clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Top 40 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #20 Tom Henke

Thomas Anthony Henke | P | 1985-1992 | Career Stats

Tom Henke, at 6'5", 215 lb. and known as "The Terminator," was an intimidating presence on the mound, despite his preference for oversized glasses. He was essentially the Blue Jays' first closer, since, prior to his arrival, the team record for most saves in a season was 11, set by Dale Murray in 1982. Of course, at the time, the game experienced a shift in the way managers utilized relief pitchers. Relief duties had become far more categorized, as pitchers were placed into subgroups, such as closer, setup man, lefty specialist, and mop-up reliever. Henke, with an absolutely nasty combination of a mid-90s fastball and a devastating, strikeout inducing forkball, became one of the game's predominant closers. In his time with the Blue Jays, during which they were perennial contenders as well as World Champions, he was the core of one of the most successful bullpens of that era, and he is the highest-ranked relief pitcher on our list.

After being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fourth round of the 1980 amateur draft, Henke joined the Blue Jays in 1984 as a compensatory pick for former Blue Jays DH Cliff Johnson, who signed with the Rangers as a free agent. In hindsight, it was absolutely foolish that the Rangers left Henke unprotected, in what sportswriter Moss Klein called "... a transaction that now looks like legalized burglary" in the Oct. 10, 1991 issue of The Sporting News. In fact, to make matter worse for the Rangers, Johnson would return to the Blue Jays less than one year later. At the time, however, Henke was a 26-year-old minor leaguer, whose brief callups to the majors produced cringe-inducing results, as evidenced by his 6.35 ERA and 1.98 WHIP in 28.1 IP with the Rangers in 1984. But, as was the case with Randy Johnson and various others, tall pitchers with great stuff often require more time to develop enough control to successfully compete against major league hitters. Furthermore, Henke's K/9 totals were so high that they somewhat offset his high walk rates, which gave hope to the Blue Jays that he could have been of use to them.

Following his acquisition, Henke spent about half the 1985 regular season with the Syracuse Skychiefs, the Blue Jays' AAA affiliate. Prior to his mid-season callup, Henke posted an 0.88 ERA, a 0.60 WHIP, 60 K, and 18 SV in 51.1 IP. As a result, he was the International League's leading vote-getter for the All-Star game. He then went on to compile a 2.03 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, 42 K, and 13 SV in 40 IP with the Blue Jays in the remainder of that season. In what seems rather ridiculous now, those 13 saves broke the aforementioned record of 11 posted by Dale Murray three years before.

As a Blue Jay, Henke never had to carry the brunt of the relief load on his own, for he normally worked in tandem with another great reliever. At the beginning, he teamed with Mark Eichhorn, who would later be replaced by an up-and-coming Duane Ward. In 1986, Henke's second season with the Blue Jays, he and Eichhorn formed the best relief tandem in the game. Eichhorn's 1986 season was otherworldly, and it certainly deserved far more recognition than it received. Nevertheless, Henke, whose season was impressive in its own right, remained firmly entrenched as the team's primary closer. Henke's 3.35 ERA that season was a notch or two above what it should have been, considering his exceptional peripheral stats. However, he pitched so many fewer innings than Eichhorn, whose 157 IP as a reliever seem outlandish by today's standards, that his true ERA was masked by poor luck. To further expand on this premise, wins, a category that is far more luck-dependent than most others, did not come easily for Henke during this time, for he pitched in 120 consecutive games without recording one, according to the Baseball Library.

In 1987, for the third straight season, Henke set a team record for saves, with 34. He also made the All-Star team for the first time in his career, in which he fittingly pitched during the 9th inning. Surprisingly, at 29 years of age, Henke was the eldest member of the Blue Jays' bullpen, and the bulk of the praise and accolades were pointed in his direction. For instance, after the season, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post -- one of many others, to be sure -- sang Henke's praises and touted him as a legitimate Cy Young candidate:

Tom Henke and Steve Bedrosian for the Cy Young awards. Yes, even though they're relief pitchers. Please, don't let the awards go to Jimmy Key, Jack Morris, Frank Viola, Roger Clemens, Rick Sutcliffe or Orel Hershiser.


For instance, how can Key win the top award when Henke, on his own staff, has 34 saves, a 2.49 earned run average and one of the best ratios of strikeouts-to-innings in history (128 in 94)? Okay, so Henke's record is 0-6. A winless Cy Young winner sure would be memorable. But relievers aren't supposed to get wins; it usually means they blew a save. Zero is good.

If not Henke, then either Dave Righetti or even high-ERA Jeff Reardon (38 wins-plus-saves) have had better years by relief standards than Clemens or Stewart have had for starters. Reardon was the key to Minnesota's division championship.

In the end, Boswell was correct about Bedrosian, who captured the NL Cy Young award in one of the closest votes in history, as he outscored Rick Sutcliffe 57-55. Henke, meanwhile, did not receive one vote; however, nine others did, with Roger Clemens taking home the hardware.

Boswell appeared to misguided, though, despite the fine seasons by Henke and Bedrosian. The starting pitchers named within the excerpt pitched far more innings than either reliever, with a difference of more than 150 IP in most cases. Furthermore, the numbers posted by Henke and Bedrosian were not astoundingly superior to the starters' -- unlike Eric Gagne's 2003 season, for instance -- which meant that the difference in IP simply could not be made up.

At the start of the 1989 season, Henke encountered his first extended bout with adversity. In the first five weeks of the season, Henke compiled a mere 6.1 IP, which included three blown saves in five opportunities. In a home game against Seattle, Henke was booed loudly by a packed SkyDome crowd upon his arrival in the game. According to the May 8, 1989 edition of The Toronto Star, Henke took the harsh reaction well, stating that "It's their privilege." However, the team's pitching coach at the time, Al Widmar, voiced his displeasure when he said, "All those people on him because of the bad time he's going through are forgetting all the good things he's done for the team." As it turns out, Widmar was right, not simply because 6.1 IP is far too small a sample size to incite merited wide-scale booing, but because Henke rebounded to have one of the best seasons of his career. The October 3, 1989 edition of USA Today, includes the following quote by Henke:

I was struggling because I had something like six innings in six weeks. It hurt. I can look back on it now and laugh because it wasn't as bad as it seemed earlier.

By season's end, he posted a 1.92 ERA, a 1.022 WHIP, 116 K, and 20 SV in 89 IP. Unfortunately, the low saves totals led some -- Boswell likely included -- to dismiss his season as a down year.

In 1991, a hard-throwing young pitcher named Duane Ward emerged as one of the game's best relief pitchers. By that point, he had been with the Blue Jays for three full seasons, but he never really took flight until his fourth full campaign. His K/9 and BB/9 totals improved significantly, which led to a sharp decrease in his ERA and WHIP. Conversely, Henke was 33 years old, six years Ward's senior, a time when the injury bug is not only contracted more often, but also lasts a lot longer. In April of that year, Henke went on the disabled list with a pulled groin muscle that was acquired while fielding balls during practice. Ward, who amassed 12 saves in 13 chances during Henke's departure, stepped in admirably. And so it became clear that Henke, who would become a free agent after the 1992 season, had a successor waiting in the wings.

Not one to back down easily, Henke came back firing, as he set a major league record for consecutive saves with 24, from April 9 - August 7, 1991. The associated press published a list of the consecutive saves leaders at the time, which was, not surprisingly, full of Henke's contemporaries:

Leading consecutive save opportunities converted since 1988 when blown saves were recorded on a major league-wide basis:

24 - Tom Henke, Toronto, 1991 (April 9 - August 7).

23 - John Franco, Cincinnati, 1988 (July 1 - September 11).

23 - Rob Dibble, Cincinnati, 1991 (April 8 - July 16).

21 - Doug Jones, Cleveland, 1988 (May 13 - August 11).

20 - Dennis Eckersley, Oakland, 1990 (April 10 - June 12).

19 - Dennis Eckersely, Oakland, 1990 (June 15 - August).

Of course, Eric Gagne now holds the record, with a total that dwarfs the ones listed above, though that should not take anything away from Henke's accomplishment.

In 1992, Henke posted yet another stellar season. He finished with a 2.26 ERA, a 1.114 WHIP, 46 K, and 34 SV in 55.2 IP. Ward was absolutely unbelievable that season, while racking up almost twice as many IP as Henke. The two teamed up to help a stacked Blue Jays roster capture the organization's first World Championship, only 15 years after its inception. It was clear, however, that Ward's presence made Henke expendable. In 1992, despite the fact that Henke voiced a desire to stay in Toronto, he signed with the Rangers, who narrowly beat out the Boston Red Sox for his services. The 2-year-$8 million contract he received no doubt played a role in the Blue Jays' decision to not retain his services.

Top 10 Toronto Blue Jays Pitching Ranks (min. 500 IP):