Willie Hernández

Guillermo Hernández Villanueva (born November 14, 1954) is a Puerto Rican former baseball relief pitcher. He won both the American League Cy Young Award and the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1984 after leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series championship.

Willie Hernández
Hernández in 1976 with Oklahoma City
Born: (1954-11-14) November 14, 1954
Aguada, Puerto Rico
Batted: Left
Threw: Left
MLB debut
April 9, 1977, for the Chicago Cubs
Last MLB appearance
August 18, 1989, for the Detroit Tigers
MLB statistics
Win–loss record70–63
Earned run average3.38
Career highlights and awards

Hernández was born and raised in Aguada, Puerto Rico. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973 and played in their minor-league system as a starting pitcher from 1974 to 1976. He was acquired by the Chicago Cubs in the 1976 Rule 5 Draft and played for the Cubs, principally as a relief pitcher, from 1977 to 1983. His performance improved markedly after adding a screwball and cut fastball to his pitching repertoire. He was traded to the Phillies in May 1983, helped lead them to the National League pennant, and appeared in three games in the 1983 World Series, giving up zero hits and zero runs in three games.

In March 1984, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers. As the Tigers' closer in 1984, he compiled a 9–3 win–loss record with 32 saves and a 1.92 earned run average (ERA). He helped lead the Tigers to the 1984 World Series championship and became only the third player in major-league history (following Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain) to win the Cy Young Award, MVP Award, and World Series title, all in the same season.

Hernández continued to pitch for the Tigers through the 1989 season. In 13 major-league seasons, he appeared in 744 games, 733 as a relief pitcher and 11 as a starter, and compiled a win–loss record of 70–63 with a 3.38 ERA, 788 strikeouts, and 147 saves. After his playing career ended, he returned to Puerto Rico where he operated a construction business and later owned a cattle ranch.

Early years

Hernández was born in 1954 in Aguada, Puerto Rico.[1] He was seventh of eight children born to Dinicio, a worker in a sugar cane factory, and Dominga, a housekeeper.[2] Hernández described them as "a poor, but happy family."[3] He began playing baseball as a third baseman and outfielder. As a teenager, his manager asked him to pitch when one of the team's pitchers got suspended and another got hurt. Hernández threw a seven-inning shutout.[3] Hernández recalled in 1984 that he thereafter developed a 100-mile-per-hour fastball and an 85-mile-per-hour breaking ball, played with the Puerto Rico national team, and won a game against the United States team – the first time the Puerto Rico team had beaten the United States.[3] He also played for a time with the Tiburones de Aguadilla.[2]

Professional baseball

Minor leagues

Hernández signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1973. He spent three years in the Phillies' minor-league system where he was used principally as a starting pitcher. In 1974, he played for the Phillies' Single-A Spartanburg team in the Western Carolinas League. He appeared in 16 games, all as a starter, and compiled an 11–11 win–loss record with a 2.75 earned run average (ERA) and 13 complete games. He also struck out 179 batters in 190 innings pitched.[4]

He was promoted in 1975 to the Double-A Reading Phillies of the Eastern League. Continuing as a starter, he compiled an 8–2 record with a 2.97 ERA. Halfway through the 1975 season, he was promoted again to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. He compiled a 6–4 record with a 3.27 ERA at Toledo.[4]

In 1976, he continued as a starting pitcher for the Triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers of the American Association. He appeared in 25 games (23 as a starter) and compiled an 8–9 record with a 4.53 ERA and 88 strikeouts.[4]

Chicago Cubs

Hernández was selected by the Chicago Cubs from the Phillies in the 1976 Rule 5 Draft. The Cubs converted him into a relief pitcher. He made his major-league debut with the Cubs on April 9, 1977, giving up one hit and no runs in 2+13 innings. During his rookie season, he appeared in 67 games (110 innings pitched), all but one as a relief pitcher. He compiled an 8–7 win-loss record with a 3.03 ERA and 78 strikeouts.[1] Hernández made the minimum $19,000 salary when he joined the Cubs.[3]

In 1978, he appeared in 54 games (59+23 innings pitched), all as a relief pitcher. He compiled an 8–2 record with a 3.77 ERA and 38 strikeouts.[1] His ERA jumped to 5.01 in 1979, as he appeared in 51 games, including two games as a starter, and compiled a 4–4 record with zero saves.[1] He played in the shadow of Chicago closer Bruce Sutter during these years.[3]

In 1980, Hernández started seven games but was still used principally as a reliever in 46 games. He compiled a 1–9 record with a 4.40 ERA and 75 strikeouts.[1] In 1981, Hernández pitched only 13+23 innings with no wins, no losses, and a 3.95 ERA.[1] The Chicago Tribune described him in these early years as, "The Willie Hernandez the Cubs fans love to boo."[5] Hernández recalled that that the lack of playing time caused him to lose rhythm, adding: "I was struggling. My attitude was bad."[3]

In 1982, Hernández emerged as the Cubs' best relief pitcher. At one point, he went a month without giving up a run.[6] He appeared in 75 games (and an equal 75 innings), a career high to that point in his career. He was used exclusively in relief, lowered his ERA to 3.00 and tallied 54 strikeouts and 10 saves, the latter being another career high to that point.[1] Fellow relief pitcher Bill Campbell called him "one of the most professional men I've been around" and someone who gives 150% and who "you'll never get an excuse from."[6]

The Chicago Tribune wrote that Hernández came into the 1982 season with "a new personality: confident, aggressive, eager."[5] Hernández gave partial credit to advice he received from Juan Pizarro while pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League during the off-season. Pizzarro advised Hernández that he was "taking too much time thinking between pitches" and encouraged him instead to "do your thinking while you're in the bullpen, not in the game."[5] Hernández, who was then making between $90,000 and $100,000, also pointed to his desire to make "big money" and provide for his wife and children: "I m here to help the ballclub win games and to get a pay raise. I came into the world poor and naked. But I don't want to die with no clothes on."[5]

Hernández began the 1983 season with Chicago, appearing in 11 games, including one start, with a 3.20 ERA. He struck out 18 batters in 19-2/3 inning pitched.[1]

Philadelphia Phillies

On May 22, 1983, the Cubs traded Hernández to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for pitchers Bill Johnson and Dick Ruthven.[7] At the time of the trade, Hernández said: "I'm really excited about coming to a contender like the Phillies, and I'm raring to go. Physically, I feel great, and I'm ready for whatever the Phillies want me to do."[8]

Hernández appeared in 63 games for the Phillies and compiled an 8–4 record with 3.29 ERA and seven saves.[1] On July 3, he entered a game against the New York Mets in the eighth inning and tied the National League record by striking out six consecutive batters.[9] He was used principally as a setup man for Phillies closer Al Holland.[10]

Hernández also performed well at the plate in 1983. He compiled a .400 batting average, scored two runs, stole a base, and tallied a run batted in.[1] Interviewed late in the season when he was batting .462, he said, "I'm not gonna say I'm a good hitter, but I make contact. I swing the bat. I'm not gonna take three pitches out there."[11]

The Phillies compiled a 90–72 record, defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League pennant, and lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1983 World Series. Hernández appeared in three games during the World Series, compiling a 0.00 ERA and striking out four batters in four hitless innings pitched.[1] In a frightening moment during the World Series, one of Hernández's pitches hit Baltimore's Dan Ford in the batting helmet in Game Two, causing Ford to fall and remain on the ground for several minutes. It was the first time Hernández had ever hit anybody in the head, and he gave Ford a thumbs-up sign when he got up, to let him know, "I didn't mean anything by it. I'm not that kind of pitcher."[12]

Cy Young and MVP in 1984

On March 24, 1984, Hernández was traded to the Detroit Tigers with Dave Bergman for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss.[13] Upon arriving at the Tigers' spring training facility, Hernández expressed eagerness to help the team in any way he could: "If they want me to come in from the bullpen, I'll do it. If they want me to start, I'll do it. If they want me to DH or steal bases, I'm happy to do it. . . . I'm a winner. I want to play ball in October."[14]

During the 1984 season, Hernández led the American League's pitchers by appearing in 80 games and tallying 68 games finished – both figures establishing new team records for the Tigers.[1][15] After tallying only 27 saves in the previous seven seasons combined, he ranked third in the league with 32 saves. He also compiled a 9–3 record and a 1.92 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 140 innings pitched.[1]

By late August, he had entered 39 games with a lead and had successfully protected the lead all 39 times.[3] He had 32 saves in 32 save opportunities through late September. It was not until September 27 that he failed to capitalize on a save opportunity, allowing a run-scoring sacrifice fly against the New York Yankees.[16] Bill McGraw of the Detroit Free Press described Hernández as "truly the missing link, the key element the Tigers needed to nudge an already good ball club over the thin line separating parvenu from pennant contender."[3] Sports Illustrated credited him with the Tigers' success: "Hernandez has changed the Tigers from a talented team that lost the close ones to a talented team that now steps on an opponent's neck once it gets ahead."[2]

The Tigers finished the season with a 104–58 record, swept the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, and defeated the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series, four games to one. Hernandez pitched five innings in the series, had two saves, and gave up only one run.[1]

After the season Hernández received the following honors:

He was the fourth player in the American League (and the seventh overall) to win the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season. Among that group, only Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain also won a World Series in the same year that they won the Cy Young and MVP awards.[20]

Screwball and cutter

Many credited the screwball for the turn-around in Hernández's career. Hernández learned the screwball from Mike Cuellar during the off-season in Puerto Rico prior to the 1983 season.[21] Gary Gillette, in his biography of Hernández for the Society for American Baseball Research, wrote that his development of a cutter pitch (or "cut fastball") was the real key to Hernández's success. The cutter looked like a fastball on the inside part of the plate as it approached the plate but then cut in toward the batter's hands, causing right-handed batters to hit weak popups or grounders.[21] Sports Illustrated noted that the contrast between the cutter and the screwball "set up righthanded batters to be jammed (cut fastball) or pitched away (scroogie)."[2]

1985 to 1989 seasons

In January 1985, Hernández signed a four-year contract extension with the Tigers. The extension ran through the 1989 season.[22] The four-year extension was worth an estimated $4.65 million and made Hernández the highest paid player in team history.[23]

In 1985, Hernández appeared in 70 games and tallied 31 saves with a 2.70 ERA. He was selected to the All-Star team for the second consecutive season and compiled an 8–10 record.[1]

In 1986, he appeared in 64 games and was selected to the All-Star team for the third consecutive year. His ERA jumped to 3.55 and he compiled an 8–7 record with 24 saves in 88+23 innings pitched. He compiled a 3–4 record in 1987 with a 3.67 ERA with eight saves in 49 innings pitched.[1]

As Hernández's performance declined, Detroit fans and sports writers were critical of the highly-paid pitcher. After a poor outing in the playoffs in 1987, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote a column titled, "Familiar nightmare: Hernandez on mound," in which he wrote that "Hernandez in crucial situations lately has been about effective for the Tigers as pulling down their pants."[24] The following March, Hernández dumped a bucket of ice water on Albom at spring training in Florida. Albom complained to Tigers' executives who declined to take disciplinary action against Hernández.[25]

One month after dumping ice water on Albom, Hernández asked that the stadium's public address system introduce him by his given name "Guillermo" rather than "Willie" as he had been introduced for the previous four years. The first announcement of his appearance as "Guillermo" led to a "puzzled reaction" from the Tiger Stadium crowd. Questioned about the change after the game, Hernández responded: "I use it because it's my name. What's wrong with using my real name?"[26] He compiled a 6–5 record in 1988 with a 3.06 ERA and 10 saves in 67 innings pitched.[1]

In the spring of 1989, Hernández pitched well and, after a rocky relationship in which he had asked to be traded, expressed a desire to remain in Detroit for the remainder of his career.[27] However, Hernández remained unpopular with fans who booed him on opening day.[28] In the final year of his contract with the Tigers, elbow soreness sidelined Hernández for a portion of the season.[29] He appeared in 32 games, pitched 31+13 innings, and compiled a 2–2 record with a career-high 5.74 ERA. At age 34, Hernández appeared in his last major-league game on August 18, 1989, giving up two earned runs in one inning.[1]

Comeback attempts

Hernández attempted multiple comebacks.

In the spring of 1990, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow, he attended spring training with the Oakland A’s.[30] His tryout was cut short in March due to a sore elbow, but he was then tried out again in May.[31]

He played briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies as an unsigned non-roster invitee during spring training in 1991.[32][33] The Phillies released Hernández in early April.[34] He then played with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs of the Toronto Blue Jays organization.[35]

Four years later, during the 1994–95 Major League Baseball strike, he attempted a comeback with the New York Yankees. He said at the time that the comeback was not about money but because of his love of baseball, adding, “My spirit said I hadn’t finished my career yet. I wanted to have more years in my career.”[36]

Career statistics

Hernández played 13 seasons in Major League Baseball. He appeared in 744 games, 733 as a relief pitcher and 11 as a starter. He compiled a record of 70–63 with a 3.38 ERA, 788 strikeouts, and 147 saves in 1,044-23 inning pitched. At the plate, he posted a .206 batting average (13-for-63) with three runs batted in. Defensively, he was better than average, committing only four errors in 231 total chances in 1044.2 innings pitched for a good .983 fielding percentage.[1]

He appeared in 10 postseason games (13+23 inning pitched) and compiled a postseason ERA of 1.32 with seven strikeouts.[1]

Later years and family

After his playing career ended, Hernández owned and operated a steel construction business in Puerto Rico.[37] He later sold his construction business and operated a cattle ranch.[21][38]

Hernández married Carmen Rivera in 1978. They had two sons together, Guillermo born in approximately 1981 and Xavier born in approximately 1982.[21][37]

Hernández’s health declined in later years. He developed asthma and diabetes and had multiple strokes. He also had heart surgery in 2009.[39][21]

On April 4, 2019, Hernández returned to Detroit to throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Tigers 2019 home opener.[40]

See also


  1. "Willie Hernández". Basebal-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  2. Jaime Diaz (September 10, 1984). "He's Giving Batters the Willies: Willie Hernandez Could Scowl His Way to the MVP Award". Sports Illustrated.
  3. Bill McGraw (August 26, 1984). "Hernandez comes to rescue when Tigers need him most". Detroit Free Press. pp. 1D, 7D via Newspapers.com.
  4. "Willie Hernandez Minor League Statistics". Baseball-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved August 20, 2022.
  5. "Cubs' Hernandez now speed-thinker". Chicago Tribune. May 23, 1982. p. IV-3 via Newspapers.com.
  6. "Is relief in sight?". Chicago Tribune. June 27, 1982. p. IV-3 via Newspapers.com.
  7. Robert Markus (May 23, 1983). "Hernandez goes to Phils for Ruthven". Chicago Tribune. p. IV-1.
  8. Peter Pascarelli (May 23, 1983). "Phils trade Ruthven and Monge: Obtain Hernandez from Padres". The Philadelphia Inquirer. pp. 1C, 7C via Newspapers.com.
  9. "Schmidt shot propels Phils by Mets, 6–4". The Des Moines Register. July 4, 1983. p. 2S via Newspapers.com.
  10. Mark Whicker (September 22, 1983). "Hernandez Adds to Team Effort". Philadelphia Daily News. p. 95 via Newspapers.com.
  11. Jayson Stark (September 10, 1983). "Hernandez, batting a mere .462, is doing it all". The Philadelphia Inquirer. p. 7D via Newspapers.com.
  12. "After beaning, Ford worried about his career". The Miami News. October 13, 1983. p. 6B via Newspapers.com.
  13. Bill McGraw (March 25, 1984). "Wilson, Wockenfuss traded; Tigers get Phils' Hernandez, Bergman in 2-for-2 swap". Detroit Free Press. p. 1D via Newspapers.com.
  14. Bill McGraw (March 26, 1984). "Hernandez finds home with Tigers". Detroit Free Press. pp. 1D, 5D via Newspapers.com.
  15. "Unemployment made Hernandez pace like a Tiger". Detroit Free Press. September 7, 1984. p. 5D via Newspapers.com.
  16. Bill McGraw (September 29, 1984). "Tigers win No. 103 on Whitaker homer". Detroit Free Press. p. 1D via Newspapers.com.
  17. "Willie's the top Tiger". Detroit Free Press. October 27, 1984. p. 1D via Newspapers.com.
  18. Harry Atkins (October 31, 1984). "Hernandez is a 'Cy' of relief". Lansing State Journal. Associated Press. p. 1C via Newspapers.com.
  19. Joe Lapointe (November 7, 1984). "Hernandez named MVP". Detroit Free Press. pp. 1D, 4D via Newspapers.com.
  20. "A sweep for Tigers' ace". The Napa Valley Register. UPI. November 7, 1984. p. 10 via Newspapers.com.
  21. Gary Gillette. "Willie Hernandez". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved August 19, 2022.
  22. Joe Lapointe (January 19, 1985). "Hernandez a Tiger till 89". Detroit Free Press. p. 1D via Newspapers.com.
  23. "New Hernandez Pact Worth $4.65 Million". The Herald-Palladium. Associated Press. January 19, 1985. p. 15 via Newspapers.com.
  24. Mitch Albom (October 8, 1987). "Twins foil Doyle, Willie; Familiar nightmare: Hernandez on mound". Detroit Free Press. p. 1D via Newspapers.com.
  25. "Writer and Willie are a washout". Lansing State Journal. Associated Press. March 3, 1988. p. 1.
  26. John Lowe (April 22, 1988). "Will fans boo or cheer Guillermo Hernandez?". The Port Huron Times Herald. p. B1 via Newspapers.com.
  27. Gene Guidi (March 26, 1989). "Hernandez wants to finish his career with Tigers". Detroit Free Press. p. 1F via Newspapers.com.
  28. Joe Lapointe (April 8, 1989). "It's not new; Hernandez now used to the fans' boos". Detroit Free Press. p. 8C.
  29. John Lowe (August 29, 1989). "Hernandez (elbow) might be done for '89". Detroit Free Press. p. 4D via Newspapers.com.
  30. "Athletics". Oakland Tribune. February 25, 1990 via Newspapers.com.
  31. "A's give Hernandez another chance". Oakland Tribune. May 30, 1990. p. E2 via Newspapers.com.
  32. Bob Brookover (February 25, 1971). "Hernandez bring new competition and name to camp". Courier-Post. p. 2C via Newspapers.com.
  33. "Willie Hernandez starts on his comeback". Daily Record. March 10, 1991. p. B8 via Newspapers.com.
  34. Ralph Bernstein (April 6, 1991). "Phils tab McElroy as stopper". Citizen’ Voice. p. 54 via Newspapers.com.
  35. "Jays Sign Hernandez". Alberni valley Times. May 3, 1991. p. 7A via Newspapers.com.
  36. "Hernandez joins Yankees". Argus-Leader. March 7, 1995. p. C1 via Newspapers.com.
  37. Jerry Green (April 28, 1996). "Ex-Tiger Hernandez pitching baseball to sons". Detroit Free Press. p. 2E via Newspapers.com.
  38. "'84 Tigers: Where Are They Now?". Detroit Free Press. August 13, 2006. p. 7D via Newspapers.com.
  39. Schoch, Matt. "Willie Hernandez survived health scares, proud of Tigers Opening Day 'honor'". The Detroit News. Retrieved September 4, 2022.
  40. "First pitch & national anthem". Detroit Free Press. April 4, 2019. p. 7C via Newspapers.com.
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