Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | March 23, 2010

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Dontrelle Willis Edition

One of the bigger stories surrounding the Tigers during this Spring thus far has been the emergence of Dontrelle Willis as a viable contender to make the Opening Day rotation after two seasons of well-documented and colossal struggles since arriving in Detroit in the same trade that brought the Tigers First Baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Willis, who concluded the 2008 season with a 9.38 ERA and 35 walks in 24 innings and concluded the 2009 season with a 7.49 ERA and 28 walks in 33 2/3 innings, is in the final year of a three year contract that was signed shortly following the aforementioned trade.   Thus far this spring he has impressed fans and media alike with his 0.90 Spring ERA with only roughly a week and a half remaining in the exhibition season.  This was capped by his pitching three innings of shutout ball against Houston in a game that was televised in Detroit, thus giving many fans an opportunity to see him and bolster their own hopes for his recovery.

It is here that I ask Detroit Tiger fans to calm down and remain wary.   It is true that I have long been one of the biggest Willis doubters.  Even in the immediate wake of the trade there were a lot of indicators that his career was trending downward, though not even I would’ve expected the complete implosion that has transpired over the past two seasons.  His complete loss of command of the strike zone is reminiscent of Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel, and Mark Wohlers.   All three were good to great pitchers once upon a time, and of them only Wohlers came close to recovering from his sudden inability to find the plate.   There just isn’t a very good track record for pitchers who seem to wake up one day unable to find the plate recovering from that affliction.   The Tigers, for their part, have noted that it was depression that did Willis in and that he may have recovered.  That remains to be seen.

There are again legitimate reasons to be extremely guarded about the optimism surrounding Willis this spring.   I’m a large advocate of the idea that spring training statistics matter very little if at all, though there are exceptions.  One such exception was last season when Gary Sheffield arrived in camp.  As a player with repeated shoulder trouble throughout his Tigers tenure that sapped him of his ability to get hits or hit for power, it was important that he showed power in the Spring — Even if he made outs.   Willis fits a similar mold.  What is most important for him is that he shows up with command of the strike zone.   The overall numbers matter less than that.

Thus far this spring Willis has thrown ten innings, which is a startlingly small sample size given the amount of optimism that has been generated.   This is roughly the equivalent of two short starts or one long start and a long relief appearance.  Even within the small sample however, there are causes for alarm when discussing a pitcher whose recent track record in games that matter is awful.   On balance, Willis has a 0.90 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00 in those ten innings, but beyond the surface things get murky quickly.  He’s walked 5 batters in those innings (4.5 BB/9) with two hit by pitch, which is not the level of command you would like to see of a pitcher who strikes out so few (K/9 of 5.5 as a Tiger, 5.4 this spring).  While he has kept hits down, this appears to be a primary function of good fortune, as opponents have mustered a .172 batting average on balls in play against him this spring, which is far from sustainable even in an insanely lucky season (for more on insanely lucky seasons, see: Galarraga, Armando, 2008).   Also consider that even out of this small sample of ten innings, not all of them were starter’s innings and some were against opposing teams “B” lineups.   In addition to small sample size, what exists of that small samples are matchups with mixed talent levels all trying to right themselves for the upcoming season.    When you consider that over the last two seasons in the minor leagues Willis had a K/9 of 5.9 (in 93 2/3 innings — Also a small sample) and a BB/9 of 4.3, it seems that his Spring rates  — And it again cannot be overemphasized that the sample is incredibly small — Are in line with what he was doing against minor league competition in the past two seasons.    And we know what he did against Major Leaguers in those same seasons.

While it is always a bad idea to take Spring statistics as gospel and ten innings are a ridiculously small sample, Willis thus far hasn’t shown anything (at least in the numbers) this spring that suggests that he’s any different than the pitcher who pitched in Lakeland, Erie, and Toledo the last two seasons.   That same pitcher struggled mightily in the Major Leagues.    I would like to see Dontrelle succeed, not only for the Tigers sake, but also for his own.  He seems like a genuinely nice person and he’s a good ambassador for the game.  I will never forget that shortly after being acquired by Detroit, he went out and gave Christmas gifts to local children.   However, I’m exercising caution in making too much of his sparkling ERA in very few innings during an exhibition schedule.  I’m not buying, and will not until I see it in the regular season (if he makes the roster).   I caution Tiger fans not to spend their emotional capital on this risky stock either, at least for the time being.



  1. Completely agree with you. As a fantasy baseball team-owner, I’m staying far away from that guy. Nice post, Bill

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