Knapp advises Willis on delivery
Tigers pitching coach working with left-hander to rebuild mechanics
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rick Knapp wasn't with the Tigers for Dontrelle Willis' struggles last season. He's here working with Willis now, as he has since January. And when he saw Willis bring back his leg kick against the Braves on Thursday night, the Tigers pitching coach was probably caught by surprise as much as anybody else.
"About the third or fourth pitch of the last inning, there he is -- the shoulder rocked down, the tilt back, and then make the pitch," Knapp said. "He looked more like him."
It was a reversion back to what he used to do. But as Knapp pointed out, it also produced what was probably Willis' best pitch of the night, a fastball on the inside corner for a called third strike to Yunel Escobar.
"I think he reverted back to some things he used to do," Knapp said. "And in my opinion, that's what he needs to get back to. I think if you try to prefabricate your delivery, you lose your instincts. And I think that in the last inning, I saw a guy that looked like the Dontrelle that we saw when he won 22 games, to me."
If the Tigers are going to try to get Willis to what he was in the early part of his career, they're now going to try it with the mechanics with which he's familiar. In that respect, they're going to let Willis be himself, and try to build from there.
Part of the building process started Friday morning, with Willis and Knapp in the bullpen for a refresher session after they watched video of his Thursday outing. Knapp could be seen giving Willis pointers before Willis would try some pitches. What the Tigers will try now is to use some of the pointers they've worked on with him during the spring and incorporate the leg kick.
Especially this late in Spring Training, it's an unexpected move after Tigers instructors spent much of last summer trying to rework his delivery to suit him and his body frame better. At this point, though, it arguably gives them a better chance than if he's fighting the mechanics he had been using since last summer.
"The whole thing is trying to free him up to be who he is," Knapp said. "I think that it's easy to get fabrication-oriented. But I think with a guy like him, he's a flow-delivery type of a guy. And I think that the more pieces that he has moving, the better it is for him."
Still, as manager Jim Leyland put it, "We're at the point where we're trying pretty much anything. I think that's pretty simple. And I think [Willis] feels comfortable with that."
As Willis talked about his outing after Thursday's game, he clearly sounded more comfortable.
"I think [Leyland] was just happy I was letting the ball loose," Willis said Thursday night. "Before, I think he felt like I was trying to get a feel for the strike zone, and [Thursday], he felt like I was just cutting it loose and letting it do what it does. You could tell by the motion and the way I was throwing the ball, instead of before just trying to get a feel instead of hoping. [Thursday,] I was just letting it fly and getting ahead early."
Leyland sounded much like Knapp in his evaluation, pointing out that some pitchers aren't supposed to have a perfect delivery and that focusing too much on mechanics can result in too robotic of a motion. Leyland also noted Willis' competitiveness on the mound, seemingly a nod to his instincts.
Willis will have a chance to use that leg kick for a longer stretch the next time he takes the mound. Since his next turn comes Tuesday, the Tigers' final scheduled off-day of Spring Training, he'll pitch next in a Minor League game. From there, he'll be on track for at least one more outing, possibly two if he pitches in one of the exhibition games at Atlanta on April 3-4 at Turner Field.
Asked how long it could take Willis to get comfortable back in his old motion, Knapp seemed upbeat that it should be a smooth transition.
"To me, I think that in the end, it's like riding a bike," he said. "You're going to do what comes natural. It'll be for him like riding a bike."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.