Six years ago today, the Giants released pitcher Dontrelle Willis from his minor league contract. He would have just one more attempt to reach the majors before calling it quits.
Willis burst onto the scene in 2003 as a rookie with the Marlins. The lefty used a unique delivery that featured him rocking back on his left foot, swinging his right knee up to his right shoulder, then whipping the baseball from behind his head and on the first base side of the rubber to opposing batters. His wind-up was so effective he was an All-Star and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Even more importantly, he helped the Marlins win the 2003 World Series. To date it is their most recent championship and the last time they were even in the postseason.
Willis could also handle himself with the bat. In his rookie season, he posted a .606 OPS which included a home run. He would hit at least one home run every year from 2003-07, including three in ’06 and two in ’07.
Though entertaining to watch, Willis was inconsistent. He posted a 4.02 ERA in his sophomore season, up from his 3.30 ERA in 2003. Then, in ’05, he won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA over 236 1/3 innings. He was a narrow runner-up in NL Cy Young balloting to Chris Carpenter. Willis followed that up with a 3.87 ERA in 06 and an ugly 5.17 ERA in ’07.
After the 2007 season, the Marlins — known for their fire sales — packaged Willis with Miguel Cabrera, sending them to the Tigers in exchange for six players: Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo, and Dallas Trahern. Willis quickly inked a three-year contract extension with the Tigers, but would go on to accrue just 101 innings with the club.
Willis battled physical injuries as well as an anxiety disorder, both of which contributed to vanishing control. Over those 101 innings with the Tigers, Willis struck out 68 and issued 92 walks. The Tigers cut Willis loose in June 2010, trading him to the Diamondbacks. He had five starts and one relief appearance for his new team, subpar on the whole. The club released him in July. He signed a minor league deal with the Giants, but he didn’t make it back to the majors. The Reds signed Willis in the offseason heading into the 2011 season. It would be his final time in the majors. He started 13 games, yielding 42 runs in 75 2/3 innings for a 5.00 ERA.
In the ensuing four years, Willis would ink minor league deals with the Phillies, Orioles, Cubs, Angels, Giants, and Brewers. He also signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in 2013, but none of it led to him getting back to the big leagues. Willis retired from baseball in 2015.
Willis is one of those players that makes you wonder what might have been if his career had been able to unfold normally. For a brief period of time, Willis was the talk of baseball. He was a unique personality as much as he was a unique player, appearing to always have fun even as the Marlins cratered in the standings. Little Leaguers imitated his wind-up. Card collectors sought his particular piece of cardboard. Sometimes, though, as Mark Prior can attest, you blink and you miss it.