- July 29, 1969
- 6' 2"
- 190 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 6-30-1992 with PHI
Mike Williams has gone from a minor league spring training invitee to an All-Star closer during his two tours of duty with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In between, “Willy” spent time pitching in AAA and helping the Houston Astros into the 2001.
Williams was signed to a AAA contract by General Manager Cam Bonifay following 1997. Up to that time, the 29-year-old righthander had split time between starting and relieving and had posted an unimpressive 13-27 record with a career ERA over 5.00. His best year prior to signing with the Pirates was 1995 when he went 3-3 with a 3.29 ERA in 33 games, including eight starts, for the Phillies. There was one quality, however, which Bonifay say in Williams which could make him a very valuable pitcher. Williams threw and excellent slider and while his other pitches were not of the same grade, having one devastating pitch could potentially make one an effective short reliever.
Although he did not make the Pirates out of spring training, Williams was quickly recalled in early April. After making just one appearance, however, he was sent to the minors. Again used as a swing man, Williams’ stats were unimpressive, but he pitched well in his last several appearances and was recalled in mid-June. From that point on, Williams was used, with the exception of one start, as a setup man and was as effective as just about any reliever in the the league, allowing only 1 homerun in 51 innings and striking out over a batter an inning while posting an ERA under 2.00.
When incumbent closer Rich Loiselle followed an unimpressive spring training in 1999 with a poor start, Manager Gene Lamont moved Williams into the closer’s role. Williams continued his excellent pitching into the second week of August, posting a 2.22 ERA through August 11. But the last seven weeks of the season were disastrous as Williams allowed 22 earned runs over his final 13 2/3 innings pitched. Williams, who seemed to lose control of his slider the latter part of the year, still struck out 76 in 58 1/3 innings.
Williams recovered in 2000 to post 24 saves and displayed ice water in his veins all year. He averaged just under one strikeout per inning and while not as well known as many closers in baseball, outperformed most of them.
Williams again provided clutch relief pitching in 2001. While he often made matters interesting by allowing a man or two to reach base, he continued to be difficult to score against. With the Pirates out of contention early and Williams eligible for free agency, new General Manager David Littlefield hoped to build for the future by trading his closer to Houston for former first round draft pick, Tony McKnight, a starting pitcher who had been unable to crack Houston’s strong rotation. Williams returned to a setup role with the Astros, who already had a relief ace in flame thowing Billy Wagner.
Houston showed little interest in retaining Williams after the season, figuring he would command too high a salary for a setup man. But his price tag was right for a closer and after the Pirates failed to sign Jeff Shaw, they inked Williams to a three-year contract. Williams expressed his happiness in returning to Pittsburgh, the team which had given him the chance to pitch in clutch situations. The fact that he would again finish games was a major factor in the reliever’s decision to return.
The decision turned out to be a good one for Williams and the Pirates. He blew away the team’s all-time saves record as easily as he did hitters in 2002. While he did not average his usual strikeout per inning, Williams’ control was sharper than ever and he was more difficult to score against. His 2-6 record reflected the fact that when Williams was brought into a game, it was very rare that he would be relieved. Selected to the All-Star team for the firt time in his career, Williams did not let stardom go to his head as he remained one of the most approachable players in the league, always ready to take time out for the fans.
Williams unfortunately was not able to return to his all star form in 2003 slipping 6.27 ERA before being dealt to Philadelphia in July for Frank Brooks. The reliever continued to falter for the Phils and despite signing a free agent contract with Tampa Bay in the off season, never returned to pitch in the majors again.
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