It’s hard to believe that just six years ago, 23-year-old Dontrelle Willis threw 236.1 innings for the Florida Marlins and logged one of the better seasons from a starting pitcher over the past decade — 2.63 ERA, 2.99 FIP, and 6.2 WAR.
Since then, Willis has gone from Cy Young contender to replacement-level pitcher. He has become a major-league journeyman, playing with four organizations over the last four years and trying to re-discover the spark that once made him a star.
In that time frame, though, he compiled a 6.15 ERA over 199 innings with more walks (156) than strikeouts (139).
Despite those lackluster numbers, things appeared brighter this year in Cincinnati. Reds’ pitching coach Bryan Price helped smooth out Willis’ mechanics and focused on staying behind the baseball more effectively. He started 13 games in Triple-A Louisville to begin the year and dominated hitters. The walk rate was back down to 2.39 BB/9, and his 2.63 ERA earned him a mid-season promotion to the big leagues.
He surprised many in the league by throwing quality starts in nine of his 13 starts, including a 10-strikeout performance against the Colorado Rockies on August 9th. His 8.3% swinging strike rate was the highest mark since the wheels began falling off in 2007. He also added a curveball to his repertoire, allowing him to limit the usage of his mediocre fastball.
Of course, in September, the command problems began creeping in once again. He walked 20 batters in his last 30 innings, and his overall ERA ballooned to end the season, leaving many wondering if the handful of quality starts were simply a fluke.
Lost amongst the 5.00 ERA and increased walk rate as the season drew to a close, however, was the fact that he quietly displayed an ability that should keep him in the big leagues for the next decade. He overwhelmed left-handed hitters and left them helpless at the plate.
Willis held lefties to a .123 AVG with the Reds. He struck out lefties 33.3% of the time and only walked them in 3.3% of the plate appearances. That translated into a 1.97 FIP against lefties in 2011 as a starting pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds. Furthermore, left-handed hitters only managed to hit .222 against him in Triple-A in 2011 — so that helps mitigate the concerns about the small sample size of 75.2 innings.
Even in 2010, when he compiled a 5.62 ERA with the Tigers and Diamondbacks, left-handed hitters had no chance. They hit .208 and struck out in 34.9% of the time against Willis. Compare that to the .315 AVG against righties — including a putrid 0.35 K/BB ratio — and the LOOGY skill set becomes even more isolated.
Dontrelle Willis could serve as an extremely useful left-handed specialist in this league. His performance as a starter for the Reds was intriguing in 2011, especially the dramatic increase in ground balls, but he has not demonstrated an ability to consistently retire right-handed hitters for the past half-decade.
Teams like the Milwaukee Brewers or Seattle Mariners could benefit from a league-minimum deal with Willis. Both teams navigated the majority of the 2011 season without a lefty in their respective bullpen, but are expected to troll the free agent market for help in that area. The Orioles and Twins are potential matches, as well.
In the end, teams will always be itching to recreate Dontrelle Willis into the burgeoning ace he was circa 2003-2006. The more prudent move for an organization, however, would be to forgo the dreams of plugging him in the starting rotation. At this point, he is a lefty who relies on a deceptive delivery and a 86-88 MPH fastball. Set him up for success by placing him in the bullpen and utilizing him as the effective left-handed specialist he already is.
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