If you’re a glass half-full kind of fantasy owner, you would say Dontrelle Willis has shown signs of improvement this year. You would point to his 0.3 WARP and a 4.94 SIERA, while not isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but it is the first time he’s been on the positive side of the WARP ledger since he joined the Tigers back in ’08. He has even slightly tamed his wild side, although with a 6.0 BB/9 he still had a ways to go to match the 3.0 BB/9 he posted in his salad days with the Marlins. However, his strikeout rate is a healthy 6.9 K/9, which is a little better than his career mark.
If you’re a glass half-empty kind of owner, you would say the walk rate is still way too high. Same for his 4.98 ERA and 1.77 WHIP. Willis is basically a guy who would throw maybe six innings for your team while allowing too many base runners, making him a long shot to pick up the Win. The risk isn't worth the reward. The league average pitcher through the first two months of the season owns a 4.23 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP. With the Tigers this year, Willis was definitely a below average fantasy starter. Improved, but he could only be considered an option in deep AL-only leagues.
Out of Motown and into the desert, the pitching-starved Diamondbacks will immediately drop him into their rotation. There may be a knee-jerk reaction that moving to the weaker league will help Willis, but since the root of his problems have always been control, I’m not going to sign off on that particular school of thought. In his last two NL seasons with the Marlins (in 2006 and 2007), he walked 3.6 batters per 9 and posted a 1.51 WHIP. As he struggled with his command, he began leaving hittable pitches in the zone – his batting average against rose from .274 in 2006 to .294 in ’07. If he can’t find the strikezone with consistency, (and while he’s improved he’s nowhere near close to his former self) he’s going to continue to get torched. No matter the league.
So he remains what he was in the AL – a fringe starting pitcher who will continue to battle control issues. The Diamondbacks put more runs on the board than the Tigers, so he may be able to pick up a few more wins here or there which would be nice, but that's really the only thing that will change with his new team. Although given the shambolic state of the Diamondbacks bullpen and Willis' inability to pitch deep into games, that seems unlikely. Moving forward, PECOTA projects five wins with a 4.94 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in a back of the rotation role with his new club. I’d look somewhere else if I needed a starter in a deep NL-only league.
Once upon a time, Billy Buckner, the pitcher the Diamondbacks are exchanging for Willis, was a three-star prospect. As recently as 2008, he was the sixth rated prospect in the Diamondbacks organization with the upside of a fourth starter.
Buckner has flashed signs of decent control, walking 3.5 batters per 9 in his brief major league career, but he has always been incredibly hittable. This year in three starts, NL hitters are pasting him for a line of .406/.458/.656. Basically, he’s turned an entire league into the 1941 version of Ted Williams. Some of that has to do with what amounts to rotten luck on Buckner’s part. Despite owning a 20% line drive rate, hitters have a .440 BABIP against him. The same thing happened last year where he had a 22% line drive rate and a .353 BABIP against.
He’s not furthering his cause with a 58% strand rate. However, all numbers are taken from a small sample size of 13 innings and will undoubtedly regress to the mean. How far they regress, remains to be seen. His 4.39 SIERA gives you an idea about his room for improvement.
Part of Buckner’s upside is that he entices roughly 46% of all batted balls in play to stay on the ground. Making seven starts for Reno this year in the PCL, Buckner’s ground ball rate was at 54%. With a sinking fastball and sharp curve, it’s a rate that has steadily improved during his Triple-A tenure as he's developed as a pitcher. His results in the minors this year were largely positive: He posted a 3.53 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 46 innings. He could very well be a tweener where he’s very good in the minors, yet can never find consistency in the majors, but PECOTA still sees some upside and pegs him for a 4.33 ERA and 1.51 WHIP at the back of the Tigers rotation. Better than Willis, but still slightly worse than fantasy average.
He will report to Triple-A but his ground ball rate and history of solid control means Buckner is a pitcher I will monitor in my 12 team, AL-only roto league when he gets the call to Detroit. He could be worth a move down the road.