Dontrelle Willis

From BR Bullpen


Dontrelle Wayne Willis

BR page

Biographical Information[edit]

Dontrelle Willis is a left-handed pitcher who had substantial success with the Florida Marlins between 2003 and 2006. He led the 2005 National League in victories and appeared in the 2003 World Series. However, he was unable to reestablish himself as a successful major league pitcher after that and retired in frustration in 2012 before signing another minor league contract in 2013. After a couple more unsuccessful comeback attempts, he again announced his retirement in spring training in 2015.

He was well known for his upbeat attitude and unique delivery that featured a very high leg kick, ironic given that much of his problems in later years were due to psychological rather than physiological factors.

He was originally drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 8th round of the 2000 amateur draft, and was traded to the Florida Marlins in return for Matt Clement before the 2002 season.

In two seasons in the Cubs organization, Willis totaled a record of 11-3, and allowed just one home run in 24 appearances. In 2002, after the trade to Florida, the big lefty went 12-2 between two class-A clubs. In 19 starts with the Kane County Cougars that year, Willis was 10-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 0.88 WHIP.

Willis made just four starts in double-A before getting called up by the Marlins in 2003. It was a quick climb to the top of the ladder, and he rewarded the club for the decision. Willis went 14-6 for the eventual World Series champions. On June 16th, he pitched a one-hitter against the New York Mets, Ty Wigginton getting the only hit. His ERA was at 3.30 and he struck out 142 batters in 160.2 innings. Willis was named winner of the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year Award.

He slipped a bit in 2004, winning 10 games while losing 11. His ERA rose to 4.02. But the "D-Train" was running at full steam in 2005. Willis dominated opponents, winning 22 games and owning a 2.63 ERA over 236 1/3 innings. He tossed seven complete games, five of which were shutouts. He was runner-up to Chris Carpenter in the voting for the 2005 National League Cy Young Award. In addition to his outstanding pitching, he was hitting well enough that season that manager Jack McKeon batted him 7th on September 22nd. The last pitcher to bat seventh or higher in a major league game was Montreal Expos pitcher, Steve Renko, who did it on August 26, 1973 [1]. A couple of years later, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine batted third in a game for the Tampa Bay Rays, but that was the result of a mix-up in writing the official line-up that forced the Rays to forgo the use of the designated hitter for the game, and not a deliberate strategical choice. That year, Willis became the last pitcher to collect at least 20 wins and 20 hits in the same season.

Willis fell back to Earth in 2006. His record was 12-12 and his ERA was a much more human 3.87. One noticeable aspect of the decline was a sharp increase in walks, from 55 in 2005 to 83 in 2006. On December 22nd, Willis was arrested for driving under the influence. Willis continued to struggle with his control in 2007, walking 50 batters in the first half alone. He finished the season at 10-15, 5.17, with 87 walks in 205 1/3 innings.

In December of 2007, Willis was traded with Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Dallas Trahern, Eulogio De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo and Burke Badenhop. The Tigers thought that the two additions would make them pennant contenders again, but they got off to a terrible start in 2008. Willis struggled as well, putting up an ERA over 10 in five games before hitting the disabled list. There were concerns that his mechanics were completely out-of-whack - not entirely surprising given the very complex wind-up that made his success as a youngster, and there was even speculation that the Tigers may want to turn him into a full-time hitter, à la Rick Ankiel. Over two and half seasons with Detroit, Willis never started more than 8 games in the majors and had a combined record of 2-8, 6.86 while issuing almost a walk per inning. He was then traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Billy Buckner early in the 2010 season, but struggled there as well and was given his release on July 6th.

In an article published on the day of Dontrelle's release by the D-Backs, his agent said that the pitcher might need to take a break from baseball and sit out the rest of 2010. Willis's control problems were thought to be as much psychological and physiological, and in 2009 he was put on the disabled list with "anxiety disorder", something Willis did not agree with, according to the article. He signed with the San Francisco Giants, but only made 8 relief appearances in the minor leagues the rest of the season.

Over the following winter, Willis worked out with Bryan Price, pitching coach of the Cincinnati Reds, playing catch and talking about the mental aspects of the game, especially the need to keep things simple. The Reds had signed him in November, in a long shot, and sent him to the AAA Louisville Bats to begin the year. There, he was 5-2, 2.63 in 13 starts to earn a call back to the big leagues on July 10th. While he was winless through his first 8 starts with the Reds in 2011, there were signs that he had turned a corner: his walk rate was down to an acceptable 17 in 45 innings, 5 of his 8 starts had ended as no-decisions, and he had not given up more than 4 runs in any of the games. However, it was all downhill in September, when he sported an 8.27 ERA and he finished the year 1-6, 5.00 in 13 starts - even though his only win came on his final appearance of the year, on September 25th, which would turn out to be his final major league appearance. After the season, he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies, but was released on March 16, 2012, having failed to make the team as a reliever. He then landed another minor league job four days later, this time in the Baltimore Orioles' system. Sent to the AAA Norfolk Tides to begin the year, he was again haunted by his demons and went AWOL on April 22nd. He was immediately placed on the restricted list by the Orioles. He made just four appearances with the Tides, going 0-3, 8.53. He announced his retirement from baseball on July 2nd.

The retirement did not last however, as on January 5, 2013, Willis signed a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs. His first spring training outing with his new team was less than optimal, as he threw only 7 pitches, walking the Los Angeles Dodgers' Nick Evans then left with tightness in his shoulder after throwing one pitch to Brian Barden on February 25th. However, he called the injury "only a mild setback". He failed to make the Cubs' roster, then pitched briefly for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League and finished with the Salt Lake Bees in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization. He went 2-1, 6.43 for Salt Lake, after a solid 5-4, 2.57 performance in the indy leagues. For 2014, he moved back to the San Francisco Giants, signing a minor league contract on January 10th. He pitched only twice for the Fresno Grizzlies and spent the remainder of the season with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, where he made only two starts. In spite of the lack of pitching in recent years, the Milwaukee Brewers gave him a shot in spring training in 2015, but he announced his retirement on March 13th.

Notable Achievements[edit]

NL Rookie of the Year
2002 2003 2004
Jason Jennings Dontrelle Willis Jason Bay

Further Reading[edit]

  • Michael Clair: "The five things that we'll remember most about Dontrelle Willis' career", Cut4,, March 13, 2015. [2]
  • Michael Clair: "An ode to Dontrelle's smile, signature windup",, January 11, 2022. [3]
  • Joe Frisaro: "D-Train's 2005 campaign among franchise's best: Reflecting on Willis' record year in honor of Black History Month",, February 11, 2017. [4]
  • Greg Rosenstein: "Flashes of the old Dontrelle Willis return", USA Today, August 24, 2011. [5]

Related Sites[edit]