Dontrelle Willis Sighting
Those of you who have read my blog for some time know that I’m a big fan of Dontrelle Willis. As you probably also know, he’s pitching in the independent-A Atlantic League this year, the go-to league for American players who have washed out of organized baseball (that is, the organizations controlled by MLB) but still think they have some good baseball left in them.
I’m pleased to report that well into the second half of the season, the D-Train is leading the Atlantic League with a 2.57 ERA.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this means we’ll see Dontrelle back in the Show anytime soon, because his other numbers aren’t nearly so good. In 87.2 innings pitched, he’s allowed 78 hits and 43 walks while striking out only 52. The last two numbers aren’t impressive, especially at this relatively low level of competition.
A couple of times a season, I scan the leaders page on the Atlantic League’s website and look for hitters who are in the top five or seven in both batting and home runs and for pitchers leading in ERA and strikeouts, because in my mind these are the most likely candidates to be brought back into organized baseball, at least if the player is still under age 30. I strongly suspect that major league teams do pretty much the same thing, although they may also look at ratios and send a scout to check out the player for a couple of games before signing him. For example, the Angels recently signed Cyle Hankerd, a 28 year old outfielder, who is currently first in the Atlantic League with 22 HRs and sixth in hitting at .322.
Right now, Dwayne Pollok is 4th in the Atlantic League with a 3.33 ERA and third with 87 Ks. Unfortunately, he’s also 32 years old and wasn’t signed last year when he pitched even better in the Atlantic League. 29 year old Chris Cody might be a better bet to get signed back into organized baseball — he leads the Atlantic League with 98 Ks and his 3.63 ERA is 9th best in the league.
At any rate, Dontrelle is going to have to more fully dominate Atlantic League hitters before he’s going to be signed and sent back to AAA.
On another note, when Dontrelle’s team, the Long Island Ducks, had a couple of players hurt early in the season, they used Dontrelle as a designated hitter in a game. Dontrelle went 1-for-2 with two sacrifice flies and three RBIs. He hasn’t had a plate appearance since.
Dontrelle is one of the best hitting pitchers of the last decade (I ranked him second in all of baseball behind only Micah Owings, now a AAA outfielder, going into the 2013 season) with a career major league batting average of .244 and OPS of .665 in 447 career plate appearances. Yet, the Ducks haven’t given him any more opportunities to hit.
The decision not to bat may well be Dontrelle’s, who could reasonably see his only return to the majors coming as a pitcher and any time spent hitting as a distraction. I know this much: if I were the Duck’s general manager, I’d be writing Dontrelle’s name into the line-up at DH or 1B as a often as I could. Aside from the fact that Dontrelle is probably a better pure hitter than 80% of the position players in the Atlantic League, it would be great at the box office.
Dontrelle is a former major league star, and there aren’t really that many players with his marquee value in the Atlantic League. Most Atlantic League players are (1) AA and AAA players who washed out with a few marginal major leaguers thrown in and (2) “rookies” to professional baseball who make a lot less a month than the $3,000 that former major leaguers like Dontrelle get. To say the least, there sure aren’t many players who once won 20 in a season in the majors.
Also, a pitcher going back to the minors who does some hitting and plays the field on occasion is great copy. I don’t see how pinch-hitting and playing DH (or for that matter 1B) on occasion could possibly interfere with Dontrelle’s pitching.
It’s worth noting that the Ducks have a middle infielder named Dan Lyons, who is currently hitting .216 with no power and few walks, yet he’s fourth on the team in at-bats with 245 at-bats this year. You can’t tell me that the Ducks haven’t had plenty of pinch-hitting opportunities for which Dontrelle would have been suited.
Baseball at this level is all about finding ways to entertain the fans since the level of baseball on the field isn’t nearly as good as what they could see watching the major league teams on TV. I’d certainly pay $10 or $15 bucks a head to see Dontrelle Willis playing 1B for an Independent-A team. I bet a lot of other baseball fans would too.