Dontrelle to Cincy

Dontrelle Willis’ history is no secret. To attempt and retell it in a manner that proves anything but insulting and trite is pointless. Willis is undoubtedly the world’s most famous replacement level pitcher. His last acceptable season came in 2006; since then, he has thrown more than 400 innings between the majors and the minors without much success. The persistent state of ineffectiveness did not dissuade the Cincinnati Reds from signing Willis yesterday, although the minor league capacity of the deal is a strict reminder that this is not 2006.

Where does Willis fit in with the Reds’ organization? Likely as nothing more than a minor league arm with interesting career subplots. The Reds’ rotation is set and there are a few notable arms on the way up, too. If Willis somehow does make it back to the majors, one has to think he will do so as a situational reliever. With everything else in his performance set going wrong, Willis has still managed to get lefties out (with the exception of 45 plate appearances in 2009); his highest on-base percentage against lefthanders came in 2006 (.307).

Surprisingly, each of his 2010 teams seemed committed to keeping him in the rotation with the exception of San Francisco, with whom he made eight minor league relief appearances late in the season. Even Arizona – with nothing to lose in bullpen quality – kept him in the rotation. While the mendacity of 20-something inning sample sizes cannot be overstated, Willis’ peripherals actually worsened in his short time with the Diamondbacks last season. Labeling Willis’ Tigers performance in 2010 as “good” is a malapropism, but things got even worse with the D-Backs. (Willis’ Arizona strikeout-to-walk ratio finished nearly identical to his 2008 ratio – when he posted an ERA, FIP, and xFIP over 9, 8, and 7, respectively).

Successful relievers tend to throw strikes, which is a struggle with Willis thanks to a variety of factors that might extend beyond physical realms. His stuff will not make up for any shortcomings of command either, as batters haven’t whiffed on more than 6% of his pitches since he was a Marlin. As sad as Willis’ plight is, his best – and maybe only – chance at reviving his once bright future could be by mastering one of the most fungible skill sets in the game.

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26 Responses to “Dontrelle to Cincy”

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  1. Jonathan says:

    I hate to oversimplify things but speaking about just physical reasons, it seems like conditioning ruined his career. Now, the conditioning issue could be caused by many things but, to me anyway, a lot of his success was from having a hard to pick up delivery, while also having the athleticism to repeat those crazy mechanics and throw from a crazy angle with a nice rhythm. And of course he had pretty good stuff but not out of this world stuff. It seemed like he started losing a ton of flexibility and putting on weight in his midsection that made his mechanics all out of whack and it cost him a lot of command and velocity. He clearly has mind issues as well and I don’t know which came first. But I do wonder if he could get down to being lean enough to repeat his delivery if he could salvage some of his career. I sure hope he can.

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  2. B N says:

    I don’t generally say this about guys, but I just plain think he’s done. I can get why a club is willing to take a flier on him, but I have think you’re less likely to get production out of him than you are out of your run of the mill Rule 5.

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  3. GTinNYC says:

    Agreed with everything said about him, and I’m sure this is just to provide left handed relief depth. The team isn’t sure they will re-sign Arthur Rhodes, and even if they do, he’s had health issues and will be 41 this season. Bill Bray, the other lefty in the ‘pen, actually gets righties out more effectively, and has a long injury history himself.

    That just leaves Aroldis Chapman, who I think most people would like to see in the rotation. Willis just gives the team another arm as a possible LOOGY.

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  4. puffy says:

    If you’re lefty, can throw over 85 and keep it in the vicinity of the strike zone, SOMEONE will give you a minor league contract. That’s all this is.

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  5. Ray says:

    I think he still has a chance to be an OK pitcher-The Padres Bud Black or The Angels Scossia probably would be more help to him and both could use him

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  6. NEPP says:

    I disagree that he ever had a “bright future”. He outperformed his peripherals one year and then got overhyped. The rest has been pretty predictable.

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    • delv says:

      Ahh… revisionist history at its finest.

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      • NEPP says:

        Go look at his actual stats and get back to me. He had one really great year in 05 where a lot of things went right for him (and coincidentally, his BABIP was the lowest of his career and he outperformed his xFIP by over a full run). After that, everyone thought he was the next “great” pitcher when he was never gonna be that guy. His 2nd place CY finish in 05 was a flukish/lucky year, not a true indication of his talent. Since then, its been a steady decline for a lot of reasons including actual ability, physical issues and mental problems.

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    • Steve K. says:

      I agree with the overhype, but a 3.45 FIP and 3.89 xFIP over his first 594 innings isn’t exactly dim either.

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      • v-Skippy says:

        It wasn’t overhype by much. His first two years showed promise and his age 23 season was fantastic even if his peripherals indicated regression.

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  7. Andrew says:

    They can also pinch hit him in extra innings when the bench is depleted.

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  8. don says:

    That’s not what a malapropism is. That’s a pretty tough word to work into a column, though.

    I’m surprised to see he’s only got a .634 OPS. That’s great for a pitcher, but for some reason I remember him as being a semi-legitimate power threat.

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  9. Oakland Dan says:

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a worse major league pitcher. I’ve heard stories of Steve Blass, and that seems to be on the mark, so to speak.

    He’s terrible, terrible, terrible, and he’s done. Amazing that he keeps getting chances. Let him go to the Independent Leagues or the Mexican League, and if he pulls it back together, fine, take a look, but don’t sign this guy because he had a nice season way back when. He throws fastballs with absolutely nothing on them, and he throws them for balls. He gets into 3-0 counts over and over again, and then what you get is an even slower fastball, about 84mph, right on the fat part of the plate, if he’s lucky.

    It’s things like this that truly suggest that anyone can run a professional baseball team. It would be a better investment to get all of the toilets at Great American Ballpark gold plated, and I’m serious.

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  10. cs3 says:

    For the past couple years i have been wondering why a team doesnt try to put him on the Ankiel path. Hes athletic enough to play the outfield and has always had the ability to hit.
    Pitching successfully at the MLB level at this point seems like such a long shot that turning him into an oufielder seems to to have no more risk, but a higher upside

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    • Oakland Dan says:

      He’s really not that good of a hitter. He’s good for a pitcher, not Ankiel, Wes Ferrell or Micah Owings good.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      He’s nowehere near as athletic as Ankiel. Ankiel is a passable OF with a very strong and (surprisingly) accurate arm.

      The D-Train ain’t close to that. The D-Train is a decent hacker for a pitcher. makes about as much sense as paying Zambrano to be a 1B.

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  11. cpebbles says:

    Rebuild him mechanically. He has the arm strength to pitch in the big leagues, and he can probably get lefties out without relying on the wacky delivery that made his career trajectory inevitable.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      You make it sound easy.

      Have somebody unlearn something they’ve been doing for 15 years, learn something completely new, and be able to practice/do it at the highest level of competition … oh, and be successful.

      You’d invest an incredible amount of time and effort trying to teach somebody something they MAY not be willing to learn, nor work on.

      For what? 1 or 2 WAR.

      I’d move on to something else.

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      • cpebbles says:

        Not easy, but worth a minor league contract. 1 or 2 WAR is worth millions of dollars. Would you really value your AAA instructors’ time that highly?

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I was saying 1 or 2 million as an absolute cieling to what he could offer. I’m not optomistic that he will achieve that.

      My thinking is time time & effort invested > performance. So, why bother.

      What is he going to do now that he hasn’t tried to do in the recent past.

      Ben Zobrist and Andres Torres went outside of the organization for intstruction and worked like dogs on their swing to improve.

      I’m not convinced Willis is prepared, or even able, to do that.

      If he is, and he does, it would be one of the great stories of 2011. I wish him the best, but would not be prepared to invest effort and time into him until he shows he’s prepared to do the same.

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    • Mat says:

      His mechanics have already been reworked multiple times without success.

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  12. joser says:

    Dontrelle may be the pitcher even Dave Duncan can’t fix. Sure would like to see him try, though.

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    • Rich Hill says:

      Ha, silly, I AM the pitcher Dave Duncan couldn’t fix.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Another lefty with control problems.

        Dave Duncan also had the opportunity to try and help Ankiel through his ordeal … although to be fair, rumors are rampant as to what was really the problem there.

        When a pitcher lacks dominant stuff (either velocity or movement) AND has problems throwing strikes, he’s done.

        Duncan is successful helping “strike throwers” pound the zone with late-moving pitches (Stewart=forkball, Eck=slider, Suppan=2-seamer, Williams=2-seamer, Pineiro=sinker, etc). All those pitches move away from the barrel for RHBs.

        Basically, the option with a lefty is th throw a cutter … but the key is command. Willis does not have it. IMO, it’s like QB Accuracy … it’s basically something you have or not … very few have “developed” it at the highest level of competition.

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