Dontrelle Willis was once one of the best pitchers in the game. He was going to be legend – the type of player we all told our children of. He was the D-Train. But then the train leapt off the track without warning. Derailed and forever under repair, Willis’ career never could get back on track. Now he has retired from the game he loved, the game at which he thrived, and the game at which he failed.
Willis was an All-Star and Rookie of the Year in 2003. He was an All-Star and second in Cy Young voting in 2005. With the Florida Marlins, Willis was 72-69 with a 3.78 ERA. He always walked too many and he didn’t strike out a lot of batters, but he was impressive to watch in his first few years. In 2005, Willis posted a 2.63 ERA, he threw seven complete games, and he tossed five shutouts. But the wheels came off shortly after that season.
From 2007 on, Willis failed to post an ERA under 5.00. He bounced around between five organizations before finally calling it quit yesterday. It would be easy to chalk Willis’ success as a fluke and his fall as inevitable, but the truth is he simply lost it. He had the type of stuff that could have made him one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game, but Willis got wild.
From 2008 on, Willis had a strikeout-to-walk ratio greater than one just once in four seasons. He tried to regain his command in the minors when he signed a minor league deal with the Phillies, but he never even made it past Spring Training. The Orioles took their shot on Willis, but he struggled at Triple-A Norfolk, posting an 8.53 ERA before deciding to call it quits.
While the retirement wasn’t injury-related, it has the same sad feel. Dontrelle Willis was special. His athleticism was something rare to baseball. He could hit, he could pitch, and he had a personality that captivated millions. Unfortunately, promise, early success, and a million-dollar smile doesn’t equal a long career.
It’s always been puzzling that Willis didn’t try his hand as a position player when things started going south for him as a pitcher. Rick Ankiel paved this new path for failed pitchers with his success in St. Louis and Washington. In 447 plate appearances, Willis hit .244/.287/.378. His on-base percentage would almost surely be higher with more consistent opportunities at the plate. Despite his surprisingly high batting average (for a pitcher at least), it seems Willis retire as a pitcher, never attempting a comeback as a position player.
Buck Showalter, the Orioles manager, summed things up for us succinctly prior to their game yesterday:
“(It’s) kind of sad in a way because of how good he was. I look at it from the game of baseball,” Showalter said. “We’ll see what the future holds for him. I appreciate him giving it a shot with us.”
Dontrelle Willis is just 30 years old, but baseball was good to him during his short career. If he does indeed remain retired, he will have made over $40 million dollars in nine Major League seasons.