Now that we’ve finished out the bottom five of the top ten seasons by Marlins this decade, we can move into the top five seasons, all above 6 WAR. The first season we’ll discuss is the Cy Young runner-up campaign that former Marlin Dontrelle Willis put up in 2005. Let’s dive into that awesome campaign.
Dontrelle Willis (2005)
(Note: According to Rally, Willis was also worth an additional 1.1 WAR in 96 PA as a hitter. I did not count this in my initial determination of the WAR rankings, but I should have. This would bring Willis’ 2005 WAR at 7.5 WAR, which would make his season the second best in the decade. Willis had a special bat, for a pitcher. As an additional note, Josh Johnson would have added an additional 0.6 WAR to his total of 5.3. Carl Pavano would have added 0.4 WAR to his 2004 total.)
This 2005 season was the pinnacle of Willis’ career achievements. During a massive, career high 236 1/3 innings, Willis struck out a career high 170 batters while only walking 55. According to Rally’s TotalZone metric, Willis was also hurt severely by the Marlins’ team defense; apparently that season, the team cost, on average, nine runs compared to the average in the number of balls in play allowed by Willis. In that season, he also won 22 games and fell short of the Cy Young award, which went in favor of St. Louis Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter.
There was no doubt that Willis added a lot of value to by pitching so much. In terms of defense-independent factors, Willis also put up a strong showing. Willis walked a career low 5.7% of batters faced, including three intentional walks out of the 55 total walks. Willis also allowed a career low home run rate that season, helping Willis to a very healthy 2.99 FIP.
However that FIP was very deflated by a fairly lucky home run rate. While Willis should absolutely receive credit for having not allowed more than 11 homers, looking at his HR/FB rate would show that Willis might have gotten very lucky. For the season, Willis had allowed only 5% of his fly balls to leave the park, far lower than his career rates that hovered around 9%. Willis did not improve his ground ball rate either, meaning that he may have gotten away with more than he should have. That year, Willis’ xFIP (which regresses HR/FB to the league mean and uses that value for homers in the FIP equation) was 3.67, quite a significant swing.
In addition, Willis’ performance in terms of strikeouts was not all that surprising. Despite his career high strikeouts, his 17.7% strikeout rate for the season varied very little from his 17.0% career K%. So Willis did not supplement his performance with a higher-than-normal K%. Much of his very low FIP was dependent on the low home run rate, though certainly the extensive control (or strike-throwing) Willis displayed that season helped.
Ironically, Willis’ best aspect of his best season quickly dissipated and became the reason why his career withered. As the subsequent seasons passed, his walk rate jumped back up to close to league average levels. When he arrived in Detroit for the Detroit Tigers, his control imploded and he had not seen much active time in the majors since. We’ll always have 2005, an amazingly strong season for Willis, and he’ll always be a part of some of our best Marlins memories of the decade.