It’s all in the smile.
You can tell when Dontrelle Willis is right when he’s showcasing the smile and enthusiasm that endeared him to baseball fans years ago, because that’s usually when he’s dominating batters in a way that endeared him to fantasy owners years ago, too. And for the first time in three years riddled with injuries, demotions and mental anguish, that positive aura has made repeated returns.
While his first four outings were nothing to be proud of, the switch clicked “on” in Willis’ head on April 29 against Minnesota as he fired six shutout innings, allowing four hits and two walks with six strikeouts. The Oakland, Calif. native threw 57 of his 101 pitches for strikes and bounded off the mound, yelling and pumping his fist after getting the last out in the sixth. It was his best game as a Tiger since May 19, 2009, when he fired 6 1/3 shutout frames against Texas, holding the Rangers to a hit and two walks with five whiffs. Back to 2010, he faced those same Twins on May 4 and despite allowing three runs on four hits and three walks, he also fanned six in 5 1/3 frames and threw 57 of 97 pitches for strikes.
The common denominator here is consistency. Ever since he pitched in the inagural World Baseball Classic back in 2006, consistency has been nothing short of elusive for Willis. After posting a 2.1 BB/9 rate in 2005, his best season ever, these are his walk rates from 2006 to 2009: 3.3, 3.8, 13.1, 7.5. Maybe having to pitch with mid-season intensity in March ’06 threw a major monkey wrench into his mechanics, or maybe it was something else, but he clearly was out-of-sync for the longest time. He grew frustrated and began to fight himself, forcing things to happen that used to come naturally. The injuries then began to come into the picture, shortly accompained by the crippling presence of depression and anxiety (more on this later).
To the credit of Detroit manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski, they stood by Willis’ side and did all they could to support him until he regained his footing. And after long last, Willis has rewarded their patience. Three of Willis’ five starts have resulted in quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs allowed), this after having just two quality starts in his last two seasons combined.
According to FanGraphs.com, Willis has ironed out his mechanics so that the relase point for all his pitches has become highly consistent, allowing for greater deception against hitters. His velocity seems to have improved, as well. During his April 29 start against Minnesota, Willis hit 94 mph late in the sixth inning, though he has shown he isn’t trying to fire it in all the time, as his average fastball velocity is down half a mile from 89.9 in 2009 to 89.4 this season. His other pitches have increased in velocity as well, especially his cutter (80.3 to 84.5), slider (81.7 to 82.0), curve (77.3 to 78.1) and his newest weapon, the two-seam fastball (83.8 to 87.7).
These jumps in velocity mean batters have a little less time to decide the type and possible trajectory of each pitch, forcing them to commit sooner than they like and resulting in weak contact or a complete swing-and-a-miss. Combine this with the increased deception of a consistent release point and you will get the prime recipe for keeping batters off-balance.
As far as the fantasy implications go for Willis’ return to form, it can only mean good things. With Willis’ complicated delivery, walks should always remain a concern, but back in 2005, his BB/9 rate was 2.1, so it is possible for him to keep a handle on those. He’s demonstrated the ability to hit the mid-90s with his heater and Comerica Park has always been pitcher-friendly, so it’s safe to say that Willis is once again a useful mixed leagues option.