Once one of the game's best and most exciting pitchers, Willis has lost all control of his pitches. He looks lost and frustrated on the mound. It's obvious even he doesn't know where to turn. Jim Leyland and Chuck Hernandez must be thinking the same thing. They've given him a rehab assignment in the minors, a stint in the bullpen, nothing has worked yet. There were certainly signs of this in 2006-7 when Willis walked 170 men. Compare that to his first 3 years where he allowed 174 walks. Apparently Hernandez doesn't have the magic touch that Leo Mazzone or Dave Duncan have. Because Willis has now walked 21 in 11.1 innings with the Tigers. What was once a warning sign is now an alarming trend. Unfortunately, there is little Detroit can do about it.
As a 5-year veteran, Willis has the right to refuse any minor league assignment. Obviously, Willis needs some work where he doesn't have any pressure on him. Letting him work this out in A-ball seems like the best idea, but for someone like Willis who has played in a World Series and won 22 games, why would he accept that? And, are we going to put this high-priced pitcher into the backend of the bullpen? With his control, we could really just use him in mop-up situations. I highly doubt that would cure his psychological or physical problems. It would just embarrass and frustrate him even further. Best-case scenario, we convince Willis to go on the DL with some injury like "tired arm" or tendinitis. Then, we can still pay him his major-league salary and he gets to rehab on his own without any pressure.
In a game as hard as baseball, players can make the most difficult plays seem like a cinch. Yet, when those same players lose that ability, it can happen rapidly and often times, it's downright sad to watch. Most baseball fans know about the Steve Blass Disease. Named after the former Pirates pitcher, Blass won 78 games between 1968-1972. Then, he lost all ability to hit the strike zone. In 1972, Blass walked 84 in 249.2 innings. In 1973, he walked 84 in 88.2 innings (he also hit 12 and threw 9 wild pitches). He came back once more in 1974, but was done after walking 7 and allowing 8 runs in 5 innings.
After Blass, there were the famous cases of Mark Wohlers, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel. Wohlers saved 97 games for Atlanta between 1995-1997. In 1998, he had a 10.18 ERA after walking 33 in 20.2 innings. After missing all of 1999 while trying to get his control back, Wohlers would come back for 2000-02, pitching for Cincinnati, New York AL, and Cleveland. But, he was never more than a league-average reliever.
Knoblauch was once a Gold Glove second baseman for the Minnesota Twins before being traded to the Yankees. Other than his rookie season, Knoblauch never made more than 11 errors in a season for the Twins. With New York, he averaged 18/yr before moving to the OF. He simply could not make the throw to first base. Seemingly the easiest throw on the infield, it became torture to Knoblauch and the NY media were all over him. His offense couldn't support the move to the OF and he retired at age 33.
Ankiel may be the best-case scenario for Willis, actually. Once the game's top pitching prospect, Ankiel bewildered lefty hitters in the NL with his big, looping curveball in 1999 and 2000. At age 20, Ankiel was already starting for the Cardinals in the playoffs. But, it was in that 2000 postseason that Ankiel imploded. In 4 innings over 3 games, Ankiel walked 11 men and threw numerous wild pitches that were nowhere close to the catcher. At first, it seemed as if it was just the high-pressure situation getting to the youngster. But, the spring of 2001 found Ankiel no different. He still couldn't find the plate and he was sent to the minors. After a couple arm surgeries, Ankiel found himself back in the majors in 2004. He didn't embarrass, in fact, he only walked 1 man in 10 innings. But, the Cards brass and Ankiel both knew he wasn't the same dominating pitcher. From there, Ankiel went back to the low minors and became an outfielder. Now, in his 2nd year as the Cards' CF and only 28 years old, Ankiel has become an above-average hitter and a solid defender.
For Willis, is the Ankiel route possible or even necessary? I honestly think it may be. The 3-year trend is there, and while he hasn't thrown the ghastly wild pitches that got Ankiel into trouble, Willis is nowhere near the pitcher he was in 2005. He has become a liability to his team. With the way he can hit the ball, I have no doubt that Willis can be a major league outfielder, and probably out-hit Ankiel. Baseball Prospectus recently named Willis as the game's best hitting pitcher. They noted that he gives his team an extra 8.7 runs a season with his bat, which is a full 2 runs better than runner-up Micah Owings. Last year, Willis had 7 extra base hits in only 63 ABs. The big difference is that Willis is already 28 years old, Ankiel was 24 when he made the switch to hitting. It took him a little over two years to get back to the majors. Assuming Willis would want to switch, it probably wouldn't happen until next season, after he's exhausted all options from the pitching side. At that point, Willis will be 29. If he made Ankiel-like progress, he'd back in the majors at age 31 or so. That would still give him about 5 years to be a productive hitter. But, I'm not convinced he'd want to switch at his age. Still the similarities between the two young lefties are hard to ignore, and it would be quite interesting to see Willis bat full-time.
UPDATE: Willis has been sent to Class-A Lakeland. There, he will be able to work on his mechanics with no pressure or a timetable for return. I love this idea. Let him work out what he needs to work out. He won't have to deal with the spotlight of the major league media or major league hitters. I'm glad Dontrelle has accepted this assignment and I wish him the best in his recovery from whatever is ailing him right now. As sad as it is for the fans to watch, it must be that much worse for him to go through it personally.