Dontrelle Willis broke into the scene in 2003, as he notched a 14-6 record and earned the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, Dontrelle Willis led the National League with 22 wins. Those two seasons combined with his unusual windup, a million-dollar smile and his exuberant personality have created the idea that Dontrelle Willis is one of the top pitchers in baseball.
In his first four seasons in the Majors, Dontrelle Willis has posted an impressive 58-39 record. Entering 2007, there was no limit to expectations for Dontrelle Willis. But at the All-Star break, Dontrelle Willis has a pedestrian 7-7 record with a disappointing 4.72 ERA. Is this simply an off year for Dontrelle Willis or were the expectations too high considering his real ability?
One of the great things about baseball is that there is such a long history that we can look to the past and try to predict the future for a particular player, in this case Dontrelle Willis, compared to how other similar players have performed previously. The key is to pick the right group of similar players.
Dontrelle Willis is a left-handed pitcher, so the first thing to do is pick a group of lefties who enjoyed great success over their careers and see how Dontrelle Willis measures up. There have been 22 lefties (at the start of the 2007 season) to win between 200 and 300 games in the Majors in their career. Only six of these 22 pitchers had more than the 58 wins posted by Dontrelle Willis in the first four years of their careers. But almost all of them got off to good starts in their careers. With the exception of Hall of Famer Herb Pennock (who got called up at the age of 18 and then missed time due to World War I), each of the pitchers recorded at least 32 wins in the first four years in the Majors. The pitcher in this group that got off to the best start was former Oakland A’s ace Vida Blue, who was 70-43 after his first four seasons.
So far, so good with our group of players to compare careers with to Dontrelle Willis. While he would be in the top third of these pitchers based on the start to his career, Dontrelle Willis fits in nicely with this group. Nearly all of these pitchers got off to solid starts in the Majors and only six had more losses than wins in their first four seasons. The worst record in the group belongs to Jamie Moyer, who was 32-43 in his first four years.
Now, we examine what each of these players did in their age 25 season, which is Dontrelle Willis’ age in 2007. Here’s the breakdown for the group in wins.
20 or more – 5
15 – 19 – 8
10 – 14 – 4
9 or less – 5
Since wins can be a measure of luck, let’s see how these pitchers did in ERA for their age 25 season.
ERA 2.01 – 2.99 – 8
3.00 – 3.99 – 7
4.00 and up – 4
The four players in the group to have an ERA over 4.00, like Dontrelle Willis so far this season, are all pitchers to have started their careers in the post-Jackie Robinson, integrated era, with two of them being still active. The four with their age 25 results in parentheses: Randy Johnson (7-13, 4.82), David Wells (3-5, 4.62), Mickey Lolich (14-14, 4.77) and Chuck Finley (9-15, 4.17).
Let’s examine these four pitchers and see how their first four seasons developed and what they did in the rest of their careers.
Randy Johnson came up for a cup of coffee in 1988 and had his first full season the following year. He had his first big year in 1990, when he went 14-11 with a 3.65 ERA. Johnson broke out in 1993 as a 29-year old. That season, Johnson went 19-8 with 308 strikeouts and became the pitcher we think of when someone mentions the Big Unit.
David Wells came up as a 24-year old in 1987 but did not have his first full season in the Majors until 1990, when he went 11-6 with a 3.14 ERA. Wells won 15 games the following season and has been all over the map, both literally and figuratively, in his career since then. He’s had eight 15-win seasons since then, but has also mixed in four seasons with seven or fewer wins.
Mickey Lolich came up as a 22-year old in 1963 and the following season went 18-9 with a 3.26 ERA. It was the first of 12 straight seasons for Lolich with double-digit wins. He had his last big season as a 31-year old in 1972, when he went 22-14 with a 2.50 ERA. The next three years he went 16-15, 16-21 and 12-18. He went 8-13 in his final year as a starter and hung around two more seasons as a reliever.
Chuck Finley came up as a 23-year old in 1986. He had his first full season in 1988 and his first big year the following season, when he went 16-9 with a 2.57 ERA. That was the start of a stretch where he won double-digits in 11 of 12 seasons. Finley never won 20 games in a season, but he remained an effective pitcher throughout his career, posting an ERA+ of 102 in his final season as a 39-year old.
Of these four pitchers, Lolich and Finley had a more similar pattern at the start of their careers to Dontrelle Willis than Johnson or Wells. Finley was a five-time All-Star while Mickey Lolich was a World Series hero. But I believe that coming into this season, that expectations were that Dontrelle Willis would be a better pitcher than either of those two.
Let’s look at Dontrelle Willis a different way. Instead of finding pitchers who had better than average careers and see which ones matched Dontrelle Willis’ profile at the start, let’s see pitcher who had starts similar to Dontrelle Willis and see how their careers ended.
Baseball-reference.com lists similarity scores for each player. This is a concept introduced by Bill James. Here is how they are computed:
“Start with a thousand and then subtract the following deductions.
One point for each difference of 1 win.
One point for each difference of 2 losses.
One point for each difference of .002 in winning percentage (max 100 points).
One point for each difference of .02 in ERA (max 100 points).
One point for each difference of 10 games pitched.
One point for each difference of 20 starts.
One point for each difference of 20 complete games.
One point for each difference of 50 innings pitched.
One point for each difference of 50 hits allowed.
One point for each difference of 30 strikeouts.
One point for each difference of 10 walks.
One point for each difference of 5 shutouts.
One point for each difference of 3 saves.
If they throw with a different hand and are starters subtract 10, relievers 25. For relievers you half the winning percentage penalty and the winning percentage penalty can up to 1.5 times the wins and losses penalty. Relievers are defined as more relief appearances than starts and less than 4.00 innings per appearance.”
Any score over 900 is pretty good, while a score over 950 is an excellent match. Coming into the 2007 season, here are Dontrelle Willis’ top 10 matches by age 24:
Steve Avery – 982
Bob Moose – 966
Ross Grimsley – 966
Wally Bunker – 965
Ramon Martinez – 960
Mark Buehrle – 958
Larry Christenson – 958
Dave McNally – 957
Britt Burns – 957
Lefty Gomez – 956
Up through age 24, Steve Avery matched Dontrelle Willis with a 58-39 record. Avery had a 3.58 ERA while Dontrelle Willis checked in with a 3.44 ERA. Avery pitched in 23 more games and had 100.2 more innings pitched but this is an almost uncanny match. In his age 25 season, Avery went 7-13 with a 4.67 ERA. He never won more than 10 games in a season and was out of baseball after age 33.
Bob Moose was 58-42 with a 3.30 ERA through his age 24 season. As a 25-year old, he went 12-13 with a 3.53 ERA. He won just six more games in his career and was out of baseball after age 28.
Ross Grimsley was 55-38 with a 3.20 ERA through his age 24 season. As a 25-year old, he went 10-13 with a 4.07 ERA. Grimsley bounced back to win 20 games as a 28-year old, but his last season in the Majors came at age 32.
Wally Bunker was 56-38 with a 3.36 ERA through his age 24 season. As a 25-year old, he went 2-11 with a 4.22 ERA and pitched just one more season in the Majors.
Now matter how you slice it, that’s not pretty. While arm injuries played a role in all four of those pitchers careers, it’s not good to have that as your best comps. There’s only one Hall of Famer on Dontrelle Willis comp list and that’s the final pitcher, Lefty Gomez. As a 25-year old, Gomez went 26-5 with a 2.33 ERA. It looks like he won’t be on the comp list through age 25 for Dontrelle Willis.
The 2007 season started with visions of Dontrelle Willis enjoying a Hall of Fame-type career. But comparing him to some former players, it looks now like his upside might be Chuck Finley with the possibility of an early flameout like Steve Avery being just as likely. And that would be a shame.