Pitchers are like Michael Bay movies: they're expensive, things explode, and there's a decent chance they'll suck and be a waste of money. Everyone knows this. But teams keep paying pitchers because they hope they'll beat the odds. In December of 2007, the Detroit Tigers signed Dontrelle Willis to a three-year, $29 million extension. The following offseason, the New York Mets signed Oliver Perez to a three-year, $36 million extension.
The two pitchers combined for 213-1/3 innings during their new contracts, walking 192 hitters en route to a combined 6.83 ERA. Don't bother trying to separate one pitcher's stats out of the composite -- they were essentially the same pitcher after their respective extensions. Both of them were released in the final year of their deals.
Both of the pitchers were reasonable gambles, too. It's not as if this was like Derek Bell to the Pirates -- a complete head-scratcher on every level. Willis was coming off a below-average season, but it was his first as a pro. His strikeout rate didn't drop, and everything seemed to be attached, so the Tigers took a chance on locking him up at a rate far below what Willis would have commanded if he were a free agent after any of the previous four seasons. Willis took a chance that he wasn't going to leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by postponing his free agency.
Perez used to be good, too. Infuriating, but good. For the two seasons prior to the extension, he careened back and forth between league-average and above-average, walking everyone in sight but tantalizing the Mets with his potential. A three-year deal was a decent balance between risk vs. reward, especially considering that the Mets were hoping to contend.
Both pitchers failed so spectacularly, it was almost performance art. Willis stopped throwing strikes; Perez never started. You could see the flames for miles. Their teams didn't even want the pitchers to stick around and be $12 million arms for the back of their bullpens -- they were toxic, gangrenous pitchers who needed to be lopped off as quickly and as unceremoniously as possible before the whole staff was infected.
After the pitchers were released, they retired. And now you know the whole story.
Wait, that's not right. Actually, both pitchers are tearing up the minor leagues.
It's not all roses and sunshine for Perez, as he's on the disabled list with a lat strain, and there were reports that the stuff didn't match the numbers. But he wasn't walking hitters. It doesn't matter if his fastball was clocked at 85 mph* -- he was throwing strikes. Small samples ahoy, sure, but Perez hadn't had a three-start stretch with three or fewer combined walks since June, 2008, and he's never had a five-start streak without control issues.
*Actually, this matters.
Willis has been as good, but he's been doing it for a larger sample. The Reds have already used nine (!) starting pitchers this year, and the rotation is still in flux, with Travis Wood recently bounced from the rotation. Willis isn't on the 40-man roster, but he stands out as one of the better starters on the Reds' organizational depth chart. Again, it's the control that's especially encouraging. Willis was historically wild when he was released. While his walk rate isn't superlative for triple-A, it's a far cry from what led to him being a baseball vagabond.
In the Year of Ryan Vogelsong, anything is possible. Two formerly live-armed lefties, both once extremely coveted, and both paid to pitch about 8330% better for their former teams than they did, might squeak back on to major-league rosters this September. If they succeed in a limited, late-season trial, perhaps a spring-training invitation awaits them for the following March. And, maybe, just maybe, we'll see one of the two of them thriving again in the majors.
Baseball's a weird and beautiful sport. Mostly weird.