One of the more interesting stories in Triple-A thus far has been the shocking return to form of Dontrelle Willis. The entertaining lefty has been plagued by wildness for several years, but he’s shown no problems as a starter on the Reds’ AAA affiliate.
Willis has allowed just one run in seventeen innings, with fifteen strikeouts and five walks. Those numbers indicate that he may be back in form, but I’m going to argue that the form never really left, at least not enough to keep Willis out of the major leagues.
That probably seems like a very strange premise, does it not? I mean, the guy posted ERAs of 9.38, 7.49, and 5.62 the last three years, with FIPs of 8.30, 6.22, and 5.62. Those don’t really scream “MLB caliber,” do they? He walked 119 batters in 123 1/3 innings over the past three years, as well.
What boggles my mind in the whole thing is how Willis was used throughout his struggles. Think about it: he’s a lefty with a deceptive delivery who relies heavily on a fastball/slider combination. Obviously, he had many good years as a starter, but at the first sign of struggle, don’t you look to get that guy in a specialist role? Willis has a low arm slot, easy for righties to pick up, and he doesn’t have much velocity or a curveball or changeup to keep them at bay. Why he kept facing right-handed batters by the bushel during his struggles is beyond me.
And lo and behold, check out the splits for Willis from 2008-10:
vs. LHB: 37 IP, 47/22 K/BB
vs. RHB: 85 1/3 IP, 35/97 K/BB
So, against lefties, Willis was pretty much always a high-strikeout, high-walk guy. Admittedly, he’d really have to be protected from righties, but clearly, even at the bottom of his fall from grace, Willis was capable of getting lefties out. With careful usage, he could’ve at least been a functional second lefty. Instead, he was left in a role–starting–that he was wildly unsuited for, particularly once he deteriorated in Detroit.
It’s good to see Willis back on the right track in Triple-A, but I hope the Reds don’t get ideas about him starting in the big leagues. He could have a decade-long career as a fun, funky situational guy, but an awful lot has to go right for Willis to be even a passable fifth starter again. His Triple-A perforamance shows he’s got some form back, but really, whatever he has is best utilitized in a specialist role.