Dontrelle Willis will be remembered mostly for his unique pitching motion but he was for a time one of the NL's best lefties. (Bob Rosato/SI)
After battling control problems and an anxiety disorder for the past four seasons, Dontrelle Willis is hanging up his spikes. The 30-year-old lefty hasn't pitched in the majors this season; he was released midway through spring training by the Phillies, then secured a minor league deal with the Orioles, but a forearm strain and a dispute over whether he should start or relieve led him to leave the team without permission in late April. Orioles general manager Dan Duquette ultimately sent him to the team's Sarasota facility to build up his arm strength for starting, but upon returning to action on June 28, Willis was chased after just 2 2/3 innings. Now it appears as though his colorful career is drawing to a close.
Drafted in the eighth round by the Cubs in 2000, Willis was sent to the Marlins as part of a six-player deal centered around Matt Clement in March 2002. With his signature high leg kick, he burst on to the major league scene the following year, replacing an injured A.J. Burnett in the Florida rotation in May, winning nine of his first 10 decisions — including a one-hit shutout of the Mets — to earn All-Star honors, and finishing the season 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA for an upstart Marlins club that won the NL wild card. In a midseason profile in Sports Illustrated, writer Chris Ballard situated the then-21-year-old's unorthodox delivery and ebullient personality amid a pantheon of memorable hurlers:
If ever the term windup was appropriate, it is in regard to Willis's delivery. Here's how it looks: The long-limbed, 6'4", 200-pound Willis starts with his shoulders slouched. After receiving the sign and nodding at the catcher, he rocks back to his right and hoists his right leg in what looks like a particularly ambitious Twister move. Torquing to the rear, he spins his body around so far that, for a brief moment, his back is facing the hitter, while his leg remains Rockette high and his eyes briefly fix on a faraway spot in the sky. Then he uncoils and swings his arm low to a three-quarters, abdomen-high release.
By keeping his body turned away from the hitter for as long as he does, Willis conceals the ball far longer than most pitchers, making it extremely hard for batters to pick up. The entire motion, when combined with Willis's excitable demeanor-full of high fives and glove slaps and huge grins—has generated comparisons to everyone from Juan Marichal and Vida Blue (the leg kick) to Mark Fidrych (the quirkiness) to Luis Tiant (the back-to-the-batter position) to Fernando Valenzuela (the skyward glance)...
Knocked around in two postseason starts that October that extended a late-season slump, Willis rebounded to throw 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to help upset the Yankees in the World Series, then capped his season by beating out the Brewers' Scott Podsednik, the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb, teammate Miguel Cabrera and the Mets' Jose Reyes for Rookie of the Year honors. He experienced something of a sophomore jinx the following year, but rebounded to go 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and a league-leading five shutouts in 2005, again earning All-Star honors and placing a close second to Chris Carpenter in the Cy Young voting.
Alas, the returns diminished after that. Willis' walk rate and ERA rose in each of the next two seasons as he struggled with all of the moving parts of his delivery, and his defense let him down as well. After a 10-15, 5.17 ERA season keyed by a .329 BABIP and 3.8 walks per nine in 2007, he was traded to the Tigers that December as part of an eight-player blockbuster centered around Cabrera, and signed to a three-year, $29 million extension.
in Detroit, the D-Train quickly jumped the track. Willis walked seven batters while yielding just one hit in his Tigers debut, left his second start with a hyperextended knee after walking the first two hitters, and spent the rest of the year bouncing between the disabled list, the minors, and Detroit as his mechanical problems morphed into Steve Blass Disease, the haunting sudden loss of control named for an early 1970s Pirates pitcher and subsequently experienced not only by pitchers such as Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel but also infielders Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch.
Willis walked 35 hitters while striking out just 18 in 24 big league innings that year en route to a 9.35 ERA. The following spring, he was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. He spent roughly three-quarters of the season on the DL, again putting up ugly numbers in the rare instances that he pitched: 28 walks and 17 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings with a 7.35 ERA. He recovered long enough to crack the Tigers' rotation out of spring training the following year, posting a 4.98 ERA in nine starts, but his high-wire act wore thin, and the Tigers unloaded him in a June 1 trade with the Diamondbacks, picking up all of his remaining salary. After five starts in Arizona featuring more than a walk per inning, he was released. The Giants tried to right him, giving him eight relief appearances in their minor league chain, but to no avail.
For all of those struggles, Willis looked to have turned a corner last season. After a strong first half showing at the Reds' Triple-A Louisville affiliate — a 2.63 ERA with just 20 walks in 75 1/3 innings — he was recalled by the big club just prior to the All-Star break. He made eight quality starts in his first 10 turns, highlighted by a 10-strikeout effort against the Rockies on August 9, but a lack of run support and an eight-run drubbing in September distorted his stat line; he finished the year 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA, 4.4 walks per nine and 6.8 strikeouts per nine.
Because of his continued dominance against lefty hitters even amid his struggles (.127/.169/.200 in 60 PA in 2011, and .216/.298/.284 in 86 PA the prior year), the Phillies eyed Willis as a situational lefty reliever, but he struggled with his command and was hit hard in spring training, and drew his release after just three appearances. Even after admitting to arm soreness and difficulty adjusting to a bullpen role, he was thrown a lifeline by the pitching-hungry Orioles but his struggles continued until he left the team.
The general arc of his career -- a pitcher unable to live up to surprising early success -- is an all-too-familiar one, but the uniqueness of Willis' personality and playing style and the sad, mysterious nature of his anxiety disorder lend it a particular poignancy. It's tempting to wonder if this retirement is only temporary, to imagine that some time away from the game will enable him to find his way back to the mound in better physical and mental form. Given his ability to handle lefties and to swing the bat (a career .244/.287/.378 with nine home runs), he would be more useful than the 12th man on most pitching staffs, if he could iron out his mechanics and accept a smaller role. If this is it for his time in baseball, though, we should be grateful for witnessing the high points of Willis' career, and hope that he is able to find health and happiness in life beyond the game. Roll on, D-Train.