Dontrelle Willis's Windy Road Needs To End in the Bullpen

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Dontrelle Willis's Windy Road Needs To End in the Bullpen
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After being released by both the Tigers and Diamondbacks already this season, the San Francisco Giants have given Dontrelle Willis another chance, signing him to a minor league deal today .

 

In 2003, a 21-year-old kid with an infectious smile and quirky delivery took the league by storm while helping the Florida Marlins win their second World Series.

 

That season, Willis struck out 142 batters in 160 innings pitched while going 14-6.  On top of a World Series ring, Willis made his first of two All-Star teams and won the National League Rookie of the Year award.

 

Willis would have a few more good seasons with the Marlins, but none better than his 2005 season. That year Willis won 22 games to only 10 loses and posted a carrier best 3.09 K/BB rate.

 

In 2005, Willis posted the lowest walk rate of his career (2.09 walks per nine innings pitched), but he would never again come close to that success.

 

In 2007, only two years removed from 22 wins and a career best K/BB rate, Willis posted a 5.17 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and his highest walk rate as a member of the Marlins.

 

It would be his last season in south Florida.

 

That following winter, Willis was traded along side Marlins teammate Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers for top prospect Cameron Maybin and five other minor leaguers.

 

That was when Willis lost his control completely, both with his pitches and his mental approach.

 

After only 11.1 innings with his new club, Willis had walked 21 opposing hitters and allowed 13 earned runs.

 

Willis, the pitcher with the infectious smile and quirky delivery, wasn’t smiling anymore and his delivery was more out of whack than ever.

 

The Tigers then sent him down to single-A, about as far from Detroit as they could get him.

 

The move was made to allow Willis time to not only work on his control problems, but also to work on his mental state. 

 

Nothing changed during the rest of his tenure in Detroit as the strikeout rates went down and the walk rates stayed obscenely high.

 

The Arizona Diamondbacks decided to give Willis a shot, acquiring him via trade.  His time in Arizona lasted for 22.1 innings, 27 walks, 14 strikeouts and 17 earned runs.

 

Having been released by the Diamondbacks, Willis was free to sign with any team willing to give him a shot.  The San Francisco Giants were that team.

 

Willis will begin his journey in Fresno, CA, the Giants’ triple-A affiliate.  If the Giants are smart, he’ll be a part of the Grizzlies' bullpen, not starting rotation.

 

At this point in his career, Willis has proven that he can no longer stay effective as a starting pitcher. However, he has two things going for him that a team could use to their advantage.

 

First, Willis is still tough on left-handed hitters.  This season, even with all of his struggles, Willis has struck out 12.86 left-handed hitters per nine innings pitched and held them to a .213 AVG against.  In 86 left-handed batters faced this season, 16 have base hits with only two going for doubles and only one going for a home run.

 

Second, his velocity should improve in one-inning stints.  In his last outing, Willis’s fastball topped out at 91 mph.  In his first start with the Diamondbacks, Willis topped out at 93 mph.  While he has averaged a fastball around 88 mph, one would have to believe that a one inning “max effort” role would produce consistent speeds in the low 90’s.

 

There have been plenty of starting pitchers with control issues who have been converted into relievers and found much more success.  One that has current relevance is Arthur Rhodes.

 

Rhodes started his Major League career as a starter.  One look at his early walk rates clearly show that he had big problems with control as his walks per nine innings pitched were consistently in the five-plus range.

 

Then, in 1996, the Orioles used Rhodes almost exclusively as a reliever.  The following season Rhodes made 53 appearances, all out of the bullpen.  He struck out 102 hitters in 95.1 innings while only walking 26 and posting a 3.02 ERA.

 

In 1997, Arthur Rhodes was 27 years old.  Dontrelle Willis is still only 28 years old.

 

It’s time to stop living in the past.  Yes, Willis was the Rookie of the Year as a starting pitcher in 2003 and yes, he finished 11th in MVP voting in 2005, but those days are dead and gone.

 

If Willis goes to Fresno and develops as a shut down left-handed specialist, think of how valuable that could be for the Giants during the stretch run when rosters expand in September.    Starting pitching is not their problem.

 

It has been a long and windy road for Dontrelle Willis.  However, teams would not continue to give him chance after chance if he didn’t still have some pretty good “stuff”.

 

Take that pure “stuff,” harness it into a one inning “max effort” role, and maybe, just maybe, Willis can dominate once again.

 

Well, dominate lefties at least.

 

Charlie Saponara is the owner/author of fantasybaseball365.com and can be contacted at cs.fb365@gmail.com .  Follow FB365 on Twitter

 

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