It is rare that we get to say something a former Marlins great hanging up the cleats and retiring. That is mostly because this team is just approaching two decades of age and just does not have the rich history other teams can boast. In addition, few players ever stuck around long enough to make a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of Marlins fans so that, when they left and eventually retired, they would be missed.
But in the case of Dontrelle Willis, none of those things matter.
Yesterday, Dontrelle Willis announced his retirement from the game of baseball after playing in parts of nine seasons in the majors. Willis, better known to Marlins fans as "D-Train," was a Florida Marlin for his first five seasons before being traded after the 2007 season along with fellow rookie class member Miguel Cabrera in the infamous Detroit Tigers trade.
Willis was well-remembered for two things in his major league career: his flashy, exciting start and his momentous, severe downfall. For Marlins fans, they got to witness the former without seeing much of the latter, which is part of the reason why fond memories remain of his time with the organization. But as fast as D-Train's rise was in baseball, his fall from grace was just as quick, and we will remember both.The Debut
Dontrelle Willis was initially acquired by the Florida Marlins the year before, as the team traded starter Matt Clement and reliever Antonio Alfonseca for Julian Tavarez and a bevy of players including Willis. In fact, Willis was the highlight of that package, having performed really well in parts of three different levels in 2002; by the end of the minor league season that year, Willis posted a 1.83 ERA in 24 starts with 128 strikeouts and just 24 walks in almost 158 innings. Prior to 2003, he was actually ranked 43rd in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects.
Willis spent six starts in Double-A Carolina, posting a 1.46 ERA before the Marlins decided it was time to turn to him. This occurred only because the Fish lost A.J. Burnett to injury, prompting the promotion of Willis. Then the legend began.
Willis made his first start on May 9; after that 5-4 victory, the Marlins were just 16-21 on the season. Willis went six innings and allowed three runs while striking out seven and walking two batters. From there, the Marlins won nine of his first ten decisions until the end of June. By the time Willis finished June, he was 8-1 with a 2.26 ERA and a 2.64 FIP. He had been nothing short of outstanding for the Marlins to start his major league career, as batters continued to be baffled by his funky delivery and strong stuff.
In fact, it was the delivery that first caught the eye of many fans everywhere. D-Train's delivery was unique to all of baseball. His high leg kick was a perfect idiosyncrasy for little fans everywhere to emulate. Willis seemed to look at the sky whenever he reared back to throw a pitch, evoking memories of another high-kicking successful pitcher in Fernando Valenzuela.
It was the success that put Willis on the map, but it was his leg kick and delivery that made him a household name. Without the leg kick, he may have been just another rookie pitcher who began the season very well and deserved some recognition, but the kick was what excited the Marlins fan base. Fans emulated Willis in the stands, and soon word of the eccentric, happy pitcher having so much success down in south Florida got into the national channels. You know you have something special going on when ESPN begins to feature you as well as part of their usually nonexistent Marlins coverage. The combination of great play and great fun was the reason WIllis was so popular and iconic in the 2003 season.
The Rookie of the Year
Soon enough, everyone was behind Dontrelle Willis and cheering for his success. How could you not? His happiness and smile on the field were infectious, his delivery had become a national sensation, and his success in his rookie year was undeniable. Willis was not able to keep up his early pace, but he still finished the season with 160 2/3 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 3.45 FIP. The various sources had Willis worth 3.5 to four Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that season, which is an excellent contribution from a rookie who came up as an injury replacement.
Willis went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award that season, though it was a tight race between him, Scott Podsednik, and Brandon Webb. Webb actually outperformed Willis with a 2.82 ERA and 3.30 FIP, but given Willis's national exposure and presence on the Wild Card-winning Marlins team, it was not surprising to see D-Train take a still deserving victory.
D-Train went on to perform in the playoffs, but he began to struggle a little in the playoffs, enough so that the Marlins actually pulled him from the rotation to have him serve as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. Nevertheless, he played an important, if not decreased, role in the 2003 playoffs on the way to the Marlins' World Series victory. Even despite the setback, it was clear that Willis's future was going to be bright with Florida.
The Next Few Years and the Cy Young Candidacy
The next season for Willis was reminiscent of his playoff run, as he struggled to get strikeouts and ended up with a 4.02 ERA and 4.01 FIP. There were questions as to whether we would ever see the Dontrelle Willis of 2003, when he dazzled in his rookie year. The truth was that Willis had fallen a bit in terms of effectiveness, but that was mostly due to an increase in home runs allowed.
In 2005, he shattered all of those misconceptions about whether he would return to form. Willis had his best season of his career in 2005, pitching 236 1/3 innings and posting a 2.63 ERA and 2.99 FIP. Various sources have that season worth between six and seven WAR. That was an amazing season and it was worth a second-place finish in the Cy Young race. Willis ended up behind only St. Louis Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter in the Cy Young race, and three pitchers were all deserving of the award in 2005. But nevertheless, Willis's season appeared superficially to confirm the arrival of D-Train to the elite of baseball.
The truth is that Willis's 2005 was very similar to his 2004 year. He did walk fewer batters and struck out more guys, but these differences paled in comparison to the difference in home runs allowed. Willis suppressed homers at a much greater rate in 2005, only allowing 11 long balls in 960 batters faced. This was the lowest number of homers he ever allowed in a season, and that played a big role in why he was so successful. As we moved forward, however, it should have been clear that that 2005 success would be a highlight rather than a start to an amazing career.
The Last Few Seasons of Struggle
The 2006 season was a year of change for the Florida Marlins, but D-Train remained a fixture in the Marlins rotation. That year, he regressed as expected from his 2005 high, but he was still an effective enough pitcher for the Fish, throwing 226 1/3 innings and posting a 3.87 ERA and 4.31 FIP. The FIP was the highest of his career to that point and was a harbinger of things to come. Willis essentially reverted back to his 2004 season form, repeating many of the peripherals of that year. It certainly was not 2005, but it was decent for a pitcher among a solid set of five pitchers.
But in 2007, the wheels fell off for Willis much like they did for the rest of the Marlins pitching staff. While many of the young guns from 2006 fell to injury (Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Ricky Nolasco missed most of the season), Willis remained but was extremely ineffective. He posted a third straight year with more 200 innings pitched, but his walks continued to creep upwards and he was bitten by the home run bug; he walked a career-high 9.2 percent of batters and allowed 29 home runs in his 200-plus innings. Both of these career worsts led to a 5.17 ERA and 5,13 FIP for the season.
The Marlins had a difficult decision to make, as D-Train was heading into his third arbitration season in 2008 and was going to get paid a decent amount regardless of his poor performance. The team finally decided to part ways with Willis, knowing they were not going to be able or willing to commit to a long-term extension. Willis was dealt alongside the only other Marlins mainstay from the 2003 World Series championship team, superstar Miguel Cabrera, to Detroit for a package featuring top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.
At the time, Marlins fans had to be disappointed. We were just treated to five seasons of Willis, and while not all of them were wonderful in terms of performance, they were all made enjoyable by the fact that WIllis was such an infectious personality. It was hard to be down on a guy who was so happy and fun-loving on the field, no matter how he performed. In addition, Marlins fans would always remember his contributions in 2003 and 2005 more fondly than they would look back upon the ugly 2007 campaign. Even despite the awful final year, Willis was always going to leave south Florida a hero rather than a goat.
Indeed, the final tally for Willis in Florida was a good one. In his five seasons, he posted a respectable 3.78 ERA and a 3.98 FIP. He was worth between 16 to 20 WAR to the Marlins in his 1022 2/3 innings pitched. The numbers reflect a guy who was a workhorse for the team but not an ace despite his status on the Marlins. He had two great seasons mixed with two decent ones and one bad one, making his overall ledger solid. But because of the contributions to winning Marlins ballclubs and the amazing start he had with the team, fans would always remember him more fondly than perhaps he should be recalled.
The Lost Control
While the problem of control was beginning to slip for Willis in 2007, no one could have foreseen what occurred after that year. Willis began his career in Detroit with a three-year, $29 million extension that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the Tigers. Willis threw just 24 innings in 2008, walking 35 guys and striking out only 18. His ERA was at 9.38 and he appeared all but broken. The Tigers sent him to the minors and he spent all of 37 innings before being shut down for knee and elbow injuries. The next season was not any better, as Wilis made seven starts with similar problems before missing the rest of the year with a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder.
In the middle of 2010, the Tigers finally decided to trade him for spare parts, and he spent the next few seasons with different ballclubs exhibiting many of the same issues. The problem was less pronounced, but it was still prominent enough to warrant a lack of interest in his services. Eventually, Willis signed a minor league deal before 2012 with the Baltimore Orioles but made just four appearances before retiring yesterday.
The ledger for Willis after his 2007 season was as bad as could be. In 199 innings, he posted a 6.15 ERA and a 5.46 FIP that were quite indicative of the disastrous end to his career. Willis seemed to have lost all semblance of control in the last few years, and even with a relative bounceback away from Detroit, he still was not effective enough to remain in the majors. For a guy who was so enjoyable to watch, it was a sad way to finish off his career, in the relative obscurity of the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate.
As far as Willis's lasting legacy, it again will be the amazing start and the equally amazing finish in a negative sense. In essence, for many Willis will have two careers entirely. First, we will remember him for his amazing demeanor on the field and his ever-present happiness along with that high leg kick. It is easy to remember those fun times because he performed so well back then. As Marlins fans, the time of unbridled D-Train joy is the time that will stay in our hearts. For many of us, D-Train will always be that 23 year-old kid with the high leg kick and the smile that would light up the stadium. He would always be one of the saviors of the 2003 season and one of the reasons that team won the World Series.
The other side will be the part that eludes Marlins fans, a distant and lamentable memory of a once-great player who fell on hard times away from us. It will harder to recall because we were not there to witness it in person. In fact, unlike fans of Detroit, we will look back fondly on Willis's career and simply regret him not being able to regroup himself after a great start. But for many, they will remember vividly the amazing and incomprehensible struggles of the once-great Willis, and there will be some resentment. But because of the way Willis was when he was an effective player, I think most fans will merely lament his poor end without blaming him for his struggles. For Willis, it was not meant to be, even if we all wanted it from him.
Marlins fans, Fish Stripers, we will remember the career of Dontrelle Willis, the D-Train. It will be a pleasant memory in our minds from days long past, but as poorly as his career ended and as deceptive as his success was (as deceptive as that leg kick), he will be considered one of the best in Marlins history still. That, my friends, will never change.