Revisiting ’03: Hop on the D-Train


Welcome back to Revisiting ’03, a sabermetric look at the amazing 2003 Florida Marlins team that won the World Series. As you can tell from the title, we have but one target for today’s piece, and that man is the D-Train, former Marlins lefty starter Dontrelle Willis. Let’s take a look at that 2003 season and what went right (or wrong) with his career as he went forward. Let’s hop aboard the D-Train once again.

The Introduction

Dontrelle Willis was initially drafted in the eighth round of the 2000 draft by the Chicago Cubs. He was later acquired just prior to the start of the 2002 season from theCubs in the trade that sent Marlins starter Matt Clement and closer Antonio Alfonseca to Chicago. At the time, I wasn’t as astute a fan of the game, and I thought this was yet another example of the Marlins dumping contracts as they continue to perform. Alfonseca had just recorded a solid 28-save season for the Marlins as their closer, but the team was shipping him away. Clement appeared to be a bit of an afterthought after initially coming over from the San Diego Padres in the Mark Kotsay trade. Nevertheless, the Marlins received Willis, minor leaguer Jose Cueto, and Julian Tavarez in return.

Flash forward to the 2003 season. Willis received his callup from Double-A Carolina on May 9th, in order to make a start due to the injury to A.J. Burnett, who was out for the season with Tommy John surgery. Willis came up and immediately impressed, rattling off nine wins in his first fourteen starts. As a result of the hot start, Willis made the All-Star team in 2003 as an injury replacement, his first of two All-Star appearances. Willis ended the season with a 3.30 ERA, a 14-7 record, and a Rookie of the Year award to add to his mantle. During the postseason, however, Willis struggled, starting only two games and appearing in seven total, pitching 12 1/3 innings and posting an 8.53 ERA.

Willis was commonly considered a primary reason for the “revival of baseball” in South Florida. D-Train fever had caught on, and the fans loved everything about the young lefty, from his infectious smile to his surprisingly good hitting to the ever popular high leg kick. He was a phenom in the community, and had a bright future ahead of him after his stellar first season.

The Sabermetric Lens

Was Willis’ first year as good as advertised? Part of the goal here was to determine whether players were as good as how I thought they were back then, and Willis being a vital component to the 2003 team, I figured he deserved his own profile. In 160 2/3 innings and 668 batters faced, Willis struck out 142 hitters while walking 58, none intentional. Those numbers translate to a 21.3% strikeout rate and an 8.7% walk rate. Willis’ K% was very good, while BB% was tad high compared to the National League averages for that season (17.1% K%, 8.0% UIBB%). In this department, Willis’ performance can be considered solidly above average.

Willis did benefit slightly from a significantly high strand rate (77.6% compared to the league average 71.2%), but his BABIP indicated neutral luck (.301), so while the timing of his outs may have been somewhat lucky, his balls in play appeared to be caught at the league average rate. He did allow a rather low number of home runs given his batted ball distribution; despite only getting 40% grounders on the season, Willis allowed only 13 home runs, and FanGraphs has a his HR/FB% at a low 7.9%. Overall, he might have been a good deal lucky in terms of timing and homers to have allowed the runs that he did.

Overall, Willis posted a 3.45 FIP according to FanGraphs, with a corresponding 4.32 tRA (also from FG). The higher tRA was a result of a 23.6% LD%, though with the subjective nature of the LD% scoring, it is difficult to determine whether that number is correct. Nevertheless, FanGraphs had Willis worth 3.3 WAR his rookie year, an impressive feat for a rookie pitcher. Rally’ s WAR database has Dontrelle at 3.7 WAR based on his actual runs allowed and prorated defensive contribution. Either number is excellent and, as we saw in the previous piece about the Marlins’ best player that year, ranks among the top Marlins starters that season. It would appear that Willis’ season, despite some decent fortune, was as good as advertised. We can all revel once again in D-Train’s magical 2003 season once more.

Where did it all go wrong?

At the time, after the Detroit Tigers trade that sent Willis and Miguel Cabrera packing, I was quite surprised to see Willis struggling as bad as he was. Yes, he was moving to the superior league, but it seemed that Willis had lost all semblance of control over his pitches. Now, with the saber-lens, I thought maybe we could see those signs of trouble in his walk rates in the last few seasons in Florida. However, there is no way anyone could have seen the 2008 and 2009 results for Willis from 2006 and 2007’s stats.

The primary problem that Willis had was control. The control that was very strong in 2004 and 2005 began to diminish in 2006 and 2007, but there was simply no way to explain a jump from a bit below league average to Rick Ankiel reincarnate. Something either mechanical or mental had occurred, and the fact that it happened right after the trade was a mere coincidence.

One thing that can be said with regards to the 2003 season was that the strikeouts were a fluke. Willis never struck out more than 17.7% of hitters, around a league average mark, since his rookie season. It seems the deception of his high kick delivery may have indeed caused batters to miss more often, and after the rookie year the hitters ubsequently adjusted to Willis’ delivery. For example, after inducing a league average swing% in his rookie season, hitters only swung outside of the zone on Willis 14.4% and 18.3% of the time in 2004 and 2005 respectively, a ridiculously low total for a pitcher with supposedly good stuff. Furthermore, the contact rate on Willis’ pitches jumped from his 2003 number of 75.2% to 81.6% the next year, and that rate never dipped below the 2004 rate the rest of his career. The deception of the delivery was gone, and all that was left to sustain Willis was his control, which slowly began to falter.

This says nothing of Willis’ wonderful start. I am happy to see that Willis was every bit as good a pitcher, if a bit lucky, in 2003 as I remembered him to be when I watched him leg kicking his way to a postseason appearance. His first three seasons in the bigs were an absolute joy to observe, and it is truly a shame that it appears Willis is so far off the track right now that he’ll never return to being the exciting pitcher he once was. We’ll always have 2003, D-Train.