The Dontrelle Files

We know Dontrelle Willis has the big leg kick and the bigger smile, but let’s take a graphical and statistical look at the Tigers newest starter.

The pitch selection

Using Josh Kalk’s pitch f/x tool we can look at the mix of pitches that Willis throws and the success he has with each pitch in his repertoire.

Willis has 2 fastballs, one with more sink and vertical movement – presumably a 2 seamer – that he throws most frequently. He also appears to have a 4 seam fastball which he doesn’t throw as often. He has an 86 MPH change up and an 80 MPH slider that makes it tough for lefties.

The 2007 struggles

Willis is coming off his roughest season. A season in which he was banged up but tried to pitch though it. The result was an ERA in excess of 5. What changed for Willis? It came down to walks and home runs.

Willis walked a career high 3.81 per nine innings pushing his K/BB rate down below 2.0 for the second consecutive season. However, it was all walks that attributed to the ratio as Willis has maintained a remarkably consistent strikeout rate throughout his career.

The other problem for Willis was a new career high in home runs. Never before had he given up more than 21 long balls in a season and last year he surrendered 29.

Willis had theh Marlins defense behind him which was generally regarded as awful. But when Willis was pitching Florida converted 14 more plays than expected to outs. Four of those plays were ones that Dontrelle made himself. But he didn’t suffer from bad luck necessarily and his fielding independent ERA was right in line with his actual ERA.

The homers

Both Dolphins Stadium and Comerica Park are pretty equal in terms of allowing home runs. Last year 14 of the 29 dingers that Willis allowed came at home, and surprisingly all 29 were hit by right handers.

With such a disparity you can imagine how many homers went to left, and it stands to reason that even without Willis changing anything, he may have better results next year with Comerica’s big left and centerfields.

The graph below was cobbled together from Hit Tracker Online. The blue dots are the home runs that Willis allowed last year, with Comerica parks’s dimensions super imposed on top. (also courtesy of Hit tracker online)

Of course Willis won’t be pitching exclusively at Comerica, but there are a fair number that would fall within the fences, and with Jacque Jones and Curtis Granderson manning the outfield some may be harmless outs.


Many of the projections for 2008 are in with Marcels, Chone, ZiPS, and Bill James now available.

The key elements are detailed in the table below:

Proj IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Bill James 209 4.22 6.59 3.03 0.86
Chone 211 4.56 6.39 3.28 0.91
Marcel 185 4.4 6.61 3.26 0.97
ZiPS 224 4.34 6.51 3.09 0.92
Consenus 207.25 4.38 6.52 3.19 0.92

The projection systems are remarkably consistent in their expectations for Willis having a bounce back season. The consistency in his strike out rate isn’t surprising given how steady it has been throughout his career, but the consistency in the other numbers is a surprise.

In all, the projections make me feel better about Dontrelle’s prospects than I did when looking at his ERA from last year. Granted, he’ll still have to deal with changing to the stronger league, but he still has a pretty good chance to be an above average 200 inning pitcher and those are pretty valuable.


  1. Walt

    December 11, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Great analysis Bill.

  2. em3

    December 11, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Great report, man. Real well done. Thanks!

    Off topic, but this is hilarious…A Mitchell Report Draft! haha..

  3. Michael

    December 11, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    Those look like solid numbers from our 3rd-4th pitcher [which I assume he will be]. I hope these hold true.

  4. Michael

    December 11, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    …and in addition to that, stuff like the f/x tool just baffles me. I’m just beginning to look at these stats more seriously. The fact that it exists is nuts to me.

  5. Matt in Toledo

    December 11, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    This is really top notch, Billfer. I love the pitch chart.

  6. Mike R

    December 11, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Well done Bill.

    His FIP at Hardballtimes is 5.10, but his xFIP is 4.76 because xFIP normalizes HR’s (since they’re essentially fly balls that hurt the pitcher based on ball park factors) which absolutely kill (inflate) the FIP numbers. I really think he’ll bounce back like the projections think.

    Also, I really do think there’s truth to the rumblings that he pitcher hurt most of the year, which would explain the high BB totals, yet still good zip on his heater (according to the chart you posted). We saw that first hand that some injuries can cause a loss of control but not velocity (Sup, Bonderman).

  7. Rings

    December 11, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks, Bill…this is the stuff that makes sabermetrics – and your blog as one of my favorites – worthwhile.
    Great job!!

  8. Adam

    December 11, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    What the heck is that home run dot that’s right in the middle of left-center field?

  9. Greg

    December 11, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    I wondered about that too. Maybe it’s an inside-the-parker?

  10. greg

    December 11, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    I noticed that too Adam. I figured that must be an inside the parker….just a guess.

    Outstanding work Bilfer. This is great.

  11. Mike R

    December 12, 2007 at 2:49 am

    I’m almost 100% certain it is because on if you find Curtis Granderson, he’s got a HR that’s about 30 feet short of the fence in LF which is his inside-the-park-homer.

  12. Birdy

    December 12, 2007 at 4:42 am

    April 7 in Miami: Jimmy “Rollins ripped a liner to left-center. Rookie Alejandro De Aza made a sliding attempt to cut the ball off from skirting to the gap. But the ball skipped past De Aza and to the wall in deep center. The speedy Rollins raced around the bases, and scored on a headfirst slide.”

  13. don

    December 12, 2007 at 9:15 am

    FYI, ZIPS projections for the entire detroit rotation:

    Name Age ERA W L G GS INN H ER HR BB K
    Justin Verlander 25 3.76 15 8 30 30 189.0 182 79 20 53 156
    Kenny Rogers* 43 4.11 9 6 21 21 127.0 131 58 13 42 61
    Dontrelle Willis* 26 4.34 14 13 35 35 224.0 241 108 23 77 162
    Jeremy Bonderman 25 4.34 12 10 30 30 197.0 205 95 23 51 166
    Nate Robertson* 30 4.45 12 11 30 30 186.0 197 92 22 60 116

  14. Walt

    December 12, 2007 at 9:25 am

    With our offense, I would take those ERA’s from our starters. I think the K numbers are a little low for Verlander and hopefully Kenny will pitch more innings than that, but at his age, who knows. I would hope that after last year he will be well rested.

  15. don

    December 12, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Those SP projections: I’m not gonna do a ton of math, but if the projection is that the starters can give us 900-950 innings of 4.25 era or so (league average is 4.57 for SP), and our bullpen can be league average (4.25) for the balance of the innings, we’d have a 4.25 team era.

    If we have a 4.25 era, we give up 688 runs in a year. I forget what the pre-cabrera lineup projections were, but if we average 5.5 runs a game, which I think/hope is pretty reasonable, we score 891.

    Run the win expectation formula on those numbers and you get 101 wins. Just saying.

  16. EZ

    December 12, 2007 at 9:58 am


    Wonderful work. Great post. This is a situation where sabermetrics shine.

    As I said at another Tigers website, I would consider a 14-15 win season with D-Train eating up 200+ innings a huge success. I think a 20 win season is unrealistic and I hope fans don’t expect too much. If D-Train can eat up innings and thereby saving our biggest problem, the bullpen, undue headaches then I think we will have gone a long way to making the playoffs.

    Knowing D-Train gave up so many long balls, it gave me great relief to see the vast expanses of the Copa take away many of those… Further many of his super-imposed home runs just barely cleared the fence. In the dead-ball cold weather months of April and May many of those balls that just cleared will be fitting snuggly in our D’s leather…

    I would love to see D-train battle a tough season in the 2 slot. Maybe go 13-13. That would let Bondo and Robertson dominate against the oppossing teams 4-5 pitchers. I prefer the Gambler be in the three slot with his diet of slow junk in between the fireballing Willis and Bondo. Of course watching Willis dominate in the 4 slot is desirable as well. I just think at this point he has the better ability (mentally) to compete at the 2 slot ahead of Bondo. Let Bondo get the second half of last year off of his mind by facing inferior #4 opponants.

    Again, great work Bilfer. Much food for thought.

  17. Kurt

    December 12, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Very informative work, Bilfer!

    I agree with EZ. I’d take a 15 win season from DTrain in a second. (And 4 .11 ERA projected for Rogers from ZiPS? Wow).

  18. don

    December 12, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    The idea of “our #4 matching up with other teams’ #4” is only ever really applicable during playoffs. during the regular season, when every team has different schedules, different days off, and minor injuries, a #1 is just as likely to face another team’s 2, 3, 4 or 5 as the other team’s #1. It doesn’t make sense to say that the starter leyland designates as “#2 or #3” will have any better chance at winning games than he would if he were called the #5 guy.

  19. EZ

    December 12, 2007 at 4:16 pm


    Good point except that there are times when a manager can massage rotations in order to get #1 guys more starts. For example, Bonderman (our Opening Day starter and considered #1 at the time) had two starts before our #5 Durbin got his first. So managers try to have a “slotting” system to have their best pitchers go as often as possible. Because they are worried first and foremost about their own team first (The Tigers wouldn’t worry about facing Sabathia if Cleveland wasn’t on the schedule for the next month) you often time see #1’s facing other number ones as a result of a manager looking to get his best on the field as soon as possible.

    Of course this is not gospell, I did indicate that it was. Pitchers can fade, no question Verlander is our #1 this year, and injuries can occur, Kenny for us and Francisco for Minny.

    My point to your rebuttle is that it is not as random as your post would imply. It is not “just” as likely that a #1 faces a #5. Bondo opened against the best and lo and behold his 3rd start was against Halladay. His forth start was against Gil Meche, who granted is about a #1 as Grilli, was none the less KC’s number one guy.

    Like I said this system isn’t like clockwork, but the best often, I would argue usually, gets sent up against the other teams best. During the season Bondo faded, Verlander took over number one and was sent, when possible, against the other teams best. Or at least the top of their rotation.

    Were I Jim Leyland and have the luxery of our line-up going into a 3 game series I would do my best to try and take two of the games by arranging a rotation where Verlander goes up against their best (I will take Verlander over anyone in the AL with the possible exception of Becket and Santana), I would try to have our #2 battle against their #2, and I would look to take the series with our superior back end of our rotation guys. By and large I consider Rogers, Robertson, and either Bondo or Willis better than most any other team’s #3,#4,#5 not located on Lake Erie or Boston Harbor, especially given our line-up. No excuse to lose a series to KC, Tampa, Seattle, Baltimore….not this year.

    It isn’t an exact science, but it isn’t random either.

  20. Dave

    December 12, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    EZ –

    Based on last year’s stats, Meche ranks ahead of all of our starters, though only slightly ahead of Verlander (ERA+ 128 vs. 125). I would never claim Meche to be the superior talent to Justin, but at the moment I’d take him over any of our other starters without a second thought.

  21. ez

    December 12, 2007 at 6:23 pm


    A fair point on Meche.

    Although I would not take him and his salary and contract over Bondo, Nate, D-Train, or the Gambler.

    -I still think Bondo has more upside.
    -I like Nate for what we pay him (I am not researching this, but if memory serves it is in the ballpark that Nate is about 4 million cheaper than Gil)
    -I like D-Train’s age and upside, though his contract could become too bloated in the blink of an eye.
    -And I like the Gambler waaaay better for two reasons: His one year contract this year, and Kenny gets a life time free pass from me for DESTROYING the Yankees in Game 3 in ’06. Homer reason to be sure, but that one I will NEVER forget. Magg’s home run was memorable, but that Series was decided. Steet was pitching in the 19th consecutive inning and his 82nd consecutive day (sarcasm there lads and lasses). That series was D-O-N-E. Nice shot Maggs, but for me the memory of ’06 was when the Yankees, WITH THEIR GREATEST LINE-UP EVER were set to destroy the Kitties. 19 out 19 at ESPN had the Yanks that series. Everyone thought Verlander’s gutty performance in game 2 was a nice “show me” effort. The Yanks were supposed to come in with Randy Acne Face and dime the Tigers and playoff choker Rogers… Bong! Not quite, there East Coast Media Biased Pinheads. I am fairly certain Hideki Matsui is STILL talking to himself after that last change-up…

    Wow. Sorry. But that rant felt GREAT.

    However, I took a swipe at Meche that was perhaps a little unwarrented and give you props for calling me out. Mea culpa. 🙂

  22. Dave

    December 12, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    I was at Game 3 and have almost certainly uttered that exact same sentence about Kenny about 100 times. No game will ever compete with that one for me – absolutely everything about it was perfect. I’d keep signing Kenny until his arm fell off if they’d let me.

  23. Rings

    December 12, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Let’s make at least three of us who were there, and I’d agree: best sporting event I’d ever seen live, no question.

  24. Phil

    December 12, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    The best sporting event i have witnessed in my young life, the best 30 bucks i ever spent and will probably ever spend

  25. ez

    December 12, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    Here is to memories:

    I remember getting half of my section to chant “M-V-P” when Jeter hit into the double play. We did it again on his next ab, the world’s weakest grounder back to the Gambler…

    Granderson’s long, long home run sailing deep into the Detroit sky seemed to take a day to land…

    Casey knocking Johnson out of the game with a ripped double….

    Matsui, Giaimbi caught looking. And looking REALLY foolish doing so…

    Rogers tipping his hat to the crowd…. Friggin goose bumps just typing it…

    By the end you could see the Yankees were in a state of shock… The crowd going crazy, the Tigers ripping them in every aspect of the game. Nope, that series ended when Rogers walked off the mound in the 8th…

    Sorry, what was this thread about again? I seemed to have been daydreaming….

  26. greg

    December 16, 2007 at 2:28 am

    What does everyone think about the Tigers 3-4 years down the road? There’s all this gloomy talk out there in the press about the future of the Tigers, that they ‘mortgaged’ their future because they traded away these prospects, but I’m not convinced.

    April, 2011:

    C – ?
    1B – Guillen – 35
    2B – Polanco – 35
    SS – Renteria – 35
    3B – Cabrera – 28
    RF – ?
    CF – Granderson – 30
    LF – Thames – 34(vs. lefties)/?(platoon guy)
    DH – Ordonez – 37
    1 – Verlander – 28
    2 – Bonderman – 28
    3 – Porcello – 22
    4 – Willis – 29
    5 – Robertson – 33
    CL/setup – Zumaya – 26

    A couple holes to fill, but not many…..doesn’t exactly look like ‘chopped liver’ to me. In fact, that looks like a very solid, and still young(in 2011) rotation. Infield would have decreased range by then, but that shouldn’t be a disaster.

    There’s also plenty of time to reload through the draft or free agency, and only a couple of spots to worry about.

  27. Walt

    December 20, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    It looks like Dontrelle just signed a three year deal with the Tigers for a reported 29M.