Painful Questions From Motown

By Greg Stoda
Updated: July 9, 2008

FLORIDA — Dontrelle Willis is 26 years old. Here’s the question: Is he done?

The former Marlins’ ace is a physical mess with the Detroit Tigers. The harshest speculation is that the Marlins got rid of Willis just in time when they traded him and third baseman Miguel Cabrera seven months ago.

The initial word was that Willis was suffering from a hyperextended right knee that in April landed him on the disabled list. But he had an MRI, took a cortisone shot and was fitted with a brace Tuesday for treatment of patellar tendinitis.

Pardon my skepticism. Because here’s the question behind the question: Did he pitch too much too soon in his five seasons in Florida?

“No, that is not a concern of ours,” Tigers President Dave Dombrowski said during a phone conversation Tuesday. “Dontrelle’s arm strength and velocity are not in question.”

But the more than 1,000 innings Willis pitched for the Marlins, including more than 650 across the past three seasons, are difficult to ignore.

In Detroit, things went sour so quickly — 21 walks in 11.1 innings with a 10.32 ERA in five appearances — that he was sent to Class A Lakeland last month. Willis has appeared in one game in Lakeland, allowing an earned run on one hit with three walks in two innings out of the bullpen.

The Tigers say they don’t know when Willis will pitch again.

“He’ll return to Lakeland and resume his program there,” Dombrowski said. “It serves us no purpose to put a timetable on anything.”

It has been a precipitous decline for Willis, who was the NL’s 2003 Rookie of the Year with a 14-6 record and a 3.30 ERA and was runner-up in the 2005 NL Cy Young vote with a 22-10 record and a 2.63 ERA.

Theories abound regarding his loss of form and control. He has a funky pitching motion, which makes it difficult for him to keep his mechanics in sync.

He’s overweight, which makes it difficult for him to keep his mechanics in sync.

“He won 22 games with that delivery,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland has said in dismissal of any complicated guesswork about what might be wrong with Willis.

OK, then, is it at least possible that the first sign of a fissure in Willis’ foundation can be traced to the workload he carried for the Marlins?

Willis pitched a combined 664.2 innings in 103 starts during his last three Florida seasons for three different managers (Jack McKeon, Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez).

He pitched a career-high 236 innings in his 2005 highlight year. He struck out 170 and walked only 55 that season for a 3.1:1 ratio. But his walks-per-nine innings rate increased while his strikeouts-to-walks ratio decreased each of the next two seasons.

His record after the 22-win season slipped to 12-12 and then to 10-15 while his ERA spiked to 3.87 and then to 5.17 last season. Opponents’ batting average went from .243 to .274 to .294 against Willis in his final three seasons with Florida.

Those are alarming statistics for any pitcher still in his early to mid-20s.

“I think pitch counts and innings pitched are excuses when you’re going bad. He never had any (physical) trouble with us,” McKeon, who managed the Marlins from 2003 through ’05, said by phone Tuesday. “He was aggressive and throwing strikes that last year I had him. But even as far back as ’06, I saw him trying to overthrow.

“He started fighting himself, and he stopped challenging guys. He was getting to be too fine, always trying to trick somebody. I think he’s scared to death from a lack of confidence. To me, it doesn’t look like he’s having any fun.”

Willis was a charismatic, animated player with the Marlins who frequently was among the first arrivals at the ballpark whether or not he was pitching. It wasn’t unusual to see Willis playing catch between starts — and throwing hard — with center fielder and fellow workaholic Juan Pierre when they were Marlins teammates.

“Heck, he might have thrown 150 more innings a year just messing around,” McKeon said. “He’d be firing the ball.”

Now, though, who thinks that wasn’t such a good idea?