Giants Add D-Train on Minor League Deal
Just yesterday, the Giants signed Dontrelle Willis to a Minor League Contract. Willis broke out with the Marlins in 2003 as one of the more exciting pitchers in baseball due to his high leg kick, sneaky fastball and impressive bat for a pitcher. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2003 as a 21 year-old and helped the Marlins to their second World Series championship (yeah yeah, I’m well aware we don’t need reminders). And the D-Train wasn’t a one-hit wonder either; putting up seasons of 2.8, 6.2 and 2.9 WAR after his 3.3 rookie campaign. That’s excellent production from a pitcher who would be turning 25 the following season, and it appeared as though he was poised for a promising career. After a down 2007 Willis was sent along with man-beast Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers in a big trade. Rather than going through arbitration, Detroit decided to extend him to a $29 million contract over the next three seasons. And then everything just went downhill.
Over about two and a half years with Detroit, Willis only threw 101 innings and was a below replacement pitcher while dealing with injuries as well as anxiety problems. His fastball velocity was down from just over 90 to 88 MPH. However, his stuff was the least of his problems (his K/9 has remained constant for the most part standing in the mid 6’s). He had shown a decline in his walk rate in his last couple years as a Marlin, but at his age it likely wasn’t too great of a concern. But, in his first year in Detroit, Willis simply could not find the strike zone. He only threw 5 more strikes than balls (264:259) and was evident by his 35 walks in only 24 innings. In 2009 and 2010 he followed up with walk rates of 7.49 and 7.68 per 9 innings. Obviously, that’s just not going to get it done.
He received another chance in Arizona but was shortly released thereafter (that would be the league-worst D-Backs pitching staff mind you) and was all but set to call it quits on the 2010 season. According to Alex Pavlovic (filling in for Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly), Willis signed with the Giants to work with VP of player personnel Dick Tidrow. Willis’ agent stated that “there’s no one that (Dontrelle) respects more than Tidrow, and he’s heard good things from other players about Tidrow’s ability to figure out what’s wrong.” As a Giants fan, it’s always good to hear that Tidrow has a little resurrection power in him. Willis still has a valuable arm, especially being a southpaw with a deceptive windup; perhaps his inability to hit the strike zone is mechanic and the Giants can discover what’s going wrong.
As for what the D-Train means to the Giants: Pavlovic says that he is not insurance in the scenario that Jonathan Sanchez is traded (but you never know), and with a rotation with Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Sanchez and now Madison Bumgarner, there’s obviously no room. But with Dan Runzler being sidelined until September, and Jeremy Affeldt’s struggles and injuries this year, a lefty out of the bullpen could have value. Here are Willis’ K and BB rates in his career (from FanGraphs):
*It’s not labeled for some reason, but blue is vs. lefties, red vs. righties, and green vs. both
So despite Willis’ recent struggles, he can still be effective against lefties (a good sign this year is his 3.75 K/BB ratio against them, his best since 2005 (6.2 WAR, 51 K/BB; and no that’s not a typo). If Willis can provide any type of contribution this season (primarily against lefties), then this low-risk high-reward signing will produce some reward. And I’ve always liked him; he’s a fun player to watch, he can hit, and he’s a local kid. He’s heading to Arizona to work out in the Rookie League and then will join the AAA Fresno Grizzlies. I suspect we may see him in a Giants uniform before the year is over.