The Puzzle of Dontrelle Willis

A couple of days ago, Bryan Price mentioned in an article on the Reds site that he was impressed with the development of the D-Train (Dontrelle Willis) thus far even though he has only seen him in bullpen sessions. Visit for the full article.

That article got me thinking though, where would he fit? If he worked his tail off and got back to his starter form, who would be left out? If he got a majority of his stamina back, but isn’t quite to the point where he could start, then what? Would he just be a lefty specialist coming in for one or two outs 3-5 times a week? That just sounds like a waste of a great arm…

Let’s look at this logically. First, for the past few years, he’s struggled. In fact, since 2007, he is a combined 15-27 with a 5.83 ERA (212 ER in 327.5 IP) with 62 games started and 65 played overall during that time. So what was the cause of this? Getting sent from Florida to Detroit in 2008? Nope, he was sliding a bit before that, not to the degree that he did during 2010, but sliding nonetheless. What about ongoing contract negotiations during the season? Probably not.

According to Tigers’ pitching coach Joe Coleman in an article from the New York Times in September of 2008, the problem was that he had “forgotten” where to release the ball during his patented delivery. As a result, they worked on his conditioning and refining his delivery a little just to tone it down, essentially making it easier to find the sweet spot in his delivery during which he could release the ball and find the strike zone – hopefully in the same delivery, repeatedly. Obviously that did not work – either the refining didn’t quite take or that wasn’t the problem.

So, what is the problem? What’s that saying from Yogi Berra – 90% of the game is half mental? Sounds about right to me. Have you ever had one of those days where your body is awake and your brain just says “screw you, I’m going on vacation, see you tomorrow!”? I know I have. The other day, when I was leaving for work, I had to come back into the house three freaking times to grab something that I had forgotten! Just imagine that happening for three years and the only thing that’s riding on your brain deciding to get its ass back to work is your career…minor details.

Ok, now we’ve identified the problem. Bryan Price is a good pitching coach and he’ll recognize it. Add that to the fact that Willis spent the last half of the 2010 season completely away from the game and I think he should be good to go from the neck up. Someone hit the reset button and cleaned out the cobwebs. Now we have to see where he’ll fit when he’s back into pitching shape.

Ideally, he’d get in shape – back to his 2005 form where he won 22 games and had a 2.63 ERA. Realistically, his head, heart and body may be ready, but his arm won’t. Like Travis Wood this year, no matter what role Willis plays, he’ll be watched closely to ensure he’s not overworked. Occasionally, he’ll be used in fill in roles, pitching an inning here or there to get some work in, but I believe that primarily, he will be used in long relief. In this scenario, he has the perfect storm for his particular set of circumstances. No stress from starting the game, the benefit of pitching through the line-up more than once and the opportunity to chew up some innings for the bullpen staff as a whole. He is essentially the new Micah Owings since he was signed by Arizona on January 24th. I doubt that Willis will be able to hit close to .300 like Owings did, but a pitcher hitting .232 isn’t shabby at all. Oh – and Willis has 8 career homers to Owings’ 11.