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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Jays: #24 Tom Henke

Tom Henke

Thomas Anthony Henke | RP | 1985-1991

Tom Henke was born on December 21, 1957, in Kansas City, Missouri. Henke was a 20th round draft pick in 1979 by Seattle and a 1st round in the 1980 January draft by the Cubs. He didn’t sign either time. Then he was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 4th round of the secondary phase of the 1980 June draft and signed (yeah, for a while there they had two drafts a year. Actually, they had three drafts a year for two years). He pitched a bit for the Rangers in 1982 and 1983 and then got into 25 games in 1984.

The Blue Jays got him as compensation for the Ranger’s signing of Jay free agent Cliff Johnson. At the time, a team that signed another team’s free agent gave up a player to the original team. A team would protect some players, and the team that lost the free agent would choose someone. It turned free agency into a trade. Generally, it worked better for the team signing the free agent. In this case, it worked out very badly for the Rangers. The Jays got the better player, and a few months later, the Jays traded a few players that would never amount to anything to get Cliff Johnson back. So basically, the Rangers traded Tom Henke for 82 games worth of Cliff Johnson.

The Jays called up Henke from the minors at the end of July of 1985. In the last couple of months, Tom got into 28 games, earned 13 saves, and had a 2.03 ERA in 40 innings pitched. It was an excellent start to his career as a Jay, and the Jays finished first in the AL East that season. But it seems strange that Henke would receive MVP votes and some votes for Rookie of the Year, including one first-place vote. How does anyone figure that a guy that pitches 40 innings could be MVP or Rookie of the Year? I mean, I complain about award voters all the time, but this is just silly. Anyway, Henke picked up two wins in our seven-game ALCS loss to the Royals.

In 1986 Henke had his first full season as our closer, and he was terrific, setting a new team record with 27 saves, winning another 9 with a 3.35 ERA in 91.1 innings in 63 games. He and Mark Eichhorn made a great pairing to end games for the Jays. With Eichhorn throwing slow junk with a submarine delivery, Henke coming in throwing heat looked that much faster. The next season, Henke broke his mark for saves, getting 34, pitching 94 innings in 72 games with 128 strikeouts and only 62 hits. He earned MVP votes again, coming in 13th in voting. That’s the season George Bell won the award. He also made the All-Star team that year and pitched 2.2 shutout innings in the AL’s 13 inning loss. 1987 was also the season we blew the division lead at the end of the season against Detroit, Henke wasn’t blameless, blowing a save against them, but then he pitched 2.2 innings that game and only gave up one run.

He wasn’t a one-inning closer in those days. He had two three-inning saves in 1985 and pitched 2 innings or more in 9 games. In 1986 he threw 4.1 innings in one game and went two innings or more in 18 games and in 1987 he went two innings in 16 games.

In 1988 he dropped to 52 games, and 25 saves, with newly acquired Duane Ward getting 15 saves and doing a terrific job as the setup man. Henke also fell under a strikeout an inning, striking out 66 in 68 innings. In 1989 Henke had his best ERA as a Jay at 1.92 he had an 8-3 record in 64 games and 20 saves, and Ward had 15 saves. They were a tremendous duo closing out games. The best pair of relievers the Jays ever had. We won the AL East again that season but lost out to the Oakland A’s in the ALCS in 5 games. Henke pitched in 3 of the games got 2.2 perfect innings.

In 1990 Henke got the lion’s share of the saves getting 32 while Ward got 11. Tom had another terrific season finishing with a 2.17 ERA in 74.2 innings over 61 games striking out 75. In 1991 Henke spent some time on the DL in April, and he finished with 32 saves while Ward had 23. Ward showed that he was in line to take over the closer job. Henke had a 2.32 ERA in 49 games. The Jays won the AL East again but lost out to the Twins in 5 games in the ALCS. Henke pitched 2.2 perfect innings in two appearances.

1992 was Henke’s last with the team, and that was the year we won our first World Series. Henke was a big part of it, matching his franchise high of 34 saves during the season with a 2.26 ERA. He saved five more games in the playoffs. Three in the ALCS against the A’s and two more in the World Series against the Braves though he did have a blown save in the last game, giving up a run to allow the Braves to tie the game in the 9th, we won the game in the 13th.

After the season, Henke left as a free agent, and signed with the Texas Rangers. He was 35, and we had Duane Ward to take over his role on the team. He played two seasons with the Rangers saving 40 games in 1993, and then finished his career with St. Louis in 1995, saving another 36 games, making the All-Star team, and getting MVP votes again.

Henke was the first real closer the Jays had and lived up to his name, The Terminator. The nickname came from teammate John Cerutti, after he and Tom went to see the Terminator movie together. A big guy, 6’5”, imposing-looking even with glasses, and of course, the hard fastball, forkball, and slider he threw added to the scare he put into batters. To put it into perspective, Henke’s strikeouts per 9 innings of 10.29 were better than Nolan Ryan’s (9.55).

Rob Neyer had Henke as Jay’s best reliever in team history, and we do too. He was, likely, the second-best reliever of his era, behind only Dennis Eckersley. He finished with 311 saves, good for 25th on the all-time career leader list. I don’t understand why Henke isn’t on our ‘Level of Excellence’.

I go back and forth on whether I think he or Ward was the better reliever, but Henke had half a run better of ERA, had a strikeout more an inning, and gave up fewer hits and walks per nine innings.

Tom is married and they have four children. They live in Taos, Missouri. I remember seeing an interview with him where he said he was a ‘small-town boy’ and that he was never comfortable staying in the big cities that to play baseball.

Tom Henke’s place among Jay pitching leaders:

bWAR: 8th, 16.8

ERA (>500 innings) 1st, 2.48

WHIP (>500 innings) 1st, 1.025

Hits/9 IP (>500 innings) 1st, 6.57

Strikeouts/9IP (>500 innings) 1st, 10.29

Games 3rd, 446

Saves 1st, 217 (Ward is number two with 121. Henke is in no danger of being passed)

Innings 28th, 563.0

Strikeouts 12th, 644

Strikeout to walk Rate (>500 innings) 1st 3.88

I had totally forgotten about “The Ballard of Tom Henke”. You can hear some of it in this video.