVP Award voting that year, posting a minuscule 1.44 ERA. He coughed up just 89 hits in over 125 innings of work, nearly averaging a strikeout per inning.
His 1974 season was an anomaly. Still coming out of the pen, Hiller paced Detroit with 17 wins: most relief pitchers don’t register too many decisions but John was in the middle of a great number of decisions during the ’74 campaign. John also topped Tiger moundsmen with 13 saves and a 2.64 ERA. He overpowered batters all year in 1975, fanning 87 batters in just 71 innings while fashioning a 2.17 ERA.
John had 12 wins with a 2.38 ERA in 1976, saving 13 games with 117 strikeouts in 121 innings. He was at his overpowering best in ’76 when he averaged a stingy 0.77 hits per inning. Hall of Famers Dennis Eckerlsey (0.78) and Rollie Fingers (0.87) were easier to get wood on than Mr. Hiller. Even harder to hit in 1978, John gave up an average of just 0.69 hits an inning. He spent two more years with Detroit, ending his career during the 1980 season as one of the greatest left-handed firemen of all-time.
W 87/L 76/PCT .534/SV 125/G 545/IP 1,242/H 1,040/BB 535/SO 1,036/ERA 2.83