Willis' comeback off to good start
Left-hander fighting for spot in Tigers' rotation after struggles in '08
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rick Knapp's first contact with Dontrelle Willis as the new Tigers pitching coach didn't include a mechanical change, a new pitch or an update on his physical condition. Before Knapp changed anything, he wanted to take stock of what he wanted to keep.
"When I called Dontrelle the first time," Knapp recalled, "I told him, 'Look, I know you had a tough year. The only thing I want you to concentrate on is, I want you to be yourself. I don't want you to be a mechanical robot. I don't want you to consciously try to make your delivery perfect. I don't want you to lose your personality.'
"It is my opinion that Dontrelle's personality is what separates him. And my hope was that it would make him feel more comfortable, that I'm not going to jump in there and try to change the world, that I want him to just be who he is."
Willis' personality is in prime form. His pitching is the next target.
The statistics from Willis' 2008 season are well-known by now, and still daunting. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of the Tigers debut last April 5 vs. the White Sox, but walked seven batters in the process. After a hyperextended knee led to a six-week stay on the disabled list, he continued to battle his command until five walks over 1 1/3 innings during a June 9 start led to eight runs against the Indians on national television.
By then, Willis had enough service time and leverage with his long-term contract to decline an option to the Minor Leagues. Nonetheless, when the Tigers asked, he accepted, essentially sacrificing the rest of his season to try to work on his game after a knee sprain in July.
In all, Willis walked 35 Major League batters over 24 innings with 18 strikeouts and five wild pitches. The Tigers tried to keep the message positive, but the challenge was obvious: Willis had seemingly lost the ability to pound the strike zone.
"I wanted to be a big league ballplayer, but that's life," Willis said last week. "It wasn't the first time with trials and tribulations, and it won't be the last. But I felt like I took it in stride. I handled myself like a professional. I was able to get back up. The last day that I started [in September], I was able to throw the ball a little bit better. I threw the ball decent in Texas, and then I had a rough start in Cleveland. I took what I can from those games, tried to intertwine it with the offseason."
Rightly or not, the situation drew comparisons to some of baseball's more famous pitching breakdowns, such as Steve Blass in the 1970s, Mark Wohlers in the 1990s, and Rick Ankiel earlier this decade. Ankiel made it back to the big leagues pitching in September of 2004 before becoming an outfielder. Only Wohlers among them pitched extensively in the Majors again after leaving, becoming a valued setup man before injuries closed out his career.
Willis could be back this year. He has a chance to win the fifth spot in Detroit's rotation this spring in a competition with Nate Robertson, who had his own pitching issues last year with his workhorse slider, and swingman Zach Miner.
The difference that seems to separate Willis from Blass, Ankiel, Wohlers and other cases is that so many of his issues started physically, not mentally. He was known for his unorthodox windup and delivery as soon as he earned the call from the Marlins in 2003. No one would've recommended the mechanics of it, but the delivery worked from one year to the next. Those mechanics were all over the place last year, and the knee injury didn't help.
"It was the combination of a lot of things: Me getting hurt -- not an excuse, that's just what it was -- and me fighting myself," Willis said.
And as Willis pointed out, he usually isn't one to worry too much about mechanics. Once he gets a windup down, he wants to be consistent. That was part of Knapp's motivation for not getting into mechanics at first.
Willis turned down a chance from the Tigers to play winter ball and instead stayed home to focus on his offseason work. Other than shortening his runs from distance to sprints to protect his knees, he didn't change his routine. He looked for consistency, and he's trying for the same mechanically
"I didn't really want to put too much emphasis on that because I'm not that complex of a guy," Willis said. "I just want to get it to the point where, when I'm on the mound, I just go out there and throw."
His final outing from last season, Sept. 27 against the Rays, is arguably the closest he has come to that in a Detroit uniform. For a few innings, he was hitting the outside corner on right-handed batters with one pitch after another from his long left arm. He still ended up with three walks, but added five strikeouts, and fell two outs shy of a quality start.
When Willis did hit the strike zone last year, he usually wasn't pounded. Batters went a combined 18-for-86 (.209) against him last year, including 3-for-24 by left-handed hitters.
As he turned and fired off the back mounds at the Tigers complex on Monday, his second formal bullpen and one of a handful of times he's thrown off the mound since he came to Lakeland a month ago, the results were relatively upbeat. Willis still brings up his lanky right leg as he winds up, but the kick is more subdued.
"He's been awesome," said Knapp, who has watched him since January. "His side sessions, I haven't really had to get too involved with him at all. He's a man on a mission. He really looks like he's locked in on being everything he's supposed to be.
"Who knows whatever happens over the course of a year? It'll just take me some time to get to know him a little bit better as a player and as a person. But I've liked what I've seen so far."
Willis, for his part, is far from subdued as a personality. He is joking around in the Tigers clubhouse, chatting up and down the cluster of lockers known as pitchers' row.
As he said often last year, he has fun playing the game, and his struggles couldn't have been entertaining for him debuting on a different team in a city more than 1,000 miles away from his South Florida home.
Willis' comeback has generated enough hope around the Tigers without having faced a live hitter. That comes in a couple weeks, putting an opponent into play for Willis, beside the one that stares back in the mirror.
"I'll have a lot more fun this year, that's for sure," Willis said. "I feel healthy, and now I get to fight the opponent instead of fighting myself. We'll see."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.