Willis after all the innings he can get
Starter sees early contact as key to success this season
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Dontrelle Willis was known as an innings eater long before he came to Detroit. Now that his new team has some bullpen voids to fill and could use some innings from starters, he thinks he can help when the season begins.
"[I like] finishing what I start," Willis said. "I always want to go deep in ballgames. I take a lot of pride in being able to go deep in ballgames. I never had a thought process as far as [bullpen injuries]."
Sunday's 7-2 Spring Training loss to the Rays wasn't the place for Willis to work deep into a game, let alone finish, but he battled like someone who was trying to keep his team in the contest. While Tampa Bay hitters were putting most of his pitches in the air rather than on the ground, including back-to-back deep fly balls that took center fielder Curtis Granderson to the base of the fence, Willis turned what could've been a huge inning into a three-run affair with three outs from the middle of Tampa Bay's underrated order.
It was his third and final inning, since he'd hit 57 pitches on a day when his pitch count was 65, but it showed some of his fight.
"I actually liked his performance," Leyland said.
Willis' fastball topped out at 94 mph, Leyland said, and he mixed in his breaking ball and changeup a little more. After walking four batters in two-plus innings his last time out, Willis threw first-pitch strikes to eight of the first 10 hitters he faced.
"I feel like I was very productive today, a lot better as far as commanding the zone as opposed to my last start," Willis said.
Willis didn't fall behind in a count until the third, when three straight singles put him in a jam. With runners on second and third and no one out, he had Carlos Pena in a 1-2 count before going full. Pena hit a deep drive that Granderson caught as he jumped against the fence. Akinori Iwamura tagged up to score. B.J. Upton followed by working another full count before doing much the same thing.
It was a three-run inning, the difference in the game, but it could've been worse.
In 2005 when he won a league-high 22 games, Willis ranked fourth among National League starters with 236 1/3 innings. His pitches-per-inning mark dropped to a career-low 15.1, and he averaged fewer than 105 pitches per start. The next year, his pitches-per-inning count rose to 16.2, then 17.1 last year. Meanwhile, his total innings for the year dropped to 223 1/3 in 2006, then 205 1/3 in 2007.
Willis' pitch counts haven't been outrageous for long stretches. Still, he topped 120 pitches in a game five times in 2006 before doing it twice last season. He can do that again, he feels, but he'd obviously rather fill innings by getting quicker outs.
"The less pitches they see, the better for you," Willis said. "I want to work on getting lower in counts."
It's not quite that simple, though. His innings-per-plate-appearance numbers have held steady around 3.71 over each of his four full big league seasons. It's the number of at-bats that increased each year. Hitters batted .243 against him in 2005, .274 in 2006 and .294 last year, even though his ratio of ground balls to fly balls rose over 1.5.
Sunday saw plenty of fly balls. His only out on the ground was an Upton fielder's choice to end the first.
"I'm not afraid of contact," Willis said. "My guys made some great plays back there [on Sunday], but I felt like from last start to this start, it was night and day as far as command. Even the balls I threw for balls I felt were closer to the plate and getting good reactions as opposed to last time, when the ball was sailing and wouldn't stay down.
"As long as we keep them down, I feel confident with our defense back there."
Willis has always been prepared to throw 100 pitches or more in his starts, but that was while calling a warm-weather city his home. He threw a complete-game shutout in his season opener in '05, then another one five days later.
It's probably unlikely Leyland would let him go the distance on the first week of April in Detroit. In fact, Leyland doesn't want his pitchers feeling too much pressure to fill innings. Still, Willis says, he could use the work.
"It depends if they have enough trust for me to go deep into a game," Willis said. "If I can prove to be durable, to get to that, then you get the privilege of that. [The Marlins] didn't like it [throwing 120+ pitches], but I'm competing and still being the best guy for the job in that given moment. I pride myself on that. If I work on getting early contact, the pitch count will come down. Hopefully, I'll do a better job these next couple weeks."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.