Sept. 18, 1984: Tigers Clinch American League East Title

On this date in 1984, the Tigers clinched the American League East title, beating the Brewers 3-0.

Randy O’Neal pitched seven shutout innings, allowing four hits, one walk and striking out six. As he often did, Willie Hernandez earned a two-inning save, his 30th of the year.

Tom Brookens hit a solo homer off Brewers’ starter Bob McClure. Lance Parrish drove in Detroit’s other two runs.

If you want to take a deep dive into the ’84 club, pickup a copy of Detroit Tigers 1984: What a Start! What a Finish! from Amazon.com. (Disclosure: I wrote the bios of Rusty Kuntz, Johnny Grubb, Chet Lemon and Carl Willis that appear in the book.)

Valverde Another in Long Line of Infuriating Tigers Closers

I’m sick of hearing about Jose Valverde‘s 49-for-49 save streak last season. We all know how that was constructed: with far too many saves that looked like Saturday afternoon’s harrowing win against the Royals.

A lot has been written about Valverde’s intensity being dialed down a notch – or, apparently, disconnected altogether – when he’s in non-save situations. After the Tigers escaped with an 8-7 victory which should’ve been an 8-4 W, Valverde told reporters, “I wasn’t throwing my fastball for strikes. I don’t know what’s going on.”

[callout title=WHIP Posted by Recent Tigers Closers]
2001: Matt Anderson. 1.32 WHIP, 22 saves

2002: Juan Acevedo. 1.22 WHIP, 28 saves

2004: Ugueth Urbina. 1.29 WHIP, 21 saves

2005: Fernando Rodney. 1.27 WHIP, 9 saves

2009 Rodney. 1.46 WHIP, 37 saves

2010 Valverde. 1.16 WHIP, 26 saves

2011 Valverde. 1.18 WHIP, 49 saves

And in case you were wondering, Todd Jones posted his best WHIP (1.26) in his eight seasons with the Tigers in 2006. And for his part, Valverde amassed his best WHIP (1.16) in 2010, his first in Detroit.[/callout]
Whatever the man’s excuse, it got me thinking again about how the Tigers, unlike other A.L. Central clubs, haven’t had a lights-out closer in the same realm as Joe Nathan and, for a shorter but no less irritating stretch, Bobby Jenks.

Nathan has owned the Tigers since 2004 when he came to the Twins from the Giants. In 59 games against Detroit, Nathan is 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA and 35 saves in 59 appearances; plus, he has 74 strikeouts in 60.2 IP and a 0.907 WHIP. (He’s saved more games against one other club, 37 versus the Royals in just an inning less.) In his A.L. career, including his time with the Rangers this year, his WHIP is 0.952, not to mention a 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Now, on to Jenks. The Tigers mustered a bit more offense against him from 2005-10: 2-1, 2.68 ERA, 22 saves in 39 appearances; 44 strikeouts in 40.1 IP and a 1.091 WHIP. No, he wasn’t automatic, but darn close.

So I decided to look up Tigers closers with the best – or most Nathanesque – WHIP over the past 40 years, trying to find somebody – anybody – who came close to scaring opposing hitters late in the game.

Here’s what I found on Baseball-Reference.com: only two Detroit closers finished with a WHIP under 1.0 since 1972:

  • 1981: Kevin Saucier. 0.959 WHIP – 13 saves, 49 IP, 23 K
  • 1984: Willie Hernandez. 0.941 WHIP – 32 saves, 140.1 IP, 112 K
  • 1985: Hernandez. 0.90 WHIP – 31 saves, 106.2 IP, 76 K

That’s it for the shutdown closers.* Of course, Tigers relievers have posted stellar if not Nathan-
like performances in the past 40 seasons. Here are a few notable examples:

  • 1973: John Hiller. 1.021 WHIP, 38 saves, 125.1 IP, 124 K
  • 1977: Steve Foucault. 1.090 WHIP, 13 saves, 74.1 IP, 58 K
  • 1978: Hiller. 1.072 WHIP, 15 saves, 92.1 IP, 74 K
  • 1988: Mike Henneman. 1.05 WHIP, 22 saves, 91.1 IP, 58 K, 1.05 WHIP

*In the case of Hiller and Foucault, those were the days when closers routinely pitched two or three innings (sometimes more), so it’s clearly not apples-to-apples with today’s one-inning specialists.

All this is to say, outside of Hernandez in 1984 and ’85 and Hiller in 1973, the Tigers have not had an automatic guy in the ninth inning.

I think it’s safe to say we expected Joel Zumaya to be in the Joe Nathan/Mariano Rivera galaxy by this point of his career. Now we’ll have to wait and see if Bruce Rondon is the hammer we’ve been wait for.

In the meantime we’ll have ride the ninth-inning rapids with Valverde and hope that near-disasters like Saturday’s are the exception, not the rule.

Yeah right.

The Non-Sequiturs: Trick or Treat Edition

pumpkin.jpgEach October, I’m astounded to learn that Halloween is the second-largest retail holiday of the year. I’m not a fan of Halloween, though I do like the occasional, or frequent, Kit Kat.

It’s a treat to be able to watch the World Series on Halloween, though the Aubrey Huff and Edgar Renteria sightings are undoubtedly the “trick” part of the equation.

  • In our highest vote-gettin’ poll of the season, Fungo readers were emphatic on what the Tigers’ next offseason move should be: target Nationals’ slugger and free-agent-to-be Adam Dunn.

    Twenty-four percent (148 voters) of the 628 readers casting votes selected Dunn as their top choice. Here are the runners up:

    • Sign Jason Werth (16%, 103 Votes)
    • Sign Victor Martinez (15%, 97 Votes)
    • Trade for a starting pitcher (14%, 88 Votes)
    • Pickup Jhonny Peralta’s option (14%, 88 Votes)
    • Sign Magglio Ordonez (12%, 73 Votes)
    • Other (5%, 31 Votes)

    Thanks to everyone who voted and a special thanks for those that left comments. It was a great discussion. Keep those comments rolling in.

    Continue reading “The Non-Sequiturs: Trick or Treat Edition”

October Surprise Part 3: Game 2 Skips Away

As the Tigers and Twins square off for the biggest series of the year with the division title hanging in the balance, we continue our look back on the last great race in Tigers history: 1987 and the seven games against the Toronto Blue Jays. Today: Game 2.

Part 1October Surprise: Tigers and Jays Battle for ’87 Division Title
Part 2Showdown in Toronto, Game 1


American League East Standings

September 25, 1987

Team Record Pct. GB
Toronto 94-59 .614 –
Detroit 92-60 .605 1.5

Tigers left hander Frank Tanana had been in one divisional race in his 14-year career: in 1979 when he helped the California Angels win their first American League West title. In 1987, Tanana approached the twilight of his career but Toronto starter Jimmy Key’s best days were just dawning. Key had won 14 games in each of his first two years as a starter and in 1987 he would finish second in A.L. Cy Young voting, posting a 17-8 record and 2.76 ERA.
BallBatGrass.jpg

For the second straight night, the Tigers produced a two-run lead. In the Tigers’ second, Chet Lemon doubled and Darrell Evans singled him home. Later, in the sixth, Kirk Gibson bunted for a base hit and took second on Key’s wild throw to first. Larry Herndon followed with a single to left scoring Gibson and giving Tanana a two-run cushion.

Tanana pitched one of his best games of the season throwing seven scoreless innings, yielding just five hits and a walk. Key was equally masterful in his 8.1 innings pitched. He scattered nine hits, allowing only one earned run and walking a single hitter. Going into the ninth inning the Tigers maintained a 2-0 lead.

Continue reading “October Surprise Part 3: Game 2 Skips Away”

The Trade, 25 Years Later

Want to feel old? Try this on for size:

It was a quarter-century ago — March 24, 1984 — that the Tigers acquired relief pitcher Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher John Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson.

And the insanity that was the Summer of ’84 began.

In case you’ve forgotten, Hernandez won the American League MVP and Cy Young awards after saving 32 games with an 1.92 ERA and 140.1 innings in 80 pitching appearances.

Good times.

Talking with Johnny Grubb, Part II

JohnnyGrubb2.jpgThis is the second and final installment of my conversation with former Tigers outfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Johnny Grubb. You can find the first installment here.


Mike McClary: Heading into the 1984 season, was it a long off-season? It would seem like you would be chomping at the bit to get back on the field shortly after a little break. Was everyone coming into spring training raring to go?

Johnny Grubb: Yeah, I think so. I remember us getting Dave Bergman and Willie [Hernandez]. So they came over, and they fit right in with the team, too. I mean, we just had a good group of guys that got along, and Dave Bergman is a heck of a guy and so was Willie. So it worked out great.

MMc: Let’s talk about the ’84 season in general. Obviously, you got off to a great start, 9-0, and in the middle of that, Jack Morris throws a no-hitter. As you were getting older and becoming the seasoned veteran, were you really just enjoying about every moment of that season?

JG: Oh, gosh, yeah. It was fun to watch those guys play and every once in a while to jump in and do something myself. But it was a lot of fun watching Gibby and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Darrell [Evans] — and Lance did a great job. And Howard Johnson had the great season for us. I thought he did a great job. And Larry Herndon and all those guys really did well in the pitching.

So really what I remember most about it is that I never really felt like we were out of any ballgame. Any lead a team could get, we felt like we could have a big inning and jump right back in the game. And we had real good pitching, so if we had the lead, we had Willie and [Aurelio] Lopez coming in to shut the door on them. The pitchers did their job, and the hitters did their job. And we just felt like we could win any game.

That 35-5 start really helped a lot, too. But I think that pretty much was an indicator of how strong we were because that’s pretty phenomenal when you think about a 35-5 start in the major leagues. That’s pretty good.

Continue reading “Talking with Johnny Grubb, Part II”

The 1984 Hernandez/Bergman Trade Revisited

In case you’d forgotten, it was 24 years ago this week that the Tigers swung a deal with the Phillies that changed the 1984 season for the Tigers dramatically — and instantly.WillieHernandez

On March 27, 1984, the Tigers acquired lefty reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from Philadelphia in exchange for OF Glenn Wilson (my favorite Tiger back then) and all-purpose guy John Wockenfuss.

With World Series expectations higher than perhaps ever in Tigers history and the team searching, as it was in 1984, for bullpen reinforcements, let’s look back on a trade for the ages.

Willie

There was no reason to expect the moon from Willie Hernandez as the Tigers’ new closer. After his trade to the Phillies from the Cubs on May 22, 1983, he went 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA and seven saves in 63 appearances, primarily as a setup man for closer Al Holland.

But, as if I need to remind you, in 1984 Hernandez put together the career year to end career years: 9-3, 32 saves, 1.92 ERA, 80 appearances, 140 IP, All Star, American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player.

Sparky had lots to say about Willie Hernandez in his book about the ’84 season, Bless You Boys. Here’s some of it:

I’ve been in baseball for 31 years, and there’s no way I can believe what I saw in Willie Hernandez this year.

-snip-

Don’t ask me to explain Willie. How do you explain a miracle? Every time Willie had a chance for a save, Willie got it. Every time we desperately had to have a win, Willie was there. When I read that Hernandez didn’t pitch in 82 of the Tigers regular-season games in 1984, I find it hard to fathom. As a kid it seemed as if he pitched every day. And as Sparky said, when he did pitch, good things usually happened.

Thanks to his miracle season, Hernandez, who wore number 21, cashed-in on a big contract extension with the Tigers and, at age 29, appeared to be the closer for the long term.

In 1985, he turned in a decent year, though spoiled-rotten Tigers fans took to booing Hernandez regularly. He had an astonishing 18 decisions (8-10) even though he compiled stats that current Detroit fans would love to see from Todd Jones: 31 saves, 2.70 ERA.

From 1986 until his final year in Detroit in 1989, Hernandez’s save totals fell from 24 to 8 then bumped up to 10 and 15. Meanwhile his ERA headed north rapidly, topping out at 5.74 in ’89 — when the entire franchise bottomed out.

The Tigers released him on Dec. 20, 1989. He never appeared in another major-league game. All told, Willie Hernandez finished his Tigers career with a 36-31 record, 120 saves and a 3.44 ERA.

Bergie

Dave Bergman DaveBergman was traded twice on March 24, 1984. The first deal sent him from the Giants to the Phillies for Alejandro Sanchez. (Interestingly, almost a year later, the Tigers sent Roger Mason to San Francisco for Sanchez) The Phillies quickly spun-off Bergman to Detroit. Most thought he would replace Wockenfuss as a part-time first baseman and outfielder. In reality, he became a workhorse defensive replacement for newly acquired Darrell Evans at first base.

In 1984, Bergman made a quick impact with his glove and, as the season wore on, with some clutch, late-inning heroics.

In the bottom half of the eighth inning at Comiskey Park on April 7, Sparky put Bergman in at first base as a defensive replacement for Barbaro Garbey. The White Sox’ Jerry Hairston ripped a groundball down the first-base line. Bergman, playing close to the line, slid to his left and snuffed the grounder for the first out of the inning but more importantly, protected Jack Morris‘s no-hitter.

(Nearly a year earlier, Hairston crushed Milt Wilcox‘s bid for a perfect game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. That’s what we call karma.)

On June 4 in Detroit against the Blue Jays, Bergman had what Sparky called the greatest at bat he’d seen in his life. Let’s allow Captain Hook describe it, again from the pages of Bless You Boys:

Here’s the scene: Two out in the last of the tenth, two men on, and the score tied at 3-3. Reliever Roy Lee Howell (sic) pitched to a full count. Then Bergie took over. Bergie fouled off seven pitches and then picked one practically off the ground and drilled it into the upper deck in right.What a battle! Bergie was up there a full seven minutes. It seemed like a whole season. The house went wild.

Actually, Bergman’s homer came off Roy Lee Jackson, which surprised me because I thought it was Luis Leal.

What made that game so much fun was that it was the season opener for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, which was much bigger back then than ESPN’s Wednesday or Sunday night games are today. Also, school was almost out for summer and my friends and I were fired up for lots of excursions to Tiger Stadium’s bleachers.

During the 1984 season, Bergman appeared in 120 games, 114 at first base and one each in right and left field. He finished the year with a .273 average, seven home runs and 44 RBI. Defensively, Bergman made just eight errors in 732 chances, a .989 fielding percentage.

Wearing Wockenfuss’s number 14, Bergman became a mainstay with the Tigers. In nine seasons in Detroit he batted .252 with 39 home runs and 219 RBI. He retired after the 1992 season but remained in metro Detroit working in financial services.

Looking at the trade nearly a quarter century later, Detroit undoubtedly benefited the most. The Tigers got six seasons of work from Hernandez and nearly a decade from Bergman. Though the Phillies got barely a season and a half from Wockenfuss (whom we profiled here), Wilson had three respectable seasons in Philadelphia. In 1985, he batted .274 with 14 home runs and 102. The next season, he batted .271, 15 homers and 84 RBI.

Still, chances are only the most-diehard Phillies fan could point out any impression Wilson or Wockenfuss made on those mid-1980s Philadelphia teams. Tigers fans, however, remember vividly the contributions of Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.

Happy Birthday, Johnny B.

Wockenfuss.jpgThe first time my brother imitated the finger-waving batting stance of a Tigers player by the name of “Wockenfuss” I was convinced he made it up.

Not only did the name sound like a cartoon character, the flapping of the right hand on the bat was too much for my nine-year-old brain to process as a viable approach at the plate.

I soon learned that Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss was – and is – a real-life person.

Never a superstar, he was a Super Sub before the phrase existed. He played key roles for the Tigers and helped the club bridge the gap between emerging contender and World Series Champion.

‘Fuss was drafted by the Washington Senators in the 42nd round of the 1967 amateur draft. His road to Detroit wound through Arlington, Texas, after the Senators relocated following the 1971 season.

On June 6, 1973 he was traded by the Rangers with Mike Nagy to the Cardinals for Jim Bibby. Less than six months later – on Dec. 3 – St. Louis sent him to the Tigers for minor-leaguer Larry Elliott.

Ironically, Wockenfuss made his major league debut on Aug. 11, 1974 against the Rangers at Arlington Stadium – and faced the pitcher he was traded for a year earlier, Bibby.

He started at catcher, as he would 12 more times that season, and, batting ninth, went 0 for 2 with a walk. In his first big-league at bat (leading off the Tigers third) he popped out to shortstop Toby Harrah.

Wockenfuss’s first major league hit would come three days later at Tiger Stadium off Royals starter Steve Busby — an RBI single with two outs in the ninth (Jim Nettles, brother of Graig scored).

During the lean years of the mid-1970s, Johnny B. – wearing first #45 and then, from 1976 on, #14 – steadily gained playing time, primarily behind the plate for manager Ralph Houk. When Sparky Anderson was hired in 1979, ‘Fuss became more of a first baseman/outfielder/DH hybrid.

For the next four seasons, Wockenfuss had a .265 average. His best year at the plate for Detroit was in 1982 when hit batted .301 in 79 games.

In the spring of 1984, the buzz around Lakeland was of a team poised to make the leap to the postseason. Wockenfuss had been so valuable to the Tigers over his 10 seasons that no one suspected he wouldn’t be with Detroit on Opening Day.

But on March 24, 1984, roughly one week before the Tigers opened the season in Minnesota, ‘Fuss was traded with outfielder Glenn Wilson to the Phillies for Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.

We know how that played out.

In Philadelphia that year, Wockenfuss played in 86 games, mostly at first base, batting .289. In 1985, he appeared in just 32 games, collecting six hits. When the Phillies released him on Aug. 19, 1985 – almost 11 years to the day of his debut – his career was over.

Two years later, though, he was back in the Tigers organization as the manager of Lakeland in the Florida State League. He appeared to be on a meteoric rise in the organization. In 1988 he led the Glens Falls Tigers of the Eastern League two a first-place finish. The next season he was promoted to manager of Toledo where the Mud Hens finished in sixth place. He lasted only 24 games of the 1990 season before he was fired on April 29.

And that was all she wrote for Johnny B. Wockenfuss as a member of the Tigers family.

I remember feeling bad in 1984 that Johnny B. wasn’t around to enjoy the Tigers World Series championship. Years later when the Pistons won their first NBA Title they had some of the old guard on hand for the celebration. Too bad Wockenfuss couldn’t have participated in a similar sort of revelry in October ’84.

Raise a glass today for Johnny B. Wockenfuss. He’s 59.