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Entries in Dontrelle Willis (3)

Tuesday
Dec132011

D-Train a LOOGY in Training

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:

Willis' pitch location to left-handed hitters, 2008-2011

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:

Left-handed hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Willis, 2008-2011

Average contact rate by pitch location for lefty hitters vs. lefty pitchers, 2008-2011

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:

Willis' pitch location to right-handed hitters, 2008-2011

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:

Right-handed hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Willis, 2008-2011Average contact rate by pitch location for righty hitters vs. lefty pitchers, 2008-2011Willis 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.

Wednesday
Aug312011

D-Train Getting Grounders

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:

Frequency of Willis' fastball location

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.

Monday
Jul112011

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.