August 21, 2009
What Do Met-Killer Dontrelle Willis and Oliver Perez Have in Common?

(Full Disclosure: with David Wright on the DL, it’s becoming harder to watch the Mets, let alone write about them. It’s too early to do a recap piece as well as what my offseason plans would be, but I got some inspiration yesterday. I was on the F-train yesterday when I saw a kid wearing a Florida Marlins cap in the same style that Met-killer Dontrelle Willis used to wear his cap. Anyways, please forgive me writing a non-Mets related article, and I know tying in Perez is just rubbing salt in the wound.)

In 2003, Dontrelle Willis was on top of the world. Acquired in the Matt Clement trade, Dontrelle managed to win the Rookie of the Year award and the World Series all while never throwing a pitch in Triple-A, a feat matched only by Henry Rowengartner. While Brandon Webb probably should have been Rookie of the Year (4.8 WAR to Willis’ 3.3 WAR,) Willis’ future looked limitless. However, Willis regressed in his sophomore season, which should have been expected, putting up a 2.8 WAR in 37 more innings. At the time, I wasn’t a huge fan of Dontrelle, mainly because he killed the Mets—his career line versus the Mets: 19 starts, 11-3, 129 innings, 39 walks, 103 strikeouts, and a 2.51 ERA. However, there were more tangible reasons I wasn’t a big fan on Dontrelle; his fastball averaged roughly 90 MPH, he threw it a lot (roughly 77% of the time), and his secondary pitch was a slow slider that just didn’t impress me. I figured his success was due to his unique, high effort windup fooling hitters. Eventually, I thought hitters would be able to make the necessary adjustments though. Therefore, I patted myself on the back for predicting Willis’ sophomore slump but quickly had to put my foot in my mouth the next season.

In 2005, D-Money responded to his disappointing sophomore season by throwing 236 innings of 6.2 WAR ball which should have won him the Cy Young if it wasn’t for Chris Carpenter and his godly 6.8 WAR. Willis’ great season was due to cutting his walk rate by 25% while also reducing his HR rate by over 50%. Unfortunately, Willis’ age-23 season would prove to be his peak as he slipped in every category since posting a 2.99 FIP in ’05, Willis has had FIPs of 4.31, 5.13, 8.30, and 6.21. While I used to hate the D-Train for constantly beating the Mets, I never denied his charisma and was probably just jealous a team in the NL East had such a promising, young pitcher. So, what happened? Let’s take a look at his pitches via fangraphs.

As we can see, Dontrelle’s average fastball topped out as a 24-year-old. Since the 2006 season, Dontrelle’s fastball has steadily declining and, as a mentioned a month ago, pitchers who start to loss their fastballs don’t get them back. It’s possible Willis lost his fastball due to the amount of innings he threw or the stress of his pitching mechanics, regardless, it’s gone and not coming back. Looking at Willis’ pitch type value, we can see that his fastball was his strongest pitch and its effectiveness declined with his velocity. Dontrelle’s rate stats also declined with increased walks and increased home runs. All these signs give me little reason to hope that Dontrelle will ever be able to bounce back to anything close to what he was and, worse case scenario, could be done as a 27 year old.

(Aside: I’m not sure what to make of those cutters Willis threw in ’05 and ’06. The amount that were picked up in those years leads me to believe it was some kind of miscalculation; however, I also don’t think that Willis would just ditch a pitch that worked for him when he was on top of his game. Weird.)

Unfortunately, Willis’ story reminds me a lot of Oliver Perez. Perez’s average fastball topped out in his age 23 season, which also coincided with his best year as big leaguer. Just like Willis,Perez had a high effort delivery and tasted success early only to show signs of decline shortly thereafter. However, with the idea that both pitchers could potentiality return to form, both were given three-year deals for roughly $10 million that were regretted before the first year of the contract was completed.

Looking at the bright side, Perez has been healthier than D-Money and threw less innings in his early 20s albeit the lower innings are due to Perez’ high pitch counts. Also, in my Perez article a month ago, I mentioned that the second item teams look for to spot a declining pitcher besides declining fastballs is an increasing home run rate. Unlike Dontrelle, Perez has not exhibited an increased home rate. Still, the point of this article is not to continue that bashing of Perez, it’s about Dontrelle. Baseball is harsh: Willis went from Cy Young candidate to scrub in a matter of seasons. Even though he killed the Mets, it’s sad to see a player with his obvious love for the game decline this quickly and hope that he somehow pulls a Jamie Moyer…in the AL.

Tune in next week when I compare Barry Zito to Oliver Perez.

Just kidding.

4 Responses to “What Do Met-Killer Dontrelle Willis and Oliver Perez Have in Common?”

  1. Comment posted by Danny on August 21, 2009 at 8:56 am (#1063492)

    Cool piece, Joe. It’s actually a nice break from the constant hammering of everything Met (because well, we suck at everything right now).

    I think Darling has really nailed the Willis thing. He mentioned that his mechanics changed as he aged and got bigger and stronger and lost flexibility, and that unavoidable mechanical change due to genetics and aging is what largely contributed to the degradation of Willis’ stuff. That makes sense to me.

    At this point, I just hope Willis gets his head back on right and learns to appreciate the good days that he had.

    I can’t rationally discuss Ollie right now.

  2. Comment posted by Joe A. on August 21, 2009 at 9:35 am (#1063538)

    Willis is still young enough to follow the Rick Ankiel path and become an OF, because this pitching thing just isn’t working for him anymore.

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  4. Comment posted by Wally Dykstra on August 21, 2009 at 3:22 pm (#1064265)

    The way those little league kids eagerly surrounded Dontrelle in those MLB promotional ads always pulled at the heartstrings. I think his problem stems mainly from the silly way he wore his hat — a little uneven wind resistance most likely. That’s what you get for trying to utilize bush league tactics to distract and irritate hitters.

  5. Comment posted by C needs a LOWenbrau on August 21, 2009 at 6:26 pm (#1064613)

    I agree that flexibility or the lack of has a lot to do with the decrease in velocity. People general bulk up in their mid 20’s. If the slightly larger frame contributes to the lack of flexibility for a power pitcher then it is definitely plausible. Ollie lost his velocity before the trade to the mets. Then the jacket worked on his slot angle and he got most of the velocity back but it has decreased a bit over the past year. Nice piece. I’m just glad we never traded DW for D train.