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Mudville: July 19, 2024 8:04 am PDT

D-Train: High Kicks & Magic Tricks

The Miami Marlins have been in a “rebuilding” phase for quite a while now. Derek Jeter & Kim Ng still have a long way to go before seriously believing their organization is close to winning a World Series. But in 2003, an underdog Florida Marlins roster made their way deep into the postseason on the back of a rookie phenom pitcher: Dontrelle Willis.

Often times, the value of rookie cards is linked to a player’s status as a Hall of Famer – either in or out – and are often worth the value of the player’s career in years and accolades. Three years of exceptional pitching simply doesn’t make the cut. Dontrelle Willis’ rookie sells for less than three dollars and is completely in stock on amazon.com. For example, the value of his rookie cards -specifically the 2002 Topps Cubs Card and the 2004 Topps Rookie of the Year Card (below) – both sell for less than $3.

Another element to consider is that his actual rookie card features the young pitcher in a uniform in which he never played a regular season game: that of the Chicago Cubs. Fans undoubtedly remember D-Train as a Florida Marlin, yet the original Topps rookie card of his has him outfitted in a Cubs uniform. This is because the card was produced before the young prospect was traded to the Marlins ahead of Opening Day 2002.

2004 Topps #718 Dontrelle Willis Rookie of the Year.

If I were a die-hard Dontrelle Willis fan and could only buy one of these two cards, I’d absolutely prefer the 2004 Topps Rookie of the Year card, which highlights the brilliance of his first season in the league. This card captures his awesome delivery as well as his accomplishments as a Marlin. In my opinion, that card serves as a perfect souvenir to remind any fan of Dontrelle Willis’ excellence on the mound, especially his spectacular rookie season in 2003. Unlike the 2002 Topps rookie card, the 2004 card brings us back to 2003, when Willis had one of the best rookie seasons for a pitcher in history.

The monetary value of his baseball cards run low, and only perhaps define his short-lived career. Fans will always remember and cherish what they saw from D-Train as a Florida Marlin, and as a pitcher, he should be regarded as one of the elite talents of 2000s-era MLB.

People sometimes forget about Dontrelle Willis perhaps because his baseball stardom only really lasted for about three years (2003-2005), but that light shined bright. Originally committed to play ball for Arizona State out of high school, the Oakland native opted to get drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 2000 MLB draft. Without ever stepping a single foot out on Wrigley Field, the Florida Marlins acquired the young southpaw in 2002. Willis’ career may have been short lived, but from 2003 to 2005, Willis was potentially the most exciting pitcher to watch in the entire league.

In his rookie season of 2003, Dontrelle Willis pitched his lights out. His brilliance on the mound during the regular season at the young age of twenty-one played a crucial role in securing the regular season wins that helped carry an underdog Marlins roster to the postseason. That year, the team won their second World Series, upsetting the dominant Yankees of the late 90s and early 2000s.

During the 2003 regular season, Willis went 14-6 (good for a .700 winning percentage) with a very respectable 3.30 ERA. In 160.2 innings pitched, he posted a 21.3 SO% and held hitters to a combined .245 BA. Among some of his most impressive games, one that stands out is his start against the Mets on June 16th, 2003. That night, D-Train was in the building, striking out eight and sending seventeen Mets hitters back to the dugout in a row. He pitched a one-hit shutout in the first half of his rookie season, an unforgettable and promising performance especially from a young rookie pitcher. Like many second-year players, his Sophomore slump was real, but not overly dramatic. Willis’ performance dipped slightly posting a 4.02 ERA and his win percentage sank to 47.6% in 21 games played. In contrast to his rookie season where he won 70% of his games, his productivity in 2004 obviously decreased, yet he set the bar so high in 2003 that his slump brought him from rookie all-star phenom to an encouraging, young and still very productive pitcher for the Marlins.

2005 Topps #395 Dontrelle Willis.

In 2005, Dontrelle Willis enjoyed the best season of his career. D-Train won 22 games for the Marlins, the most victories of any MLB pitcher that season. He also led the league in shutouts (five) and complete games pitched (seven), tying it all together with a 2.63 ERA in 236.1 innings pitched. That year, Dontrelle Willis had a WPA (Win probability added by a pitcher) of +5.2%. Basically, experts knew that if he was on the mound, fans were in for a treat and hitters were in for a nightmare.

What made him even more unique was that he could also hit the ball. While he wasn’t Shohei Ohtani in that department, he made clutch offensive plays in important games while preserving a respectable batting average. National League pitchers have to hit, and generally, they aren’t very good. D-Train was above average as a hitting pitcher in the NL, but his flashes on offense were crucial in moments where it counted most. One of his most memorable performances at bat also came against the New York Mets. On July 7th 2006, D-Train hit a grand slam to left field at Shea Stadium sealing a 7-3 mid-season win for the Marlins against an NL East rival. While his offense wasn’t the showcase of the Florida Marlins 2003 playoff run, D-Train was clutch in the NLDS Game 4 against the San Francisco Giants. In this game, Willis went 3-3 at the plate, scoring a decisive triple helping the Marlins win 7-6 and move on to the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. In his five years as a Marlin (2003-2007), Willis’s offense was strong, tallying 8 home runs and 82 hits. In 2007, he had 63 AB with 18 hits, 11 runs scored, a BA of .286, and an OBP of .348.

In his nine-year MLB career, Willis’ numbers as a hitter are very respectable. With 389 total AB as a major leaguer, Willis’ career BA of .244 and OPB of .287 reveal what he brought teams he played for off of the mound. Clutch plays such as he made in the 2003 at bat proved he could come up big batting 9th in a NL team’s lineup.

D-Train’s defining feature as a pitcher was his delivery. It’s still unbelievable to see today a knee raised so high in a pitcher’s motion. The closest example that comes to mind of a pitcher other than D-Train with such a high kick is Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’ delivery.  In a Bleacher Report article titled Ranking the 10 Most Unique Pitching Motions in Recent MLB History, D-Train is ranked 6th and El-Duque came in at number five. These guys had a lot in common, notably a very high leg kick that was and still is simply awesome to look at. El Duque’s motion was built off of the legends he studied “imitating a number of great pitchers including Dwight Gooden, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan and Luis Tiant,” according to Ben Shpgiel of the New York Times. He mastered his delivery in Cuba, where he pitched professionally for years before making to the mound for the New York Yankees. Coincidentally, Orlando’s brother Livan escaped from Cuba as a political refugee to pitch for the Florida Marlins in the late 90s and helped win the team’s first World Series in 1997.

El Duque

In my opinion, one of ESPN’s most brilliant documentaries is the 30 for 30: Brothers in Exile (2014). This feature thoroughly covers the careers and unbelievable challenges Livan and Orlando Hernandez overcame to eventually both win World Series as pitchers. Livan Hernandez and Dontrelle Willis are undoubtedly connected, as they were both young pitchers who, in their own ways, substantially contributed to the Marlins only two World Series in 1997 and 2003. But it is specifically Orlando’s pitching motion that connects him to D-Train. It is hard to think about Dontrelle Willis’ motion without looking at El Duque’s. Of course, while El Duque raised his left knee, it was D-Train’s right knee that got incredibly close to his head every time he threw. In fact, he is the only LHP on the list I mentioned earlier.

Another defining feature of D-Train’s delivery was the high extension of his left elbow. Most pitchers keep their arm tightly sealed into the glove, without necessarily thinking about raising their elbow to the level of their ear. Not only did Dontrelle Willis’ knee reach his head, but his elbow would also often be extended outwards and upwards in his wind up. This was especially the case in his early years, as his flexibility and athleticism decreased following his time with the Marlins. If the high kick didn’t define his pitch, his elbow was extended so far outwards at a 45-degree angle that it practically rose above his head. Part of this can be attributed to his quite long and goofy wingspan.

1982 Fleer #292 Dennis Eckersley.

Finally, Willis grew up idolizing Dennis Eckersley. Growing up close to Oakland, the Athletics were Dontrelle’s favorite team. At the time, Eckersley was pitching for the A’s but was repurposed as a closer. Pictures of Eck’s younger years pitching in Boston in the early-mid 1980s are glaringly similar to what fans got from Willis. While Eckersley’s leg kick wasn’t as dramatic as Willis’, D-Train has gone on record explaining that he was so focused on his leg kick because of his admiration for the former Red Sox pitcher. So, part of the reason why his pitch was exaggerated is that he was trying to mimic the pitchers he idolized as a kid.

In baseball, left-handed pitchers are a valuable commodity, as they (usually) overwhelmingly perform better against lefty hitters, than righty pitchers against righty hitters. In Dontrelle Willis’ case, his numbers against lefty hitters defines his success. The stats in his earliest seasons speak for themselves, but in his later years, his numbers against lefty hitters are astounding despite abysmal ERAs. Take for instance the last season he played baseball. In 2011, D-Train was on the Cincinnati Reds where he pitched a total of 75.2 innings and posted a 5.00 ERA. That season, he faced 60 lefty hitters who together put up a .127 batting average against him. Released by the Reds and signed by the Phillies during the offseason, his ERA was abysmal and there was little to look forward to besides his numbers against lefty hitters. In an NBC Sports Philadelphia article published December 16th, 2011, following the Phillies acquisition of D-Train, they highlight specifically the .178 batting average of lefty hitters who batted against him since 2010. With rising ERA’s every season he pitched after leaving Florida, it was perhaps his statistics against lefty hitters that kept him in the league. His pitching motion at that point was less flashy, but his numbers against lefty hitters throughout his career gave managers a reason to take a chance on him.

After 2006, Dontrelle’s numbers were progressively worse. 2005 was Dontrelle’s best statistical year as a pitcher; he started off the season with a 1.29 ERA in the first month of the season winning his first five games. He fell second only to Chris Carpenter for the NL Cy Young Award. Before the 2008 regular season, the Marlins traded D-Train, and notably Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers as part of a large eight player deal. Simply put, Detroit was a disaster for Willis. In 2008, he reached a career high (in a bad way) 9.35 ERA.

2006 Fleer Team Leaders Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis #TL-11.

Injuries began to linger, notably a hyperextended knee that led the Tigers to ship him back and forth between their ball club and minor league affiliate. Most importantly, he faced mental health challenges off the field. His physical injuries, such as the hyperextended knee, were relatively minor in contrast to his struggles with anxiety. Putting a star pitcher on the DL for such issues and the Tigers barely mentioning the reasons for his absence sheds light on how MLB failed to address mental health issues facing its players. In his first season in Detroit, D-Train was placed on the DL twice for the same reason: a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Willis spoke openly about these issues, explaining to the press that simply he lost the motivation he used to have. Roy S. Johnson of ESPN covered D-Train’s tumultuous season and emphasized how the 6th year pitcher’s struggle with emotional issues exemplified how baseball failed to address or treat mental health issues players frequently face: “Willis is Exhibit A in sports’ inability to deal with the body’s most vital organ [the brain] and the impact that any tweak in its function may have on performance. But he’s certainly not the only baseball player to suffer an emotional falling.”. Johnson mentions stars of the game that faced very similar issues such as Joey Votto and Zack Greinke, concluding that “for the sake of future stars, baseball and other sports must learn to do as good a job of diagnosing and treating ‘mind’ injuries as they do when the body breaks down.”

Dontrelle’s brilliance in his first three seasons contrasted with his quick disappearance from stardom among MLB pitchers was heartbreaking. Ten years ago, mental health issues in professional sports were certainly overlooked in comparison to today, and Dontrelle Willis was perhaps the most glaring example of professional baseball failing to address these serious matters. After leaving Florida, Willis bounced around and never had the spark he had in his first three seasons. What Willis produced statistically as a pitcher in his first few years explains why baseball teams kept taking chances on him until 2012.  His dramatic downfall from young superstar to one of the worst performing pitchers in the game was and is sad, certainly for him but also the fans. D-Train is one of those players who if you grew up watching him pitch, will never be forgotten. His legacy and sensational delivery along with a flashy, feel-good smile defined his excellence as a teammate. Those same reasons made him one of those guys who everybody loved.

These days, D-Train (right) is a respected MLB analyst, seen here on a FOX broadcast with (from left) David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez and Frank Thomas.

His teammates always described him as one of the best teammates and someone they wanted to be around. He was funny, and simply one of those very likeable guys. D-Train’s friendship with Miguel Cabrera runs deep, as both players grew up as Marlins and moved to Detroit together. MLB.com explains that the two keep in contact regularly and have had each other’s backs throughout their careers. Willis said that Miguel is “probably his biggest fan on TV (…) He literally sends me pictures of him in the locker room and me on the TV. It’s cool, man. As much as I’m proud of him, he’s proud of me.” Miggy recently hit his 500th home run as a Tiger, and Dontrelle Willis couldn’t have been prouder of his longtime teammate. What’s is that the picture featured in D-Train’s August 22nd congratulatory tweet of Miggy’s 500th captures everything there is to love about his personality.

Willis announced his retirement in 2012. After attempting to make multiple unsuccessful comebacks in the years that followed, D-Train’s charisma and knowledge of the game have paved a new career for him as an MLB broadcaster. Since 2018, Willis has worked for MLB Network, Fox Networks, and NBC Sports California. The latter allowed him to work as an analyst covering the Oakland Athletics, the team he grew up watching.

The traits that led fans to love Willis as a ballplayer are still there today. He’s a likeable guy with energy and talent. Most importantly, his openness about his mental health struggles off the field are a testament to his courage and resilience. In many ways, his disappearance from the MLB spotlight paved a new path to success for him in the same industry. While he won’t ever take the mound again, fans should be delighted to see that big smile on TV. His accomplishments as a pitcher as a Florida Marlin give him every ounce of credibility he needs to comment on the game.

His charm will never go away, and while he stopped playing the game professionally, his accomplishments as a young pitcher and reputation as a teammate sealed his new career in baseball as a knowledgeable analyst. Fans will be seeing him on television for years to come – the same spirit D-Train brought to dugouts and to his teammates will now be felt by viewers in their living rooms. If anything, Dontrelle’s rebirth in the baseball industry as a studio analyst will remind fans of D-Train’s greatness, both as a player and as an individual.

Will Desvallees is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University with a Bachelor in History. He is currently living in NYC, watching the Yankees every day, and looking forward to seeing if Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo pay off. He loves baseball cards as much as he loves the sport, and loves writing stories about cardboard.

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