Friday, March 20, 2009

Willis And Strike Zone Still Only Casual Acquaintances

Dontrelle Willis still can't get the ball over the plate. Maybe he never will.

It's not looking good for Mr. Willis, who's desperately trying to show the Tigers -- and the baseball world -- that 2008 was simply nothing more than a ghoulish, chilling nightmare, not the start of the end.

Willis came to the Tigers in December 2007, in the same trade that brought Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins. He was thought to be a major addition to a rotation that needed one more live arm. Willis wasn't that far removed from a 22-win season.

His arm has been live, alright. Too live. Lively is more like it.

Willis can't throw strikes. That's pretty much what it boils down to. He started not throwing strikes last spring, and it was a concern, but not a panic. Then the season started, and Willis kept not throwing strikes. He didn't stop there; he added not throwing the ball anywhere near the plate to his repertoire.

There were fat dudes on carnival midways, throwing softballs at milk bottles, who had better command than Dontrelle Willis in 2008.

Willis mastered two pitches last season: a ball, and a LOOK OUT.

Willis delivers another one high and outside (probably)

The Tigers have a new pitching coach, Rick Knapp. He comes from the Twins' organization, which has this uncanny ability to produce one good young pitcher after another. Much of why these pitchers are so good is that they throw strikes. Consistently.

So the Tigers hoped that Knapp would arrive, work with Willis, change some things, and everyone could declare 2008 one of those flukes.

Whatever magic potion Rick Knapp has been feeding Dontrelle Willis either hasn't kicked in yet, or Willis is immune to it. In either case, the outlook isn't good.

Willis pitched in the Tigers' exhibition loss to Atlanta on Thursday, and the results were, as usual, mixed. That's about as good as you can hope for from Willis anymore -- mixed results. He wasn't terribly wild, but he was hit hard. It's like pick your poison.

The spring totals are creepy: 11 2/3 innings, 13 earned runs and 10 walks. Not much has changed, it seems.

The notion of Willis being finished must make the Tigers nauseous. There's a boatload of money that he's owed, whether he makes the team or not. On the baseball side of things, the Tigers never got anywhere near what they thought they were getting when they traded for Willis. Not that they could have predicted such a dramatic and swift loss of command.

After switching from his trademark high leg kick to a more conventional windup, Willis returned to the high kick in his final inning Thursday. The Detroit Free Press reported that Knapp prefers the high kick, and Willis will be reverting to it from now on.

It's rarely a good thing when windups and batting stances are constantly being changed, from one style to another. OK to change once, but when it becomes a back-and-forth thing, it smacks of folks reaching for straws.

The Tigers are trying to cobble together a pitching staff that will service them for the 2009 season. The rotation isn't set yet, and neither is the bullpen. Some of that has to do with injuries. And some of it has to do with guys not separating themselves from their competition.

All this, and Dontrelle Willis still can't throw strikes. At least not enough befitting a big league pitcher. That's two springs in a row now. Not good. Not good at all.


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