Should Dontrelle Willis Take the Rick Ankiel Approach and Come Back as an OF?
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How many players get to reinvent themselves during the course of their career?
Frank Tanana went from a flamethrower who could strike out 17 batters in a game and 200 in a season to a soft-tossing lefty who excelled at changing speeds. Barry Bonds went from a lean, athletic five-tool player to a hulking slugger who eventually shredded the home-run record books.
Then we have someone like Rick Ankiel, who punched out 194 batters in 175 innings as a fire-balling lefty in 2000, but eventually couldn't get the ball over the plate. Just 24 years old, the St. Louis Cardinals decided to convert him into an outfielder.
Eight years later, Ankiel isn't an All-Star, but his defense keeps him in the majors.
Could another pitcher undergo a similar transformation? Ever since Dontrelle Willis fell off the table as an effective major league pitcher, many fans have wondered whether he could pull off a transition like Ankiel and reinvent himself as an outfielder.
Willis had some success as a hitter, compiling a .655 OPS over nine seasons. What would he be capable of if he devoted himself to hitting full-time?
I was a Detroit Tigers blogger in one form or another for seven years before joining Bleacher Report, and this question came up frequently when Willis joined the team in 2008 and quickly looked done as a major league pitcher.
"Why don't the Tigers move D-Train to the outfield?" fans would ask on blogs, message boards and sports talk radio. My response was usually to roll my eyes. I came close to spraining something during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Willis announced his retirement earlier this month after he and the Orioles disagreed as to whether he should pitch as a starter or reliever. Willis left the team's Triple-A affiliate, but the O's wouldn't release him so he decided to call it a career instead.
At 30 years old, is Willis too old to try a revival on the position player side?
As we mentioned, Ankiel was 24 when he made his transition. It took him a good three years to develop into an outfielder who could get a shot in the majors. But he was still young enough to warrant making that investment.
Would another team take a shot like that on Willis? And if he's nothing special as an outfielder, every team's minor league organization is full of guys like that. Why wouldn't a team opt to give time to a younger player with some upside instead?
So as intriguing as the possibility is—and Willis has shown some pop in the past, once compiling an .856 OPS in 2007—it's very likely not going to happen.
But maybe Willis will get the itch to tryout with a lower-level or independent minor league team and indulge all the armchair general managers who thought moving him to the outfield was a good idea. It would certainly be a story worth following.
Who are some other pitchers that could try making the switch to position player if the pitching thing doesn't work?
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
OK, this isn't going to happen, barring a catastrophe. But Strasburg is hitting .360/.407/.640 with four doubles and one home run in 29 plate appearances this season.
A few weeks ago, we entertained the possibility of the Nats using him as a frequent pinch-hitter after he reached his innings limit.
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds
Two seasons ago, Leake compiled a .762 OPS in 60 plate appearances. This year, he has a .900 OPS in 33 PAs. His slugging percentage is .567. What numbers might Leake put up with 200-300 plate appearances in a season?
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers
Gallardo had four home runs and an .837 OPS in 72 plate appearances in 2010. I know we're talking about moving to the outfield, but the Tigers would love that kind of production at second base this season. Gallardo is struggling with the bat this season, however, batting .086.
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