Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Dontrelle Willis Another Steve Blass?

It's never good when they name a syndrome after you. Or a disease. Unless you're the one who discovered it.

For Steve Blass, the syndrome discovered him, and so his name is the one used -- and hardcore baseball fans will know instantly what you're referring to if you say a pitcher has "Steve Blass Syndrome."

Blass was a fireballing righthander who was an integral part of the successful Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the early-1970s. He pitched two complete games in the '71 Series, giving up only two runs in the process, for a 2-0 mark and 1.00 ERA against the Orioles. He was the winning pitcher in the seventh game. The next year, in 1972, Blass won 19 games and posted a 2.49 ERA. He was still only 30 years old and had won 100 games exactly in the big leagues. He was recognized as among the very finest pitchers in the National League, if not in all of baseball.

Then everything went horribly wrong, and by April '74, Steve Blass was out of baseball.

He couldn't find the plate, plain and simple. In 1972, Blass walked 84 batters in 250 innings. In 1973, he walked the same number -- but in 89 innings. His ERA went from 2.49 to 9.85.
He hit four batters in 1972 and 12 in 1973 -- or one every seven-plus innings.

There was no explanation found. Nothing was wrong with Blass physically. The trouble lie between his ears, but just because everyone knew it was a mental thing, didn't mean they knew how to cure it. It got to the point where Blass had no clue where the ball was going when he released it. He literally expressed concern that he was going to seriously injure someone one day.

Steve Blass

Blass gave it another try in '74, but after just one game, five innings pitched, seven walks, a wild pitch, and two home runs allowed, the once-great righthander called it quits. Shortly thereafter, any pitcher who suddenly lost it, control-wise, was said to have Steve Blass Syndrome (SBS).

I bring up Blass because I wonder if Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis is suffering from SBS.

Willis was never a control freak, per se, but never was he as wild as he's been since being traded from Florida to Detroit. It started in spring training, but it was written off as merely a rough start or some mechanics that needed tweaking. He'd be ready to go, we were told, when the curtain rises for real.

Well, he wasn't. Not even close. Willis walked a ton in his first start the first week of April, then hurt himself in the first inning of his next start, but not before exhibiting more wildness. Then some rehab assignments in Toledo, with mixed results.

Everything finally came to a head Monday night.

Willis started at Comerica Park against the Indians, and manager Jim Leyland said he felt for his young lefty. Willis struggled mightily, not really coming close to throwing strikes. He's now walked almost twice the number of innings that he's pitched: 11 innings, 20 walks. It's a hideous ratio, and it's very SBS-ish.

Now Willis has been shipped down to the minors, wayyy down, all the way to Lakeland. Class A ball. Scraping the bottom of the minor league barrel. There, says GM Dave Dombrowski, Willis can get the attention and care that he so badly needs.

They still talk of mechanics -- Willis included -- when breaking down Willis's troubles. Not yet has the talked really turned to what's going on in his cranium. Which is funny, because I'm pretty sure that's where the problem lies. Maybe no one wants to admit it publicly. Especially Willis himself.

The Tigers had a lefty reliever named Kevin Saucier. "Hot Sauce" was his nickname, and he was the team's closer in 1981. He was brilliant in '81, picking up 13 saves and posting an ERA of 1.65. No control problems, either. But in 1982, Saucier started to lose it a bit. Like Blass, he worried about hurting someone. He retired in July '82, in order to put those worries to bed permanently. Saucier wasn't yet 26 when he quit.

It's probably still too early to definitively say that Dontrelle Willis has Steve Blass Syndrome. But there's nothing yet to prove to me that he doesn't.

That's what's spooky.

(stats retrieved from


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