Sometimes it’s hard to know what you have until much later.
Once upon a time, the Marlins had the “D-Train.”
Dontrelle Willis was a 6-foot-3, 230 lb. left-handed pitcher from Oakland, CA. Born on this date in 1982, he eventually went on to pitch for the Marlins, the Detroit Tigers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cincinnati Reds. In nine major league seasons, he totaled 15.4 WAR. 17.2 of that was with the Marlins.
Willis was an eighth round selection of the Chicago Cubs in 2000, out of Encinal HC in Alameda, CA. He spent two years in the Cubbies minor league system, never above the low-A level and ending with a trade to the Marlins just prior to the 2002 regular season. Willis was sent to the Marlins along with Jose Cueto, Ryan Jorgensen and Julian Tavarez for Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement.
Willis was dominant with the Single-A Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League in 2002. In 19 starts, he was 10-2 with a 1.83 ERA. He struck out 101 and walked only 21 in 127 2/3 innings, holding the opposition to a 0.88 WHIP. Results were similar in a smaller sample size late in the season with the High-A Jupiter Hammerheads in the Florida State League. Willis was 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts for the Sharks, with three walks, 27 whiffs, and a 0.900 WHIP in 30 innings.
Starting with the Double-A Carolina Mudcats in 2003, in the Southern League, Willis was 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA over six starts, with a 0.91 WHIP.
Guy was just cleaning up at every level, you know? So the Marlins said, “Why Not?” and called him straight to the parent club.
It’s a decision they wouldn’t regret. Willis took home the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year award, appeared in the All Star game, and eventually helped the Marlins win the World Series. He was 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA in 27 starts for Florida, with 142 K’s and a 1.282 WHIP in 160 2/3 innings.
In 2004, Willis took 32 turns in the rotation, and posted a 10-11 record with a 4.02 ERA with 139 K’s in 197 frames. Despite a not-great 1.376 WHIP and 9.6 H/9, he still registered as an “above average” National League pitcher with a 102 ERA+.
But 2005 would likely be Willis’ finest major league season. He led the major leagues with victories, going 22-10, also ranking first with seven complete games and five shutouts. He put up a 2.63 ERA and a career-best 1.134 WHIP and struck out 170 in 236 1/3 innings, all career-highs. He made his second All Star appearance for his efforts, and finished second in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting, finishing behind the St. Louis Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter.
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Willis played two more full seasons in Florida’s rotation. When he was traded to the Tigers after the 2007 campaign, he had a 68-54 career record with a 3.78 ERA and 757 K’s in 1022 2/3 innings for the Fish. He ranks second on the all-time Marlins leaderboard with 68 wins, leading the franchise with 15 complete games and tied for first with A.J. Burnett with eight shutouts.
Willis’ final four seasons of major league baseball would yield a 4-15 record and a 6.15 ERA over 40 starts. He lost the handle on the ball, they would say, and take as evidence his 156 walks issued versus only 139 whiffs over his final 199 innings. He issued a non-Marlins career WHIP of 1.814.
This is a guy who clearly gave all of his best stuff to the Marlins during his five seasons in the rotation. Happy 38th birthday to the “D-Train.”