Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dontrelle Willis is Back

Yes, I know he's been back in the majors for a month, and generally has pitched well. Last night though, we got the first indication that Dontrelle Willis isn't just back as a major league pitcher, but might be back as an very good one. Despite not getting the win, Willis game up only 3 runs in 8 innings, striking out 10 and walking only 1. It was the first time he'd pitched 8 full innings since September 25th, 2007.

In my mind, it doesn't seem like the presence of "Dontrelle Willis, formidable major league starting pitcher" was that long ago, but the last time Willis had a sub 5.00 ERA was 2006, when he was only 24 years old. That was his fourth season, and up to that point, he has a 58-39 record, with a 3.44 ERA. A 3.44 then is even more impressive than it is now, good for an ERA+ of 121. In 817 innings, he had struck out 611 and walked 257, and allowed only 65 home runs.

Those aren't quite elite numbers, but Willis was more than the numbers. He was a charismatic guy, a great interview, and had probably the most fun delivery to watch in the game. He was also one of the best hitting pitchers in the game. All in all, he might not have been the #1 pitcher you'd pick to start your team around, but if you were buying a ticket for one night? You wanted to see Dontrelle Willis.

The common narrative seems to have become that Willis fell apart when he was traded to the American League, but that's really totally true. I mean, he was really, really terrible for the Tigers, but it was 2007, his last year with the Marlins, that he began his steep decline. His walk rate grew, his strikeout rate fell, and his home runs allowed doubled. In doing so, he posted a 5.17 ERA, leading the NL in earned runs allowed. After that season, he was dealt to the Tigers, with Miguel Cabrera, for top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin.

In the American League, Willis was lost. In 101 innings, he posted a 6.85 ERA, walking 92 and striking out 68. It was said by many that he had "Steve Blass disease," the affliction which prevents previously good pitchers from being able to throw strikes. However, while Blass disease is a mental tic, others thought Willis's problems were more of the mechanical nature. With a windup that included so many moving parts, this certainly sounded like a possibility. It led the Tigers to hold onto Willis for two and a half years, before they finally lost their patience and traded him for journeyman starter Billy Buckner on June 1, 2010. After a successful debut with the Diamondbacks (6 shutout innings, though he walked 4), things went downhill quickly there as well. After only 22.1 innings pitched, Willis had given up 17 runs, striking out only 14 while walking 27. Only July 6th, Willis was released. He was signed to minor league deal with the Giants, but never sniffed the majors.

What made his struggles so disappointing wasn't just that he was pitching so poorly, but that he was working so hard to get through it, to no avail. Upon Willis being designated for assignment by the Tigers (before the trade was worked out), manager Jim Leyland said "I just applaud his efforts. It's been a long road back. The consistency just wasn't there. The uncertainty just ran out. He's been a great teammate. It's sad, really. I know how hard he worked. It just didn't work out.”

Knowing he would need to prove himself back in the minors, Willis signed a minor league contract with the Reds before the 2011 season. Accepting assignment to Louisville, Willis continued to work hard. This time though, for the first time in half a decade, the hard work appeared to be paying off, giving the Reds notice. The 5-2 record, 2.63 ERA, 67 strikeouts and only 5 home runs allowed in 75.1 innings pitched were nice, but what led them to believe he was ready to come back to the majors was the fact that he'd walked only 20 batters in that time.

On July 10th, Willis was recalled by Cincinnati to replace the struggling Edinson Volquez. He gave them 6 solid innings, giving up only two runs, leaving the game leading 3-2. Unfortunately, the Reds bullpen could not hold on, but the return of Willis was a great sight for any baseball fan. In his first five starts, Willis pitched fairly effectively, with a 3.41 ERA in 29 innings. His 17 strikeout to 11 walk ratio wasn't exactly setting the world afire, but it's certainly within the range of acceptability.

Last nights performance against the Rockies brought Willis's comeback to another level. As mentioned above, it was the first time he'd completed 8 innings since September 25, 2007. It was his first 10 strikeout game since August 14th of that same year. It was his highest game score since that September 25th start, and his second highest since 2006. Though it's been only 37 innings, Willis has to be encouraged that his 3.41 ERA is the second best among Reds' starters this year, and that his 118 ERA+ would put him 14th in the NL, between Hiroki Kuroda and Tim Hudson.

Of course, pitching that well for six starts is much less impressive than doing it for an entire season, but I see no reason to rain on this parade. What's important here is that Dontrelle Willis is pitching well in the major leagues again. Therefore, I call for an official moratorium on any tempered optimism regarding the success of Willis's comeback, until further notice, under the punishment of having your status as a fan of the game of baseball revoked. This is one to root for.

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