For the first time since 2007, Dontrelle Willis isn't getting throttled on the mound. The now-29-year-old lefty, who drifted from Detroit to San Francisco to Arizona in recent years, has a 3.96 fielding-independent ERA in 52.2 innings pitched for the Reds this season. Considering that the '03 NL Rookie of the Year had been nearly two wins below replacement the previous three years while dealing with injuries and social anxiety disorder, that constitutes a major comeback.
Willis isn't whiffing lots of hitters or showing impeccable control, posting a 37-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he's doing an excellent job of getting ground balls. His 59 percent ground ball rate is way above the 46-47 percent big league average and ranks fourth among starting pitchers. Changes in ground ball rate become reliable at around 150 hitters faced (Willis has taken on 228 batters), so there's reason to believe that the D-Train's uptick in grounders is real.
How is Willis getting those worm-killers? His fastball, sitting around 88 MPH and topping out at 92, is the key. Willis' fastball has a near-70 percent ground ball rate. You might think that Willis is pounding the lower portion of the zone with his fastball, but that's not the case at all. His heater sits high:
Forty-one percent of Willis' fastballs have been thrown high in the zone. In general, high fastballs rarely produce ground balls (the league average grounder rate on high heat is 35 percent), but Willis is getting grounders two-thirds of the time that hitters put a high fastball in play.
With so-so strikeout and walk totals, Willis needs to induce choppers and limit extra-base damage to succeed. We'll have to see whether the D-Train can keep on defying the odds by racking up grounders on high heaters that hitters usually loft.