Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Re-boarding the D-Train

The following is from our soon-to-be regular contributor. We're still working on his profile, so I'm posting this on his behalf. Ladies and gentlemen, Blylevin's Beard:

Not a spring training goes by that I don’t internally develop some far-fetched wish into a bold claim, and then agonize over that outcome - something that I knew from the beginning, deep in my colon, was an incredible longshot. This year, I’m looking for Dontrelle Willis to be named AL Comeback Player of the Year. The Tigers are approaching this situation with far more caution than I am. They have, after all, been through this before. In 1976, Mark Fidrych was arguably the most electrifying player in baseball. At only 20 years old, he drew nearly a million fans to his 29 starts, 24 of which he went the distance in, 19 of which he won. Fidrych wasn’t just an astoundingly accurate and effective pitcher, though – he was The Bird. With a penchant for stomping around the mound, talking to the ball, and sporting a glossy porn-‘fro, he was downright unprecedented. Then came a knee injury sustained while horsing around with a teammate, which led to a torn rotator cuff, from which Fidrych returned prematurely – twice – and 162 innings scattered over four years later, The Bird was done in the bigs. Willis’s arrival on the major league scene was damn near as dramatic as Fidrych’s. 19 years old, with that high leg-kick that wasn’t quite Spahn and wasn’t quite Marichal but evoked comparisons to both, that jaunty-angled cap, that fastball that far exceeds it radar gun reading as it explodes from his hand and darts and runs like fastballs rarely do, that high-wattage grin… as with Fidrych, the delight that Willis inspired in fans outshone his statistics. Unlike Fidrych, Willis’s best was yet to come: in ’05, he won 22 games, and struck out more than thrice as many batters as he walked. Then he began to stumble, for reasons that remain largely mysterious, with a solid-but-unspectacular 2006 season followed by a year in which he served up nearly three times as many homers as he had in ’05. When the Tigers acquired him (as a somewhat-suspicious “icing on the cake” in the Miggy Cabrera deal) and signed him to a fat three-year deal, it was a gamble. If you’re going to gamble, though, you may as well bet on a 26-year old lefty starter with All-Star credentials, right? Then 2008 happened.

A horrific start to the season was mercifully interrupted by a knee injury, and by June, Willis was pitching in the minors and it was generally agreed that the best move for everyone involved was for him to stay there for a while. Amid a Tigers season rife with disappointments, this one was tough to top. The most frustrating aspect of it all was the “Why?” factor: Why can't he throw strikes anymore? Why do the strikes he does throw (almost all four-seamers) wind up 400 feet or more from the catcher's glove at which they were aimed? The progression from “Wow!” to “Why!?” was so steady that it's hard to blame any physical malady. And that's a troubling thought. If the barriers that Willis is up against here are psychological in nature, then the Tigers have perhaps less reason for optimism than they did as they crossed their fingers while watching Fidrych long-tossing in the spring of ’78 (and ’79, and ’80, and…). In recent years, physical woes have proven more commonly surmountable than mental ones. Just this past year, Liriano returned from a horrific elbow injury to renew his credentials as one of the game’s best starters. Meanwhile, Rick Ankiel, who followed a long, hard road to resurrection as an outfielder after seemingly catching wildness the way one might catch the flu, fell off a statistical cliff after steroid allegations began to hound him. Other notable victims of “problems upstairs” include Pete Harnisch, whose attempts to quit chewing tobacco effectively derailed his career, and John Rocker, whose jackassery boomeranged and transformed him from thunderbolt-slinging showstopper to wandering gopher carnival practically overnight. Though none of these situations mirror Willis’s, they don’t bode well for him, either. Jim Leland, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the Tigers’ brass have two further reasons to grimace even moreso than their forebears did 30 years ago: 1) Willis is making A LOT more money than Fidrych ever did, and 2) at least Fidrych’s glory days were spent with a gothic-scripted “D” on his cap; it’s possible that the Marlins have succeeded in getting Willis’ best, then passing him off at just the right time. These are a less than appetizing pair of considerations, to be sure.

The beauty of spring, though, is that amid the grapefruits and the
cacti, the coaches hitting fungoes and the pitchers jogging the warning track, hope springs eternal. Willis has been streaky thus far, struggling to hit his spots in one inning, cruising through the next, but in his highlights he's really shone: sitting down Bobby Abreu, Miggy Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez in order with a total of seven pitches, for instance. And that feels like the first step towards a Comeback Player of the Year award to me.

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