The D-Train Makes a Stop in Arizona

If I told you, people of Arizona, that the Phoenix Suns had signed Rasheed Wallace, would you be excited? He used to be really good, has a few talents, but also has some mental baggage that is less than appealing for a team to take on, and has not been a solid contributor in a while. You signed him for cheap, but you now face the prospect of seeing Sheed’s psychosis sabotaging the team every few games, and while you hope that he will stop being neurotic, he has a pretty solid history of it at this point.

The D-Train will be kickin' it in Arizona for a while.

Now, people of Arizona, imagine that you just got Dontrelle Willis. You did. He was once very good (NL Rookie of the Year, 2nd in Cy Young voting), but has since had some emotional problems, and hasn’t been a productive member of a baseball team since 2006 (when he posted a 3.87 ERA in a pitchers’ park). Every 5 days, you, as a fan, face the prospect of hoping that for just one day Dontrelle returns to his old near-Cy Young form, but the most likely result is another implosion filled with erratic pitching, three times more runs than Dontrelle has solid seasons (he only had 2), and more inconsistency than you already have.

At this point, you are probably saying it is a little unfair to compare Sheed, a guy who has emotional problems that are a negative influence on all, to Dontrelle, who is still a good guy, but is so firmly inside his own head that he cannot fix himself and even spent a stint on the DL for mental illness. Even if he will not have the same negative overall influence as Sheed, the results on his own numbers are similar. The overall comparison does not stand and I do not mean for it to, but the comparison of their current status as it pertains to their personal numbers remains.

I am all for rolling the dice on a guy for cheap. Sometimes all he needs is a change in scenery, or a new pitching coach to get the message through, and all of a sudden he is back to his devastating form. Look at Fausto Carmona. In his first season in the bigs he was 1-10 in 38 appearances (7 starts) with an ERA over 5. He went down to low A ball and got things fixed by a pitching coach who really got through to him. He followed it up with a season in which he finished 4th in Cy Young voting in the AL with an ERA of 3.06. All of a sudden, he lost it. He sucked again, and was forced back down to that same pitching coach, who appears to have fixed him again as he is currently sitting on a very respectable 3.69 ERA on a horrible team. The point of that little story is that sometimes it just takes a new approach for a guy to regain their old form. Dontrelle could certainly be a guy who finds his old form in Arizona. He could join a healthy Brandon Webb, a better Dan Haren, a resurgent Edwin Jackson, and suddenly-not-a-flop Ian Kennedy to lead the Diamondbacks to the playoffs. However, far more likely is the reality. Dontrelle could get one good start out of every 7, Brandon Webb could be out for most of the year, Edwin Jackson could continue to be overrated, and Ian Kennedy could return to the bust-status he has earned in his year with the Yankees.

I get it Diamondbacks fans. You are disappointed in your pitching. The bullpen couldn’t get Little Leaguers out, your starters are under the impression that giving up home runs helps the team, and nothing is going right. As an Indians fan, I get that. However, all of Arizona needs to seriously temper their expectations for Dontrelle. Could he turn into Cliff Lee and be great all of a sudden? Sure, but you are far better off expecting nothing from him. This is not only for you, but for him as well. He has had stress issues for a while, and expectations are the last thing someone with stress problems needs.

So enjoy having a past rookie of the year on your roster. Enjoy the possibility that he could return to form. But whatever you do, do not EXPECT him to do anything of the sort. My colleague, and Arizona resident Ross Geiger said it best about Arizona: You do best when no one expects anything of you. Keep that in mind with Dontrelle. Expect nothing from him, but if he gives you anything at all, rejoice. There is nothing wrong with giving him a second chance, but there is plenty wrong with expecting the world of a guy who has not given anyone anything in 4 years.

Dontrelle is going to need to step up if he wants to meet his unrealistically high expectations.

Dontrelle Willis might have his own "Dunks" but he is anything but a slam dunk in 'Zona.


  1. The D-Backs don’t expect the D-Train to be Cy Young again, they expect him to be a #4/#5 quality starter, which all of the numbers suggest he will be. His ERA/FIP/xFIP all sit slightly below 5 so far for the Tigers, and we’ve seen with Edwin Jackson (NOT sarcasm ahead) that a move from Detroit and the AL to Chase and the NL can help rates, as evidenced by E-Jax’s career-low 3.91 xFIP (just another case of crap Arizona luck). There are fewer big bats in the NL because of the lack of the DH, so Dontrelle can be a bit more aggressive in attacking people, and I definitely think he’ll hold down the spot. His current K/9 is actually his highest since his first season in the majors. The stuff is there to impress. No risk/high reward. Regardless of what happens, really, there’s always a chance we deal him again at the deadline to another NL team if he shows he can really help someone down the stretch, and get a more long-term prospect for the system than Buckner, who’s already 26.

    1. All the sabermetrics in the world cannot fix Dontrelle’s stress issues and emotional problems. While I agree that Edwin has improved while moving to Arizona, I would wait a bit before jumping to conclusions after a great start last year and late struggles. I also have a hard time believing you are going to get a really promising prospect for a “#4 or #5 starter”.

      Sabermetrics are good for explaining certain phenomena, but cannot address the problems that Dontrelle has. His mechaincs are a mess (fixable), but until he proves he has gotten rid of that emotional baggage, he will continue to struggle in the major leagues. The stats show WHAT Dontrelle has done, but not WHY.

      1. Your point about Edwin is fair, as he does have a 1st half/2nd half career split, but a BABIP spike in the 2nd half is responsible for some of that too (though, of course, people could just be squaring more line drives off of him, which is a mildly frightening forecast).

        You make it sound as if Dontrelle is having noticeable tear-filled emotional implosions on the mound. Has he struggled this year in the major leagues like you say he always will? Last time I checked (which was just now), he’s really only had three bad starts for back-end starter expectations, and he’s moving to the easier league.

        He never agreed with his diagnosis, and don’t you think for even a second that the team just wanted to put him on the DL because he was sucking (which isn’t at all uncommon, you have to admit)? And since there was nothing wrong with his body, and he has such an exuberant and lively personality, that “anxiety order” was an easy way to do so?

        If he’s so damaged, how would have ever been able to face Detroit and pitch for them this year given how much the Tigers disdain him for simply accepting a dumb contract that they offered him. None of his comments suggest that he’s still got his “emotional baggage” weighing him down.

        So I see no reason that these stats don’t apply here. Just because they’re advanced doesn’t mean that they only work in a specific set of conditions. They certainly require nerds (like me) to look at every possible reason/statistic behind the performance and numbers, but I don’t feel that this is some special situation that defies all numbers.

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