Waiting on Willis

Few players on the Tigers roster, or even in MLB in 2010 will receive the scrutiny that Dontrelle Willis will receive. Willis has been a disaster since putting on a Tigers uniform. He was certainly shaky in his second start, but there is no need to rush to judgment.

Two starts into the season Willis has a good start and a bad start under his belt. But he hasn’t collapsed. He hasn’t had a melt down. He hasn’t done anything appreciably different than his rotation mates at this point.

Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander both had their share of struggles their second time out this season. Willis labored through 5 innings, needing over 100 pitches to make it through and being charged with 4 runs along the way. That bested both Scherzer’s and Verlander’s outing. While there is disappointment with all 3, Wilis of course is under the microscope more than the other two given his recent history.

I don’t favor grading Willis on a curve against his past performances. But there hasn’t been anything particularly alarming at this point from Dontrelle. Maybe I’m settling. Maybe I’m judging him as a 5th starter instead of as a starter. The truth of the matter is that given his recent past and a diagnosis that doesn’t give us a lot of benchmarking data we don’t know what to expect. After two starts so far “the worst” hasn’t happened. Short of “the worst” happening two starts just isn’t enough data one way or the other.

We can look for clues though. We hear talk about the velocity and the 94mph fastball he threw today. But only half of the 40 fastballs he threw were over 90mph and only 6 were over 92. The velocity and movement separation between the fastball and change-up are pretty sparse as well. He’s only induced six swings and misses in his 2 starts. UPDATE: Checking fangraphs.com data, Willis is also among the league leaders in terms of percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone at 57.1 %.

I’m as skeptical as the next person about Willis. But he’s made two starts and hasn’t lost sight of the strike zone. He’s exceeding my expectations. The Tigers even managed to win both of his starts. He hasn’t cost the team anything yet and no red flags need to be raised.


  1. mat

    April 13, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    and of course there’s still the upside potential. With his talent and ability to get out of jams we still see flashes of what made him great once…not that anyone thinks its likely to happen, but it gives Dontrelle a little more leeway than someone with a similarly awful record the last few years.

  2. brian

    April 13, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Spot on. He just needs to eat innings and avoid those huge early meltdowns that cause us to burn 6-7 innings of bullpen arms. Anything above that is a bonus.

  3. Vince in MN

    April 13, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Management firmly decided Willis was the 5th starter just before the end of ST. In the absence of any alternatives (Galarraga? Bonine? Figaro?) in the near future, he will remain the 5th starter whether he is good, mediocre or bad. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest he gets at least 6 or 7 more starts no matter what.

    • Keith (Mr. X)

      April 14, 2010 at 1:24 am

      Galarraga pitched rather well in his 1st start for Toledo. 5 innings, 3 hits, 1 er, 0 bb, 6 k’s.
      He’s really just a phone call and cab ride away from being back on the starting roster.

      • Vince in MN

        April 14, 2010 at 7:20 pm

        The fact that Galarraga disappeared so quickly in ST leads me to surmise that he is in Leyland’s doghouse, in which case that phone call could be a long time coming regardless of how he is doing. This is purely conjecture on my part though, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Galarraga probably should be first in line as a replacement in the rotation; an injury to any of 1-4 as well as a Willis implosion.

  4. Packey

    April 14, 2010 at 1:37 am

    We should also keep in mind that his two starts came against the lowly Royals lineup. HAVING SAID THAT, facing them twice within a week was probably a far greater advantage to the Royals lineup, than it was to Dontrelle. Overall, he’s be fine through 2 starts as a fifth starter and that’s all we can really expect.

  5. Keith (Mr. X)

    April 14, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Nate has had only 5 swinging strikes compared to Willis’ 6.

  6. Coleman

    April 14, 2010 at 4:06 am

    I look at the picture with the post. And think that, in all probability, the pitch that ended up coming out of his hand here was just as fast as any pitch on average from a major league starter, and more likely than not went through the strike zone. And I am filled with wonder.

  7. Scott

    April 14, 2010 at 6:06 am

    Right now, Dontrelle looks like an average fifth starter. By definition, you’re going to get uneven performances. If he has a meltdown, you do still have to wonder how he’ll react to it; if he’ll be able to comeback the next start and do anything. I’m pulling for him. He seems like a good guy, despite his struggles.

  8. Longball111

    April 14, 2010 at 6:49 am

    If Willis could just be what Baseball Prospectus calls a “league average innings muncher” (LAIM) that would be enough. Even if he overcomes his other problems I worry that he worked an awful lot of innings at young age. Promising young pitchers don’t often work 1,000 innings through their age 25 season but he did.

  9. kathy

    April 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I guess we’ll find out sooner rather than later with Willis. The road trip will be a good test for him. His arm is still strong, but he does need to get ahead with batters. He can’t be afraid to throw strikes and even if he does, he might still get shelled. I want all our pitchers to be successful and pitch a little longer into games. “Catch the D-Train in Detroit!” Let’s hope we can ride that train all season long.

  10. stephen

    April 14, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Man, don’t mean to hijack the thread, but boy oh boy if we’re cutting Willis slack about those two starts.(Yesterday’s post) From my calculations, he’s giving up two baserunners for every inning pitch. This seems to be less than good! And I’m sorry, Verlander pitches like that twice in the row that’s ok and could be an aberration, but Willis seems to be more of the same. That first game he could have given up about another four runs. He needs to show something more than ‘hey, he hasn’t been absolutely shelled’ before you can consider him anything but dead weight on a contender. I just don’t understand the thinking of ‘lets wait for two more look-away starts where he gets throttled’ before releasing him. I mean if Dombrowski released Sheffield with 13 m owed–who could have been a servicable 300 ab guy since we were already paying him–why give Willis so many chances?