Dontrelle Wayne Willis (born January 12, 1982), nicknamed "The D-Train", is an American former professional baseball pitcher. He played in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds. Willis was notable for his success during his first few years in the MLB and for his unconventional pitching style, which included a high leg kick and exaggerated twisting away from the batter. He was named the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year.
Willis with the Arizona Diamondbacks
|Born: January 12, 1982
|May 9, 2003, for the Florida Marlins|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 27, 2011, for the Cincinnati Reds|
|Earned run average||4.17|
|Career highlights and awards|
Willis was raised by his mother, Joyce, a welder, in Alameda, California. She played in elite-level softball leagues when Willis was a child. Willis never knew his father, Clinton Ostah, who was a minor league player in the 1970s. Growing up, Willis rooted for the Oakland Athletics as a child. Willis' favorite player was former Oakland Athletics' pitcher Dave Stewart. Willis attended Encinal High School in Alameda, where he played baseball for four years. In Willis' senior year in 2000, he had a 0.70 earned run average (ERA) with 111 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched and was named California Player of the Year. He initially committed to play college baseball at Arizona State. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 8th round of the 2000 Major League Baseball draft.
In 2001, Willis was promoted to the Boise Hawks of the Northwest League. He finished with 8 wins and a 2.98 ERA. Opposing hitters only batted .217 against Willis. In a Baseball America poll, several NWL managers called Willis Boise's best player.
On March 27, 2002, the Cubs traded Willis (then a minor leaguer), fellow pitchers Julián Tavárez and José Cueto, and catcher Ryan Jorgensen to the Florida Marlins, in exchange for pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca.
After being traded, Willis struggled early on. However, Willis started to get better as he got to low Class A ball. By the end of the season, he went 10-2 and finished the season with the Class-A Jupiter Hammerheads. In five starts, he went 2-0 with a 1.83 ERA, leading the Midwest League in ERA. For his performance, he was named the Marlins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
In the 2003 Spring training, Willis reported to Jupiter. The plan was to start him with the Class-AA Carolina Mudcats. The hope was that he would make the leap to AAA, and potentially be available for a spot start in Florida or a back-of-the-bullpen job late in the season. The Marlins then sent Willis down to Carolina to work on consistency and control. Willis would dominate at Carolina; he went 4–0 with a 1.49 ERA.
On May 9, 2003, Willis made his Major League debut for the Florida Marlins. Against the Rockies, he pitched six innings, allowed seven hits and three earned runs, and got a no decision.
On May 14, in a start against the Padres, Willis went five innings, allowed five hits, three earned runs, and four walks, and received his first Major League win. On June 16, Willis pitched nine innings and allowed no runs in a 1-0 victory over the Mets in his first career shutout. Willis' opponent in that game was Tom Glavine, one of his childhood heroes.
Willis was named Rookie of the Month for the month of June and became the first Marlins pitcher to be named Pitcher of the Month. He became the first rookie pitcher to win Pitcher of the Month since Hideo Nomo did it in 1995 for the Los Angeles Dodgers and he became the first rookie pitcher to win seven straight starts since Jason Isringhausen, also in 1995. In 5 starts, Willis went 5–0 with a 1.04 ERA. Heading into the All-Star Break in mid-July, Willis was 9–1 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 starts. He made the National League All-Star team as injury replacement for Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown. He became the second Marlins rookie to make the All-Star team; Alex González did it in 1999.
After coming out of the bullpen in game 1 of the 2003 National League Division Series against the Giants, Willis started game 4 of the series. In 5.1 innings pitched, Willis allowed 5 hits, 2 base on balls, struck out 3 batters but allowed 5 earned runs. Despite struggling with his pitching, Willis showcased his remarkable (for a pitcher) hitting ability by going 3-for-3 with a triple and scoring a run during that game, which the Marlins won 7–6 to advance to the NL Championship Series against the Cubs, the team that drafted Willis. In game 4, Willis again struggled with his command. In just 2.1 innings pitched, he allowed 3 hits and allowed 5 base on balls and took the loss. His only other appearance in the series was in game 6, when he allowed a run in one inning of relief. Despite his limited contributions, the Marlins went on to defeat the Cubs in 7 games. The Marlins then defeated the New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series.
In 2004, Willis started the year 3-0, and did not allow an earned run in his first three starts. He also showed great hitting skills for a pitcher. In his first two starts, Willis went 6-for-6 with a home run. His seven consecutive hits in the regular season was 1 short of the club record held by Gary Sheffield and Preston Wilson. In his next start against the Phillies, Willis struck out in his first at bat, snapping his streak of 10 consecutive hits dating back to previous year's postseason.
He finished the 2004 season with a record of 10–11 and an earned run average of 4.02.
In 2005, Willis became one of the best pitchers in baseball. He started the 2005 season by pitching two shutouts against the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies. During the month of April, Willis went 5–0 in 5 starts and allowed five earned runs in 35 innings pitched for a 1.29 ERA. He was named NL Pitcher of the Month.
On May 6, Willis became the league's first six-game winner when he went seven innings and allowed no runs against the Rockies. "I felt strong," Willis said. "I was able to stay down in the zone. That's my key, because I don't throw 100 mph. I can't live up in the zone. In all my starts I've been trying to stay down, and hopefully they swing at it." On June 8, Willis became the major league's first 10-game winner when he pitched the Marlins to a 5-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners, allowing 4 runs. Willis became only the third pitcher in Marlins history to record 10 wins before the All-Star break. On June 23, Willis became the NL's first 12-game winner when he pitched a shutout against the Braves. "He's tough," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He deserves to start the All-Star game, to be honest with you. He's the dominant pitcher in the National League right now."
Going into the All-Star break, Willis was 13-4 with a 2.39 earned run average and a 1.14 WHIP. Willis was named to the All-Star team but did not pitch in the game. Willis kept pace with his great first half after the All-Star break. He went 9–6 and posted a 2.91 earned run average and a 1.13 WHIP the rest of the season.
During his last start before the All-Star break, Willis struggled against the Cubs. In 4.1 innings, he allowed 8 runs, all earned. He struggled in each of his first two starts after the break, failing to make it past the sixth inning in games against the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants. However, he would get back on track. Willis matched his highest win total on July 28 against the Pirates when he went 7 innings, allowed 3 hits, no earned runs, and picked up his 14th victory of the season, which tied his career high for most wins in a season. Willis won his career-high 15th victory on August 7 against the Reds. He went 8 innings, allowed 4 hits, and no earned runs. On August 17, Willis held the Padres scoreless by shutting the Padres out in 9 innings, earning him his 16th win of the season, second most in baseball. "He's as good as anybody," San Diego manager Bruce Bochy said. "We aren't the first team he has shut out this year." The win put Florida one-and-a-half games behind Houston and Philadelphia in the wild card standings.
Willis won his 19th game of the season against the Mets on September 2, breaking Carl Pavano's franchise record for most wins in a season. Pavano held the Marlins' mark for most victories in a season by a Marlins' pitcher for a year. On September 7 against the Washington Nationals, Willis pitched 6 innings and allowed 1 earned run, which gave him his 20th win of the season. He became the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games in a season since Dave Stewart did it in 1990, and in the process, he became the first pitcher to win 20 games and have 20 hits as a batter since Mike Hampton did it in 1999 for the Astros. On September 22, Willis became the first pitcher to bat seventh or higher since Montreal's Steve Renko batted seventh on August 26, 1973. Willis went 1-for-4 against the New York Mets. He would go on to post a 22-10 record with a 2.63 earned run average and 1.13 WHIP. His 22 wins was the most in baseball. He also pitched 7 complete games and 5 shutouts, also the most in baseball. Willis is still the only pitcher in Marlins history to win 20 games in a season.
Willis would go on to finish 2nd in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting behind Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals. He did, however, win the Warren Spahn Award, given to the best left-handed pitcher in each league.
In the 2006 season, Willis' numbers were down from his great 2005 season. Willis started the season by going 1–6 with a 4.93 ERA and didn't get his second victory of the season until June 2. He still posted decent numbers for the year and went 12–12 with a 3.87 ERA, including 11-6 with a 3.39 ERA from June to September. His 12 wins were tied for the most on the Marlins. Willis also led the Marlins in complete games (4), innings pitched (223 1⁄3), base on balls (83), and hit by pitch (19).
On June 20, Willis earned his 50th career win in a start against the Baltimore Orioles. At age 24, 159 days old, Willis became the fourth youngest pitcher to achieve this milestone. Only C.C Sabathia, Greg Maddux, and Mark Buehrle accomplished this at a younger age.
On July 7, Willis hit a grand slam off of Mets pitcher José Lima. Willis became the first pitcher to hit a grand slam since Robert Person did it in 2002. It was his fourth career home run. On September 20, 2006, he hit 2 home runs, off of Óliver Pérez and Roberto Hernández. He became the first pitcher since Randy Wolf to hit 2 home runs in a game.
On January 15, 2007, Willis signed a one-year contract with the Marlins for $6.45 million, avoiding salary arbitration.
During his career with the Marlins, Willis went 68-54 with a 3.78 earned run average. He won at least 10 games each season during all five of his years with the Marlins from 2003 to 2007.
On December 5, 2007, the Marlins traded Willis along with fellow All-Star Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers for Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Mike Rabelo, Eulogio de la Cruz, Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop. Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski then signed Willis to a 3-year, $29 million contract extension two weeks later.
In his next start, also against the White Sox, Willis injured his left knee and departed the game before even recording an out. Placed on the disabled list the next day, Willis had walked nine batters while striking out none in his first two outings. Command of his pitches became a trouble spot, and later in the season, Tiger manager Jim Leyland pitched him in relief for the first time, with little success. He was placed back into the rotation on June 3, 2008, to start in a loss against the Oakland Athletics.
On June 10, 2008, Willis was sent down to Single-A Lakeland, a day after a start in which he gave up eight earned runs and five base on balls in 1⅓ innings pitched against the Cleveland Indians. Though Willis had enough service time in the Major Leagues to require his consent prior to the send-down, he agreed, saying he needed to work on his control.
Willis was called back to the Tigers in time for the roster expansion on September 1, 2008. He made three starts, recording a loss and two no-decisions. Willis finished with a 0–2 record and a 9.17 ERA. In 24 innings pitched, Willis struggled with his control and walked 35 batters.
Willis was placed on the 15-day disabled list in March 2009 for an anxiety disorder after a blood test showed something of concern; he began a treatment regimen aimed at addressing the condition. Willis was taken off the disabled list and placed on the active roster May 13, 2009, when he made his first start of the 2009 season. Willis made seven starts after returning, with poor results, before being returned to the disabled list on June 19 with the same anxiety issue. In Willis' last start of the season, he was tagged with 6 earned runs allowed and 8 bases on balls. Willis finished the season with a 1–4 record and a 7.49 ERA.
In Spring training 2010, Willis made the Tigers starting rotation.
On May 30, 2010, Willis was designated for assignment by the Tigers. In his career with the Tigers, Willis played in 24 games (22 starts). His record was 2–8 and had an earned run average of 6.86 in 101 innings pitched.
He changed back to his former uniform number 35, which he wore for the Marlins. In his Diamondback debut, he pitched six scoreless innings with four walks and three strikeouts. He got his first win as a member of the Diamondbacks.
Willis pitched four innings, giving up two runs and three hits, walking six batters on June 10. During the second inning, he cracked a finger nail and after the fourth inning, he was removed from the game due to the pain on the fingernail.
On July 4, 2010, Willis was designated for assignment and subsequently released.
In 6 games (5 starts) with the Diamondbacks, Willis went 1–1 with a 6.85 ERA in 24⅓ innings pitched.
On July 15, 2010, Willis was signed to a minor league contract by San Francisco and began pitching for the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. On November 6, 2010, Willis was granted free agency.
Willis signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds for the 2011 season. He was invited to spring training, for a chance at starter or bullpen. Willis was reassigned to the Louisville Bats as of March 27, 2011. Willis was called up on July 10 and made his Reds debut against Milwaukee at Miller Park. Willis pitched six innings, giving up two runs while striking out four and walking four. He also contributed on offense, going 1-for-2 with a double. Willis made his second start for Cincinnati on July 18, 2011, at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. On August 3, Willis started, going six innings and hitting a solo home run but was charged with a no-decision.
On August 9, Willis went 8 innings, struck out 10 batters, and allowed 3 earned runs against the Rockies but was charged with the loss. His 10 strikeouts was the most he had got in a start since he struck out 11 against the Diamondbacks on August 14, 2007. His 8 innings pitched was the most innings he pitched since his last start with the Florida Marlins, where he pitched 8 innings against the Cubs on September 25, 2007.
On August 14, Willis went 2.2 innings and allowed 4 earned runs against the San Diego Padres. Prior to the start, Willis said that his forearm was still a little tight after he had warmed up in the bullpen earlier.
On December 13, 2011, Willis agreed to a 1-year deal worth $1 million with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was expected to pitch out of the bullpen. He was released on March 16, 2012, after just three Grapefruit League appearances.
Willis signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles five days later on March 21. A left forearm strain suffered on April 12 led to a dispute with the organization which wanted him to be a relief pitcher. Desiring to be a starter again, he placed the blame for the injury on working out of the bullpen. In his only start after the problem was resolved, he surrendered four runs and six hits in 2⅔ innings pitched. He made four appearances with the Norfolk Tides, going 0–3 with an 8.53 ERA while allowing eight runs and ten hits in 6⅓ innings. He announced his retirement as an active player on July 2, 2012.
On January 4, 2013, Willis signed a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs. He left his first game in spring training after 7 pitches, and came out of the game with a shoulder injury. The Cubs released Willis in March 2013.
On April 5, 2013, Willis signed a contract with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. He compiled the best earned run average in the Atlantic League, posting a 2.56 ERA through 14 starts. Willis pitched to a 5-4 record and struck out 52 batters in 87 and two-thirds innings. By August 3, he was tied for second in the league in complete games with three. His efforts earned him an Atlantic League All-Star selection, and he was chosen as the starting pitcher for the Liberty Division, tossing a perfect inning.
In the early hours of December 2006, Willis was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after he double parked his Bentley in Miami Beach in order to urinate in the street. In April 2008, Willis pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving and was ordered to pay $761 in fines and fees, perform 50 hours of community service and serve six months of probation.