Dontrelle Willis' baseball epitaph appeared written this time last winter. The D-Train won the 2003 Rookie of the Year and averaged nearly three Wins Above Replacement per season with the Marlins, but he imploded upon a trade to Detroit prior to the 2008 season. The 1,022 innings that Willis threw through age 25 (fifth-highest through that age over the past two decades) caught up with him in the form of knee and forearm injuries, and he also dealt with anxiety issues that cost him most of 2009. His control completely abandoned him (119 walks in 123.1 innings from 2008-2010) as he drifted from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks to the Giants. At age 28, it looked like Willis might have thrown his last major league pitch.
The Reds offered Willis a minor league deal prior to 2011, however, and the D-Train resurfaced in Cincy last July. His results in 13 starts were middling -- 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings, 4.4 BB/9 and a low-fours Fielding Independent ERA. But Willis made fellow lefties look absolutely silly, holding them to a .127/.169/.200 line compared to .305/.395/.433 for right-handed hitters.
Dominating lefties is nothing new for Willis, as he managed to get them out even when his LaLoosh act against righties was earning him pink slips. The Phillies have reportedly signed the D-Train to a one-year deal with a base salary under $1 million to pitch in relief, and he could be one of the game's best Left-Handed One Out Guys (LOOGYs) if manager Charlie Manuel uses him to get the platoon advantage.
Since 2008, Willis has held lefties to a .196/.294/.312 batting line in 221 plate appearances. He has pounded the zone with his fastball and slider, throwing 54% of his pitches over the plate:
Lefties have swung through a bunch of those pitches, too. Take a look at left hitters' contact rate by pitch location against Willis, compared to the average lefty-on-lefty matchup:
Willis has gotten lefties to whiff 26.2% of the time they have swung since 2008, well above the 23.7% average for LHP vs. LHB over that time frame.
Against righties, though? It's a whole different story. Right-handers have walloped Willis for a .301/.434/.444 line in 711 plate appearances. It's like every righty morphs into Rickey Henderson upon entering the batter's box against the D-Train! While Willis is aggressive against same-handed hitters, he often misses to the arm side with his fastball, changeup and slider versus righties:
Just 46% of his pitches to righties have been thrown within the strike zone since 2008. And when righties aren't taking ball four, they're making a ton of contact:
Willis has induced a swing and a miss just 13.8% of the time against righties since 2008, a far cry from the 19.4% average for left-handed pitchers against right-handed hitters.
A second act as a LOOGY isn't sexy, but it sure beats toiling in Triple-A or retiring. And, as San Francisco's Javier Lopez (signed two a two-year, $8.5 million deal this offseason) showed, it can be a lucrative living. At age 30, the crooked-capped lefty with the high leg kick could get back on track if Manuel plays the matchups right.