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« Baseball-All-Starlytics: Inside story on Matt Kemp | Main | Breaking Down Team Ortiz's Dingers »

D-Train Returns to Majors

At the All-Star break, the Cincinnati Reds have a record of 45-47 and look up at the Pirates, Brewers and the Cardinals in the National League Central standings. The defending division champs sit in fourth place due mostly to a disappointing starting rotation. Cincy's rotation was supposed to be a source of strength, boasting  great depth if not ace-caliber talent. Instead, injuries and uncerachievement leave Reds starters with the second-worst fielding-independent ERA in the major leagues.

Showing just how thin the club's staff has been stretched, the Reds turned to Dontrelle Willis on Sunday to start in place of Edinson Volquez, who was optioned to Triple-A to rectify his control issues. Willis, the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year who averaged better than three Wins Above Replacement with the Marlins in his early-to-mid-twenties, has since contracted a serious case of Steve Blass Disease.

The left-hander scarcely pitched at all upon being traded to the Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera, missing time in 2008 with knee and forearm injuries and then seeking treatment for anxiety disorder in 2009. Last year, he was acquired by the Diamondbacks for a song during the summer and was released a month later, latching on with the Giants to finish the season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors from '08 to '10 was 82-to-119 in 123.1 innings pitched.

Prior to his call-up, the now-29-year-old D-Train showed some signs of getting back on track. He posted a 67-to-20 K/BB ratio at Triple-A Louisville, with a 3.12 fielding-independent ERA and a ground ball rate above 50 percent in 75.1 innings. Making his first MLB start in over a year on Sunday against the Brewers, Willis allowed two runs in six innings pitched, surrendering six hits while walking and whiffing four hitters each.

Here's a look at his pitch break and velocity from Sunday:

Willis relied on a fastball/slider mix, with a few changeups and seemingly a cutter thrown in as well. His fastball sat at 89 and topped out at 92, his slider averaged around 81 and his cutter came in a few ticks higher than the breaking ball. The changeup averaged 84 MPH.

He got ahead of hitters at a surprising clip, getting a first pitch strike to 19 of the 26 batters that he faced while throwing almost exclusively fastballs in those situtations. So, why did he still issue four walks? Willis got strikes with his fastball about 64 percent of the time and his cutter 66 percent, locating those pitches within the zone often:

 Pitch frequency of Willis' fastball and cutterBut Willis tried to use his slider and changeup as chase pitches, with little success. Batters went after just two of Willis' 15 out-of-zone sliders, and none of his three changeups that were off the plate.

 Pitch frequency of Willis' slider and changeup

The D-Train's first start with the Reds was a mixed bag. He threw his fastball and what looked like a cutter for strikes while recording 10 ground ball outs, but his slider was sloppy and hitters accordingly laid off the pitch. It's hard to envision long-term success for Willis, but the fact that he's even on a major league mound constitutes major progress at this point.

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