I had the opportunity to watch ex-Tiger pitch in Erie on Sunday. Willis was the 2003 National League Rookie of the year with Florida after winning eight of his first nine starts. He tailed off a bit toward the end of the year, but bounced back with some effective outings in the World Series against the Yankees (as a Yankee fan, I always take special note of great lefties). At 21, Willis was an integral piece of a world champion.
He also has a tremendously high, stylish leg kick that he says he copied from the Yankees great Cuban refugee Orlando, "El Duque" Hernandez. This style, his seemingly gregarious personality and reported friendship with the tennis-playing Williams sisters made him a minor celebrity. When he won 22 games in this third season, Willis was seemingly on top of the world. Of course, peaks can be steep, and Willis was apparently precariously balanced on his.
Personally, I always questioned the fact that he based his pitching motion on something that "looked cool" rather than going with a more utilitarian approach. So, it didn't completely surprise me that Willis' performance started to decline over the next two years with Florida. In 2007, his ERA with Florida was over 5.00, although he did lead the league in starts with 35.
The Tigers thought enough of Willis to trade for him prior to the 2008 season and sign him to a $29 million contract extension over three years. Then things got really bad. In eight games last year, Willis' ERA was 9.38. That means he was giving up more than a run per inning. This was contributed to by Willis' walking 35 batters in 24 innings. To give you an idea of how bad that is, in his big year in 2005, Willis walked only 55 batters in 236 innings.
Willis spent the second half of the last year trying to fix things and in March, the Tigers diagnosed him with some sort of anxiety disorder and have been trying to get him back up to speed. Part of Willis' rehabilitation program involves starting some minor league games, and Sunday was his chance to throw in Erie, vs the Harrisburg Senators. Mind you, the Senators (a farm club of the lowly Nationals, I believe) had lost eight in a row coming in, so Willis wasn't exactly facing the 2004 Red Sox.
I took my son to the game, as he was all stoked to see this ex-MLBer, and while we were standing in line for tickets, he noted that the $10 box seat ticket prices listed on the board seemed expensive. The guy in front of us turned around and said you'd pay 30-40 bucks for major league box seats--at least that 's what he paid to see Willis pitch for the Marlins.
We got two reserved tickets, second-deck, first-base side, for six bucks. (I had a coupon, which are very easy to come by.) For that price, I really felt like I was stealing. Of course, the $10 I spent for a beer, hot dog, and pop lunch added a little to our tab, but still... and we were sitting closer to Willis than you could ever get in a major league park without dropping at least $100.
Willis is a lefty, so our seats gave us prime viewing of his motion. He still has his high leg kick, but he really wasn't throwing that hard. I don't think he topped 90 on the stadium radar. After the game, the Seawolves' manager said he wasn't getting much bite on his breaking ball pitches either.
The results were kind of mixed. Yes, he had a perfect game through four innings, but there were several hard hit balls, including at least three line drives that just happened to be hit right at outfielders and one bouncer back through the middle (to open the game) that Willis made a great play on. Finally, the guy leading off the fifth put a line drive over the fence, and then I think a couple more doubles fell in from there. Willis' last two innings were not that impressive and he left to a mild ovation by the Erie fans, as he made his way back to the club house.
According to Ron Leonardi's story in the ETN, he didn't stick around for post game interviews, so we don't know how Willis felt about his outing. The current news is that he will make his next start Friday at Triple A Toledo (a step up from Erie). It's my estimation that if he doesn't pitch better than he did in Erie, he's not going to be successful again in the major leagues. However, he always was a fairly good hitter, so maybe he can pull a Rick Ankiel and make it back to the majors as an outfielder.