How Will the D-Train Fare in Philly?


Prior to yesterday, the Phillies had but one lefty coming out of their bullpen. Ruben Amaro addressed this issue by signing 29-year-old lefty Dontrelle Willis (yes, he’s somehow still in his 20s) to an incentive-laden one year deal worth $1 million dollars.

Phillies fans know him as that guy with the goofy leg kick who had some success as a Marlin back in the early-to-mid 2000s. But since 2007, he’s been an irrelevant back-of-the-rotation journeyman who seems to get by on a mix of name recognition and 5-something ERAs. In 2012, however, the Phillies have a different plan for him: a lefty-specialist role out of the bullpen.

When evaluating a pitcher’s potential effectiveness as a LOOGY, the obvious first step is to look at lefty/righty splits. Willis’s numbers against lefties should make any Phillies fan’s eyes light up:

Dontrelle Willis Career Splits
vs L10.502.920.4451%3.752.502.88
vs R5.723.860.9345%4.264.614.71

These types of numbers against lefties aren’t just a product of his golden days in Florida, either. In fact, last year his numbers against lefties actually improved. Though he only faced a total of 60 lefties last year, he struck out 20 of them and walked only 2–good enough for a Cliff Lee-esque 10 K/BB ratio. In addition to that, the ball stayed on the ground 58% of the time, helping him post an absurdly low .167 BABIP. Simply put, left-handed batters fail to make good contact when facing Willis. The graphic below (courtesy of FanGraphs) can help demonstrate why this is the case.

This shows the location/type of every pitch that Willis threw to LHB last season, as viewed from the batter’s perspective. His formula for success is clear–throw breaking pitches down and away, and batter will swing and miss or make weak contact. When he stays high and inside of the zone, he is giving the batter a better chance to make solid contact, and this is where he gets hurt. Luckily, it appears that he doesn’t have much of a problem with this, and as a result there is reason to be optimistic that he’ll make a great LOOGY.

So yes, he’s pretty damn good against lefties. But how will he perform if he is asked to pitch, say, in middle relief? Most anybody who makes the switch from the rotation to the bullpen sees their numbers improve, and Willis shouldn’t be an exception. Last year with the Reds, he performed fairly well the first time around the batting order, holding opponents to a .670 OPS. But when batters saw him for the second time, this number shot up to .883. This seems to be an indication that Willis is more fit for a bullpen role in which he doesn’t have to face anyone more than once.

So for the price of only $1 million, Willis seems to be a low risk/high reward pick up who has potential to be an effective bullpen tool. All of this, however, ultimately depends on how he’s used. Here’s to hoping Cholly learned a thing or two from J.C. Romero.