"Baseball is this: Have one good year and you can fool them for five more because for five more years they expect you to have another good one."-- Frankie Frisch
Back in 2005, Dontrelle Willis was one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. Willis harnessed his excellent stuff for a season to post the lowest walk rate of his career, a tick over two men per game, while having some good fortune by allowing the lowest BABIP (.289) and home run/flyball (4.9%) rates of his three-year career. The combination allowed him to run a 2.63 ERA, be credited with 22 wins and finish second in the NL Cy Young Award balloting. By the end of that year, Willis was 23 years old and seemed have the world at his fingertips, with steady improvement in his skills, apparent health, and the kind of popularity that comes from being not just a good player, but a marketable one.
It's been five years since that season, and Willis is still fooling some people. The left-hander followed up his 2005 with a steady decline in 2006 and 2007, as his walk rate rose and the good fortune of '05 went away. His ERA jumped to 3.87 and then 5.17, an unsettling trend for a pitcher still in his mid-20s. Faced with the possibility of paying him a high salary through arbitration, the Marlins packaged Willis in a trade with the Tigers, along with Miguel Cabrera, that brought back six prospects and dramatically lowered their expected 2008 payroll. The Tigers, coming off a 2007 season that had been a disappointing follow-up to their 2006 AL pennant, touted Willis' track record of providing innings and his raw skills, as well as the popularity of their new acquisition, and quickly signed him to a three-year contract worth $29 million. It was optimistic at the time, but the Tigers weren't alone; I myself cited the difference between the Marlins' and Tigers' defenses, especially on the left side, as reason to be optimistic about Willis' future. If the contract was a bit spendy, the idea behind it was viable.
Willis fell apart in Detroit. A knee injury early in 2008 triggered mechanical problems that left him walking nearly twice as many men as he struck out. This was always a risk with Willis, whose complicated pitching motion was part of his charm while also being a disaster waiting to happen. In 2009, he fared no better and suffered anxiety issues, eventually making just seven appearances for the Tigers. This spring, the team made every effort to facilitate a comeback, granting Willis the No. 5 starter's slot even after he walked 12 men against 14 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings, going so far as to eat $9.5 million worth of Nate Robertson to clear space for him.
It didn't take. Willis has been slightly better in 2010 than he had been before, but he hasn't been effective. The D-Train has walked 29 men and struck out 33 in 43 1/3 innings, posting a 4.98 ERA that belies his ineffectiveness. Willis had a very soft April, facing the Royals twice, then an Angels team not known for its patience, then catching the Twins twice while they were having issues with lineup depth. His ERA after his fifth start stood at 3.99, but with just a 21/15 K/BB and fewer than 60 percent of his pitches going for strikes. In his last three outings, Willis has walked 14 men in as many innings, failing to pitch out of the sixth each time. The numbers don't do justice to the experience of watching him. He struggles with command, with location in every single inning.
Since being traded to the Tigers after the 2007 season, Willis has made just 22 starts, throwing 101 innings total. He's walked 92 men, struck out 68, and run a 6.86 ERA. Keep in mind that his 2007 wasn't very good, either; it's been four seasons since Willis was a positive contributor to a baseball team. There is nothing in his performance, whether judged by statistics or scouting, that indicates he can help a team win baseball games.
And yet...someone is fooled. The Diamondbacks, for reasons passing understanding, have traded for Willis. They're not paying much, just the minimum salary, but they're not getting much either, a pitcher so far removed from effectiveness that his luggage bears the logo of the Dharma Initiative. Willis has made five quality starts in the last three years. Billy Buckner, the pitcher the Diamondbacks are trading away, has made four himself and doesn't carry near the baggage that Willis does. A right-hander who doesn't throw hard, Buckner is 19 months younger than Willis and up until a week ago had outpitched him in each of the past three seasons. Back-to-back rough starts against the Blue Jays and Giants appear to have convinced the Diamondbacks to give up on Buckner, but even accounting for those blowups, Buckner has been the better pitcher over the last three years:
Factor in the minors, and the gap grows. Buckner has an ERA of 4.08 in 262 innings in the Pacific Coast League over the last three seasons. Willis has a 4.61 ERA in 52 innings in the International League, and in fact, struggled during rehab stints as far down as A ball. There is little reason to think that the Diamondbacks have acquired the better pitcher in this one-for-one trade, they haven't saved any money, and they've given up years of control. Willis is a free agent at the end of this year, while Buckner is a couple of seasons from even being arbitration-eligible. The upside of being right about Willis isn't even very high.
The idea that Willis could be repaired, that perhaps his problems were somehow related to Detroit or the American League or the Rust Belt, is absurd. He was on this path the day the Marlins traded him, always one small bump from falling apart completely, like an SNL sketch or Windows Vista. He took more than one bump, and as nice a guy as he is, as much as we remember that smile and that funky motion and his bullpen work in the 2003 World Series, he's not even better than Billy Buckner at this point. The Tigers have done very well to get even Buckner for Willis, and the Diamondbacks once again leave us scratching our heads about how they evaluate pitchers.