Dontrelle Willis of the Cincinnati Reds looks for the call after being tagged out at home plate in the second inning against the Colorado Rockies at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
I've rarely been so happy to be so wrong about something.
When Willis walked 35 batters in 24 innings in 2008, I thought he was probably finished.
When Willis walked 28 batters in 34 innings in 2009, I thought he was probably finished.
When Willis walked 56 batters in 66 innings in 2010, I thought he was probably finished.
This spring, the Cincinnati Reds brought Willis to camp and talked about making him a relief pitcher. He walked eight batters in 10 innings, and I thought he was probably finished.
Now, I'm using the qualifier probably because when it comes to baseball, nobody knows anything. But if you'd asked me to put a number on Willis's chance of reestablishing himself as a good (or even adequate) major-league starting pitcher, it would have been south of five percent. Less than 1 in 20, for sure.
Well, something funny happened on the way to Oblivion; at some point this year, Dontrelle Willis apparently found some miracle cure for Steve Blass Disease.
Despite his control issues in spring training, the Reds didn't give up on him. Which they easily could have, considering their (then) apparent depth in pitching. Instead they sent him to Triple-A Louisville, where he started and, however improbably, where he thrived. While the Reds were running through starting pitchers like Soviet generals through infantry, Willis was cutting through International League hitters like a wolf through a hen house, thanks to a revamped, simplified pitching delivery.
In 13 starts for Louisville, Willis pitched 76 innings, struck out 67 batters and -- here's the best part of this story, so far -- he walked only 20.
Still, I was skeptical. If Steve Blass Disease is in the head (as some people believe) and Willis was afflicted (as I believed), perhaps the malady would reappear if Willis returned to the majors. Reds management seemed to be skeptical, too, considering how long Willis was left toiling in Louisville.
There was a difference this time, though. In his previous minor-league stints, Willis had struggled with his control. Not as seriously as during his major-league stints. But struggled, none the less.
Not this time, though. Willis's 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio with Louisville was miles better than anything he'd done for an extended period, at any level, since 2008. Which gave even a pessimist like me some reason to hope that maybe, just maybe Dontrelle Willis wasn't quite finished, after all.
The Reds finally promoted Willis a month ago. He didn't pitch all that well in his first start, walking four and striking out four in six innings. In his third start, he walked three and struck out three. In his next two starts, he walked only three but struck out only five, in 12 innings. He wasn't pitching all that well. He was throwing strikes, though, and he was surviving. He didn't look like he was finished, necessarily.
Tuesday night against the Rockies, Willis did more than survive. He pitched eight innings, his most in the majors since 2007. He walked one batter. And he struck out 10 Rockies; it was just the sixth double-digit strikeout game of his career, and his first since 2007.
He also lost the game, thanks to Troy Tulowitzki's two-run homer and poor run support. Willis has now started six games for the Reds, without a win.
Which is irrelevant. The Reds aren't going anywhere this season. What's relevant is that Dontrelle Willis, who looked completely lost for three entire years, has now thrown 37 major-league innings this year, and walked only 12 hitters. What's relevant is that the Cincinnati Reds were right about Dontrelle Willis. While I -- and this is hardly relevant -- was wrong.