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March 10, 2011

BP Unfiltered

D-Train Is Back On Track

by John Perrotto

GOODYEAR—Dontrelle Willis is 29 years old. Somehow, he seems so much older.

It seems like a lifetime ago that Willis burst onto the scene as a rookie pitching sensation with the Marlins. He was the left-hander with the megawatt smile, oodles of charisma and a funky delivery that featured a Juan Marichal-type high leg kick. The D-Train, as he was dubbed, helped the Marlins win an improbable World Series championship in 2003.

Two years later, Willis led the National League with 22 wins. Sabermetrics confirmed that Willis' high win total wasn't a fluke as he finished fourth in the league with a 2.93 fair run averaged.

It also seems like a lifetime ago since Willis was an effective pitcher. He was traded from the Marlins to the Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera at the winter meetings following the 2007 season and his career has been in a downward spiral ever since.

Willis was limited to 123 1/3 innings over the past three seasons because of what was officially been termed "anxiety disorder." In more honest terms, Willis' problem was that he forgot how to throw strikes as he walked 119 batters, an average of 8.7 per nine innings in that span.

However, Willis is quietly becoming one of the heartwarming stories of spring training. He is the Reds' camp on a minor-league contract and throwing strikes.

Willis has pitched five scoreless innings and walked only one of the 19 batters he faced in Cactus League play. It's a small sample size, to be sure, but Willis' performance is encouraging. He has pitched so well that he is beginning to put himself in position to win a second left-handed spot in the Reds' bullpen alongside flame-throwing rookie Aroldis Chapman.

"He's been the biggest surprise of our camp," Reds manager Dusty Baker said Thursday before his team lost to the Giants 7-0 at Goodyear Ballpark. "We didn't know what we were going to get when we signed him but we felt he was worth taking a look. He's pitched great so far."

Any anxiety Willis felt in the past is gone. He came to camp with a carefree attitude along with revamped delivery that has eliminated the trademark leg kick.

"I've decided that if my career ends then so be it," Willis said. "I love baseball and I've had a great time and accomplished a lot in my career. At the same time, I'm not letting baseball define me. If I'm able to keep playing, I'd be very happy. Yet if it comes to end, I'll be at peace with that and move on with a lot of fond memories to look back upon."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Dontrelle Willis

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Ian Miller

Awesome news. Don't know him, but as you say, he's super charismatic and I find it impossible not to root for him to succeed. I'll certainly miss the leg kick, though.

Mar 10, 2011 14:55 PM
rating: 0
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

19 Double-A at bats? Please. Wake us up in 50 innings.

Mar 10, 2011 15:23 PM
rating: -6

It's hard to be bullish on a guy whose avg. fastball is 88 mph and at best, and *might* have regained some semblance of control. Would be interested to hear how hard he is throwing with his new delivery.

Also, FWIW, his downward spiral did not begin after he was traded. His xFIP in his last two seasons with the Marlins was 4.48 and 4.74.

Mar 10, 2011 15:56 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Mike Fast
BP staff

PITCHf/x had his fastball averaging 89.1 mph when he pitched against Kansas City in Surprise on Tuesday.

Mar 10, 2011 20:36 PM

Just curious: where do you get this data for spring training games? Is it publicly available?

Mar 11, 2011 19:20 PM
rating: 0
Brian Kopec

But is he in the greatest shape of his life?

Mar 10, 2011 17:31 PM
rating: 6

I feel like I read this article last spring but someone just did a search and replace with "Tigers" and "Reds" and "Jim Leyland" and "Dusty Baker". Honestly I hope he turns things around.

Mar 10, 2011 20:49 PM
rating: 1

Well, I couldn't find the exact thing, but here's an MLB Rumors and Rumblings from John Perrotto on March 17 of last year: "Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis has been so sharp this spring after battling control problems the last two seasons that he has a chance to begin the season in the rotation."


Mar 11, 2011 07:41 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member perrotto
BP staff

By no means was I trying to convey that he is going to turn back into the Dontrelle Willis of 2005. I do, however, think it would be a neat little story if he somehow salvaged something out of his career.

Mar 10, 2011 21:16 PM

Sorry............but it wouldn't be a "neat little story" if he found his way back after changing his mechanics. The guy refused to do anything differently while being paid 10's of million dollars of Mike Ilitch's money. He smiled, and continued to do nothing. He refused to be in any sort of shape, and he refused to revamp his delivery.

Now I notice..........that his delivery has changed. No kidding, huh? The money is gone, there's no contract, and now he has diecided to do something about it?

This isn't a "neat litle story." This is someone who took the money and ran. If he would have reported to the Tigers camp for those 3 years in the best shape of his life(ya know, not resembling a bowling ball), taken all the coaching seriously, and still failed? Fine.

But he reported year after year fat, and with a closed mind.

"Neat little story", indeed.

The guy smiles at the media, and it becomes "neat". Somebody should call this for what it is, not be smitten with someone who absolutely stole tens of millions of dollars through negligence and not caring.

Mar 11, 2011 14:23 PM
rating: -2
Mr. Cthulhu

Agreed, it was a travesty how he stole all that money. If only he had signed some sort of contract that provided him that payment for some sort of services he rendered. Like, maybe some team signed him based on unreasonable expectations for his talent level. And then he failed to live up to those unreasonable expectations. Then he would have earned his money! But no, D-train had to go in to front offices with a gun and steal all that money! What a terrible person.

Mar 12, 2011 00:26 AM
rating: 3

Did the Marlins steal tens of millions of dollars from Willis when they paid him only $200k-$400k in his first three seasons?

Draft picks are gambles; contracts are gambles; life is a gamble. The Tigers gambled; they lost. Get over it.

Mar 12, 2011 12:27 PM
rating: 2

Did you read what I wrote? Dontrelle did NOTHING to stay in shape, and fix him delivery while with the Tigers.

He was as round as a bolwing ball, and the stories are plentiful how many times he rejected any coaching.

I said if he would have stayed in shape and listened to somebody and still failed? Then you would be right....thsoe are the risks teams take.

But Dontrelle did nothing but eat donuts and reject suggestions.

Get a freaking clue.

Mar 13, 2011 14:58 PM
rating: -1
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