I first saw Dontrelle Willis pitch in May of 2002. I was working on a temporary work assignment in suburban Chicago, and one evening I went to a Kane County Cougars game. Dontrelle Willis was a rail-thin 20-year-old, with a high leg kick and a whip-like delivery that overpowered the Fort Wayne Wizards. Almost everyone could see that this was a young man with a future. And the future began soon, as he won the National League Rookie of the Year award the following season and became a phenomenon.
After four years of success, Willis lost his effectiveness, and has spent the last four years among major and minor league teams. This season, he’s with the Louisville Bats in the Reds’ organization, and he was the starting pitcher last Saturday. It was hard to believe he is just 29 years old. First, he’s no longer rail-thin; he’s filled out quite a bit, although he wouldn’t be considered portly. Second, he’s eliminated the leg kick from his delivery, probably because he’d lose his balance if he kept it. Third, he no longer has a whip-like delivery; it’s smoother and more compact. He efficiently retired the first four batters he faced; then suddenly lost his command. He walked two batters (with a wild pitch among the called balls); gave up two hits, and then the shortstop couldn’t handle a hard-hit ground ball. Brendan Harris then hit a shot off Willis’ leg; it rebounded to catcher Corky Miller, who threw to first base for the rare 123 putout. (You’ll occasionally see a 123 double-play when a batter hits one back to the pitcher with the bases loaded, but I’d never seen a 123 putout before.) Willis had to leave the game.
Having seen Dontrelle Willis pitch before he became famous, it was interesting to see him pitch now that he’s trying to come back. It would be nice if he could have a second “career”, maybe as a fourth starter or a lefty-on-lefty specialist.