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.