Dontrelle Willis has officially signed with the Phillies. Had this news come prior to the 2006 season, adding Willis would have been huge news. Dontrelle had just finished his third season with a 22-10 record and a 2.68 ERA with the Florida Marlins. At the age of just 23, Willis had a career 3.27 ERA and was well on his way to becoming an elite starting pitcher. His funky delivery, electric personality, and ability to swing the bat made Dontrelle Willis one of the main faces of Major League Baseball.
Fast forward to 2012...
In the six years since his peak in 2005, Dontrelle Willis has a 26-39 record and a 5.01 ERA. Those numbers led to Dontrelle signing a one year contract for less than a million dollars...as no more than a lefty specialist. So, I ask the question again...
What happened to Dontrelle Willis?
In a case like Dontrelle Willis where a player drops so hard, so fast, it is almost always an issue with velocity or command. My first inclination is to look for a decrease in velocity and it does appear his velocity dropped a little. Reliable velocity charts only date back to around 2008, so it's hard to say exactly how much his speed declined, but the reports I read show that his fastball averaged 92-93 mph until 2005 and dropped to 89-90 mph as of 2008 and has held steady since. Three mph is a fairly significant drop, but probably not enough to explain a collapse of this magnitude.
Willis lost control and can't command
At the face of it, Dontrelle Willis just lost control and command of his pitches. The stats point this out very clearly. Willis went from 2.63 walks per nine innings in his first three seasons to 4.67 in the 6 seasons since. That's nearly twice as many walks. More walks means Willis is behind in the count much more often and it also suggests that he is throwing less quality strikes. Just imagine if Roy Halladay doubled his walks.
A slight drop in velocity and a higher walk rate explains why Dontrelle Willis is so much worse, but the main culprit of how it happened comes down to mechanics.
It's all mechanical with Dontrelle Willis
As "The Hardball Times" pointed out in 2007, changes to Dontrelle's mechanics explains it all. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Willis would eventually run into mechanical issues with such a funky delivery. With so many moving parts in his delivery, one small issue can cause a domino effect. Poor mechanics leads to decreased velocity, difficulty commanding pitches, and eventually mental issues. It's all pretty simple.
It's probably too late to expect the old Dontrelle Willis to miraculously take the mound in a Phillies uniform, but maybe a move to the bullpen will take some pressure off. This is a classic Pat Gillick move and there's no doubt he played a part in the decision. Who knows, maybe Gillick can pull another genie out of a bottle.