On top of the baseball world in 1984, “Willie” Hernandez won both the Cy Young Award and MVP Award when he led the Tigers to a World Championship. The southpaw screwball artist was an elite fireman for Detroit but arm woes ended his career before he was 35 years old.
Originally signed by the Phillies in 1973, Hernandez was plucked by the Cubs in the 1976 Rule V Draft. Willie flourished with the Cubs as a rookie in 1977 when he appeared in 67 games and posted a 3.03 ERA as Bruce Sutter’s primary setupman. Like many Rule V picks, Willie took a step back his second season when his accuracy went south. Even worse in 1979, his ERA swelled to 5.01 and the southpaw looked the perfect fit for a one-year wonder.
After going 1-9 in 1980, Willie only pitched in twelve games for the Cubs in 1981. Early in the ’83 season, the Cubs traded Willie back to the Phillies for Dick Ruthven. With the Phillies, Willie started to show signs of his old self again but the Phillies foolishly dealt him and Dave Bergman to the Tigers for the 1984 season and they led Detroit to the World Series.
At his best in 1984, Willie led the AL in games pitched and finished while nailing down 32 saves for Sparky Anderson’s charges. He fashioned a terrific 1.92 ERA with his amazing screwball that netted him both the Cy Young Award and MVP Award. In that season’s World Series, Willie saved a pair of victories as Detroit made short work of the San Diego Padres.
Hernandez followed up his MVP/Cy Young season by tallying 31 saves for Detroit in 1985. Accuracy, which had been a problem for Willie early on, was no longer giving the Puerto Rican Carl Hubbell anymore fits, as he walked just 14 batters in 107 innings of work. In 1986, Willie put the finishing touches on games for 24 saves but the ’87 season was one plagued by injury. Willie only managed eight saves while he saw time on the shelf.
When Willie came back in 1988 he was no longer the primary closer as Mike Henneman had taken over the role. Relegated to setup duty, Willie still managed ten saves and had his last good season with a 3.06 ERA and just 50 hits allowed in 68 innings. In 1989, Willie’s elbow finally gave out and he was forced to hang up the spikes and shelve his nasty screwball once and for all.
W 70/L 63/PCT .526/ERA 3.38/G 744/SV 147/IP 1,045/H 952/BB 349/SO 788