Evaluating Dontrelle Willis’ Second Start


(This was written a few days ago, but didn’t seem to post for some reason…  This was supposed to be posted on 05/20)

While watching game two against the Detroit Red Wings at the local bar, I thought I was drunk. It was the second period of the game, when I looked across the bar at one of the smaller televisions to see a close up of Dontrelle Willis still on the mound. I looked down at my first drink of the night, just making sure it wasn’t my tenth. I then glanced back over across the bar and looked at my buddy, who could care less about baseball.

“Is Willis still on the mound, It has to be the fourth inning at least,” I said. “That must be his longest start as a Tiger.”

Mind you I couldn’t see the score or the inning, with that being the only TV in the joint covering the Tigers. My friend didn’t understand why I was freaking out so much. He had no idea that Willis has never won as a Tiger. He didn’t realize that before Tuesday, nobody had witnessed Dontrelle go over 5 innings in Detroit. Last season, Dontrelle only threw 5 innings in two months of the season. (April and July). In May of last year, he lasted just one inning. The whole resurrection of the loved lefty took over then. Now it seems that the “D-Train” is back on the tracks of remaining a successful pitcher.

After getting home pretty late, and sleeping on a big Red Wings win, I went to my computer, almost afraid to look at the box score. Just like every other Tigers fan, I have ragged, ripped and tore Willis a new one since he has been wearing the old english D. Just like every other fan though, I hope for the best. I want him to find that crazy delivery and attitude he had as a kid in 2003, when he won the rookie of the year. Though we didn’t get that on Tuesday, we did get a respectable start.

As I make my way to the boxscore, and I am searching over my morning reads on the internet, I am bombarded with Willis news. He is all over ESPN (Congrats Kurt!). Rob Neyer thinks that he could be back. I’m sitting in my Pajamas, eating Apple Jacks, just amazed that what I got a sneak peak at sitting at the bar was real. One hit baseball through six innings. One hundred pitches, in which 62 of them were for strikes. Five total strikeouts and just two walks. At that point I knew i had to go to the good ol’ MLB.TV archives to watch his start. I tell you this much, I was shocked from what I saw. Not that he pitched perfectly, but he did what he had to do to keep the Tigers in the ball game. 

Overview of the Start: 

Though the first inning was arguably his toughest, I could tell right away that Dontrelle had found something that he hasn’t had since being with the Tigers. Deception. Though he didn’t mix his pitches well, he did locate his fastball flawlessly at points. This, combined with a more consistent delivery (you could tell that was on the back of his mind 90% of the time he threw the ball) and a slowed down pace has to be considered one of the big reasons he was able to have success. We saw this in the second inning when he struck out the sides. I don’t know what was more consistent, Willis actually painting the paint with called strikes, or Rod Allen constantly saying, “He’s threading the Needle.” Either way, we began to see shades of fun in Dontrelle’s actions and play. He was still a bit nervous (constantly moving on the mound, and walking off it to receive the ball from Laird) but getting more comfortable will come with the territory. Not being out on the mound constantly will do that to you. Usually in a Dontrelle Willis start, he sweats away a five dollar footlong. Not Yesterday.

I thought a major key that is not talked about is the leadership of catcher Gerald Laird. He was out there talking to him when needbe. He called a great game. There has always been a correlation with great pitching from Dontrelle and his catcher. Peak back to 2003, when he burst onto the scene as the Rookie of the year. It was Pudge behind the plate, guiding him to a perfect June win wise, and a 14 win opening season. In 2005, when he won 22 games, a veteran Paul Lo Duca was making the calls for the fish. Even Miguel Olivo was a good personality as Dontrelle began to struggle. Blown away from the progress that Dontrelle had made, I went back even further into the archives to look at what Dontrelle was doing right in 2007. I looked at his second to last start as a starter on September 25th 2007, against a pretty potent Cubs offense, where he went 8 innings and struck out seven.

The Serviceable Dontrelle of 2007

2007 wasn’t the best year for Dontrelle Willis, but it was serviceable. He completed his third straight 200+ inning year with a plus 5 ERA despite giving up just seven more hits and only four more walks than in 2006, when he had a 3.87 ERA. After reviewing the tape from that second to last start as a Marlin, I noticed a few things that he has gotten back to. Thanks to new pitching coach Rick Knapp, Dontrelle has been able to be himself, and that showed.

One of the first things that I noticed in that 2007 start was that his leg kick was higher than it had been in quite a long time. On Tuesday we saw that to an extent, and to just the right extent. In both starts, Willis reached 93 miles per hour. And for the deception he lost by dropping his leg kick lower than his original delivery on tuesday was made up by speed differential. On that September night in 2007, Willis ranged from 93 MPH to 80 MPH. On Tuesday, he dropped his breaking ball by eight miles per hour. Back in 2007, it seemed the Willis was a bit more methodical. Every pitch was planned ahead of time. If he threw on the outside corner, It was because that was the plan between him and catcher Miguel Olivo. His breaking ball was very devastating, and that is going to have to be the key from here on out. If he can’t throw secondary pitches for strikes, he will be in trouble in the future. And like always, the two runs Willis gave up came in a jam, after pitching nearly perfectly through seven.

The Final Tally:

Though I don’t think Willis is ever going to be the 22 game stud he was in 2005, He does have the potential to be an everyday fifth starter, who keeps his team in ball games. We saw him battle in 2007, and I think we will see that again here in the future. It will take a lot of effort, but what Rick Knapp has been able to do so far (He was in Detroit between every single start working out the kinks) is a testament to this pitching staff so far this season.