Dontrelle Willis would be having a great season – if the plate was high and outside.
I apologize to the unknown baseball observer whose words I have semi-pirated, when he was talking about a young Sandy Koufax in the 1950s. Koufax, before becoming one of the best pitchers of his time, had control problems when he first reached the major leagues – wildness that he had difficulty wrangling in the minor leagues. And it was that lack of command that led to the line from which I unashamedly stole for my opening sentence.
“Koufax would be a great pitcher if the plate was high and outside.”
Sandy Koufax got his control together, and did very well with home plate where it has always been, thank you.
Willis is a Detroit Tigers pitcher, and that’s not just a rumor. Only, he’s not really a Tigers pitcher. He’s a Toledo Mud Hens pitcher. Before that, he was a Lakeland Tigers pitcher. Last year, he was a Florida Marlins pitcher. Just a few years ago, he was considered one of the top young pitchers in the big leagues. The fact that he’s left-handed made him all the more of a precious commodity.
Today, Willis struggles mightily to get minor league hitters out, mainly because he often has no clue where the ball is going. His apparently sudden loss of control is stunning, if not frightening. This sort of thing has ruined promising careers in the past.
When the Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins last December for top drawer prospects Andrew Miller (LHP) and Cameron Maybin (OF), the trade was a bona fide blockbuster. Cabrera is a beast – a 25-year-old manster who’s good for 30+ HRs and 100+ RBI for the next 10 years, at least. If not more. And Willis is a 26-year-old lefty who’s already thrown over 1,000 big league innings, and with a fine 3.78 career ERA. The move looked to put the Tigers over the hump and put the rubber stamp on a playoff appearance in 2008, and for many years beyond. The team was gutting the cash-strapped Marlins, absconding with their two biggest stars.
Cabrera has pretty much held up his end of the deal, despite an atrocious start. He has 27 HRs and 99 RBI after slugging two homers in Friday night’s win over the Kansas City Royals.
On Wednesday, Willis made his second start for the AAA Mud Hens, after sort of earning a promotion from the Class A Lakeland team. Truth be told? Willis was moved up to AAA because, well, you simply don’t keep multi-millionaire pitchers in Class A for too long; it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. He didn’t really earn it with his performances, though they reportedly improved in tiny increments.
In that start Wednesday, Willis threw five innings, surrendered three runs, and – here’s the troubling part – walked five batters. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, as usual, minced no words, sugarcoated nothing, when he said flatly, “It wasn’t a good outing.”
There were no hints, really, that Willis had control issues when the Tigers traded for him. In 1,022 big league innings thru the end of last season, Willis has walked 344 batters. The calculator tells us that such a ratio is about 3.0 walks per nine innings – hardly alarming. But since joining the Tigers organization, Willis has been nothing but wild and exasperating. The control problems surfaced in spring training, but it was hoped that they were the bi-product of switching teams and simply having a poor spring. Then Willis made his first start of the season on the first Saturday of the 2008 campaign, and while he didn’t give up many hits, he walked a bunch. Then he started again, and hurt his leg in the first inning. Then he returned, started again, and once again there was a parade of opposing hitters jogging to first base after taking ball four.
The Tigers sent him down to the minors – wayyyy down, all the way to the bottom feeding team in Lakeland, which plays in a league mainly for rookies and second-year prospects. It’s an instructional league, certainly not one where you’d expect to find a 26-year-old pitcher with 1,000 big league innings under his belt. But Willis was so off the mark with his control, so messed up, it was thought, with his mechanics, that Tigers brass felt only the instructors and baseball scientists in Lakeland could put him back on track.
It worked, as I said, sort of. Hence the promotion to Toledo – one step away from the big leagues. So close yet so far, in the case of Dontrelle Willis.
There’s no indication that Willis will throw another pitch for the Tigers this season – even when the rosters are expanded to 40 players on September 1. He really hasn’t slain his control dragon. There’s still wonderment when Willis throws the ball, as to where it will end up. Usually it’s not in the strike zone.
I’m not the first to draw this comparison, but it’s hard not to think of Steve Blass.
Blass was a Pirates pitcher in the early-1970s who helped lead the Bucs to the 1971 World Series championship. In 1972, Blass pitched nearly 250 innings and won 19 games, with an ERA of under 3.00. He had no control problems. Like Willis, Blass averaged about three walks per nine innings. But the next year, Blass lost it. He pitched 89 innings and walked, get this, 84 batters – the same amount he walked in 250 innings the year previous. He tried to pitch again in ’74 but walked seven in five innings. His career ended, at age 32. His curious and sudden loss of command and control helped spawn a new term, Steve Blass Syndrome. SBS became the terminology whenever a pitcher suffered from sudden loss of control.
Dontrelle Willis was supposed to be an integral part of the Tigers rotation this year. He was supposed to be one of the many reasons why the team was to overwhelm its opponents and cruise to the World Series. He was supposed to continue his path to greatness, the path he forged in Florida. Now he can’t even throw a strike with any consistency. It’s not overstating things to suggest that he may have SBS and will never pitch in the big leagues again – at least with any degree of success.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, but neither was the Tigers season as a whole. Willis symbolizes that by his lonesome.