"The D-Train" is either running out of steam or is just about to leave the station. I’ll choose the latter.
Dontrelle Willis is a former 20-game winner, was the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year and was one of the most charismatic pitchers the game has ever seen. His smile could light up a room, and his excitement could be felt throughout the ballpark.
Within two years of his 20 victories, he was nearly out of the game.
D-Train won 68 games in his first five years and 72 in his career (courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com). Needless to say, things have gone sideways since his days in Florida, and now, according to a recent press release, he’s hooked up with the Independent Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.
Mike Gavin of Newsday corroborates the story, reporting that Willis will join Vladimir Guerrero and Ramon Castro on the Ducks.
A pitcher’s worst fear is not throwing strikes, and Willis has been living a recurring nightmare for years.
When a pitcher has more walks than strikeouts in a single season, it's a huge problem, and Willis has been unable to overcome it. Whether it’s mental, ugly mechanics or overcompensating, this is a battle he's been fighting and losing.
Willis last appeared in the majors in 2011, making 13 starts for the Cincinnati Reds and going 1-6 with an ERA of 5.00.
The 2005 Cy Young runner-up and two-time All-Star is in relatively unknown waters at this point, but he’s taking a road that many have found recent success on—independent baseball.
Take Scott Kazmir, for example. He was written off after 2011 and had the same problem as Willis: throwing strikes. However, the Sugar Land Skeeters gave him a shot. He worked out the kinks and is now a member of the Cleveland Indians' starting rotation (he is currently on the 15-day disabled list, according to ESPN).
For someone who has been on the biggest stage imaginable, indy baseball should give Willis the opportunity to work on just enjoying the game for what it is. He can work on throwing strikes and getting back to the basics.
At 31, Willis still has a lot of time to figure this out, and for someone who has had the success he’s had, this could be the best thing to happen to him.