Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 3, 2010

Like A Shooting Star

The Detroit Tigers have finally given up on lefthanded pitcher Dontrelle Willis, trading him to Arizona. In a telling sign of how far the former NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star has fallen, the Tigers agreed to pay almost all of his 2010 salary and in exchange received only righthanded hurler Billy Buckner (who Detroit immediately assigned to their AAA affiliate). While Willis is only 28 and one would certainly hope that a return to the National League might be the elixir that will resurrect his career, the more likely case is that this is a cautionary tale of the fragility of pitching arms and psyches at the Major League level.

Willis began his career in the Cubs organization, but was traded to the Florida Marlins during 2002 Spring Training. A little over a year later he made his big league debut for the Marlins. He earned his first victory in just his second start, and went on to post a 14-6 record as the unlikely Marlins won the NL Wild Card and then swept through the playoffs, eventually beating the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. That won-loss record, along with a 3.30 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 160.2 innings won Willis the Rookie of the Year award and marked him for future greatness.

Two years later it appeared that he was beginning to fully recognize that potential, going 22-10 in 2005 for a Marlins team that barely finished above .500. The twenty-two victories led the league, as did his seven complete games and five shutouts. All of that earned him a runner-up finish in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award.

If his record in the other three seasons he pitched for Florida was decidedly pedestrian, most observers were willing to chalk that up to the fact that following their 2003 championship, the Marlins had allowed several key players to depart either through free agency or questionable trades designed to cut costs. It wasn’t quite the fire sale that former Florida owner Wayne Huizenga so notoriously held after their first championship season in 1997, but it surely wasn’t an off-season to celebrate. In the 2004 through 2007 seasons, the Fish averaged a sub-.500 79 wins, finishing on average more than 14 games out of first place. That Willis could post the numbers he did in 2005 while playing for such a team was seen as a sign of how dominant he might be wearing the uniform of a consistent contender.

It looked like Willis might finally get such a chance when the Marlins traded both he and slugger Miguel Cabrera to Detroit during the 2007-2008 off-season. The Tigers were just a year removed from a World Series appearance, and seemed determined to return. They entered the 2008 campaign with the second highest payroll in the game, which included a new $29 million, 3-year contract extension for Willis.

But once in the Motor City, Willis’ career drove straight into a ditch. He left just his second outing with a knee injury that would send him to the DL. But even before the injury there were clear signs of trouble. In the five innings he pitched in those first two outings, Willis walked nine batters while striking out no one. When he returned from the DL his control was no better, as he walked twelve men in just six innings over his next three appearances. Somewhere between Miami and Detroit, Dontrelle Willis had forgotten how to throw strikes.

Sadly, in two plus seasons with the Tigers, Willis never regained his control. He spent a good part of 2008 in the minors trying to find his game. In 2009 he began the season on the DL for an unspecified anxiety disorder. He returned there with the same issue for the remainder of the season in mid-June after just seven starts. This year Willis made nine appearances but with only nominal improvement before the Tigers’ management finally decided it had seen enough.

In his two plus seasons with Detroit, Wills recorded just two wins, posting a record of 2-8 with an ERA of 6.86. His walks per nine innings skied to 8.25, from just over 3.00 during his years with the Marlins. It was, in short, one big $29 million car wreck.

Every fan knows that there is a significant difference between pitching in the AL and taking the mound in the NL. The combination of the AL’s use of the designated hitter and the coincidence of ballpark dimensions make the senior circuit a much friendlier place for pitchers. Certainly Willis isn’t the first hurler unable to transfer National League success over to the AL. And if he should return to form with the Diamondbacks, then certainly the difference in the two leagues will be offered up as the explanation.

Unfortunately I think it more likely that Willis’ story is one that is even more common. Namely that of a player with sufficient talent and style to offer fans a hint of greatness; but in the end lacking the physical and mental resources to sustain outstanding play over an extended period of time. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather it is proof of just how incredibly difficult it is to play this sport at its ultimate level. The history of the game is stocked with such footnotes. Players who for a season or two invited comparisons to the greatest of their predecessors; but who just as quickly faded from the spotlight. It is a story that no matter how often repeated is always tinged with sadness. Dontrelle Willis, with his distinctive high leg kick and ready smile, is impossible not to like and cheer for. Maybe in a Diamondbacks uniform he will hear those cheers again. More likely he, and we, will have to settle for a fleeting memory of a season or two when everything seemed possible.

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Responses

  1. Excellent assessment of Willis’ career. Unfortunately for him, pitching in Arizona won’t be quite the elixir he needs to get back on track, as his new home ballpark is great for hitters. Too bad he didn’t end up in San Diego or L.A., two much more forgiving parks. Excellent post, Bill


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