A train is one of many ways to get from one place to another. While it has an aggressive and fast start, it’ll stop suddenly at each stop to pick up passengers. Sometimes, the train will have moments of stalling but recuperating.
You’re probably wondering why I started this article off with a train reference. The reason I’m doing this is because the baseball world just lost one of the most exciting pitchers in Miami/Florida Marlins history (although the franchise has only been around for two decades). His name is Dontrelle Willis, and his nickname was the “D-Train.”
Willis, currently 30-years-old, recently announced his retirement. He spent nine seasons with four teams, but was most famous for his infamous quick rise to fame with the Marlins. As a rookie in 2003, Willis became a catalyst in the Marlins’ run to their second World Series title. He peaked during the 2005 season, going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 236 innings pitched.
After his best season, Willis went downhill pretty quickly. He did have a decent season in 2006, but the numbers weren’t the same. That’s when the Marlins had their fire sale and traded him with Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers. Willis didn’t even appear in 10 games for the Tigers in any of his three seasons with the organization. He was traded twice in the next two seasons and attempted to come up through the Baltimore Orioles farm system, but failed to.
As a fan of baseball, it was pretty hard to watch a man with so much potential fall like he did. I will never forget watching that 2003 World Series where he came out of the bullpen and shut down the Yankees. He wasn’t hard to root for. Willis always played with a smile on his face, and it showed in the fans that always tried to imitate his famous high leg kick. He was the reason why the Marlins became more popular in the news and gained fans.
Analyzing his career, it assures everyone you never know about a player’s career once it just starts. Willis was expected to hit the 300 win plateau and be a pitching backbone of the NL East for years to come. Maybe the pressure got in his skin and he just couldn’t handle it. Willis actually was treated for anxiety disorder with Detroit in 2009. We also expected big things from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood when they first entered the bigs. Wood would retain a solid career, but never reached the expectations he was given, while Prior became an injury waiting to happen.
What happened to Willis during his downfall might’ve been caused by himself. He came into the league skinny, tall and intimidating on the mound throwing heat. Once he started to gain weight, his delivery got slower. The Willis that would sling the ball off a Juan Marichal-like motion became a slow cartoon character that lost control of his pitches on a consistent basis.
His delivery could’ve been the reason why his career was short-lived. Although some pitchers have had successful careers with this notion (Orlando Hernández, Juan Marichal), pitching with a high kick could cause them to lose balance during their delivery. Even when you’re in your wind-up, it’s easier for a base runner to steal a base since you’re occupied with launching your leg at the sky like a rocket waiting to launch.
When Willis gained weight, we saw him crumble. Marichal and Hernández were very skinny, so they got away with it. You probably can’t throw like Willis did his whole career unless you’re in shape. Maybe if he attempted to try a different pitching motion in his twilight years (which should’ve been his prime), Willis could still be pitching for a major league team today.
The career of Dontrelle Willis is a prime example of how quick someone a star can become while falling faster than the Kingda Ka. He was a great story and person to root for, but his inability to stay in shape and delivery tore him down. I would love to see Willis change his delivery or even lose some weight and attempt a comeback in the future. But as of now, it’s only a mere fantasy.