Willis still has long way to go, but there is hope

Updated: May 18, 2009

Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

Dontrelle Willis is still trying to find the form that made him one of baseball's best early in his career.

I think there is some hope for Dontrelle Willis to bounce back and become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher again.

Willis, who pitches Tuesday at home against Texas, has been struggling with anxiety disorder this year. Still, in his most recent start, his first of the season at the big league level, you could see from his body language that it seems he's able to get himself refocused on the mound. For example, he gave up a home run to the Twins' Justin Morneau and got off to a poor start on Wednesday, but he didn't lose composure and ended up going deep into the fifth inning, allowing only four runs in the game. Morneau is one of the most feared hitters in the game, and Willis shook it off and he battled.

It's obvious that he still has a long way to go, mostly because of how far he has fallen over the past couple of seasons. We are talking about a guy that was one of the premier pitchers in the game, one who looked like he would be an ace for many years to come. He had a combination of exceptional weapons: velocity, movement and deception, plus a very sharp and large breaking ball. He had an extreme confidence and almost an air of cocky intimidation out there on the mound. He didn't get into many jams, but when he did, there weren't any situations that he was afraid to confront. But I always thought his mechanics were so complex, with so many moving pieces, that it'd be easy for things to fall out of line and for him to lose his command. It's possible that some trouble with his mechanics led to some poor results, which then evolved into anxiety issues and became a mental and physical hurdle that he may just now be starting to overcome.

The mental side of the game is critical. Your first concern as a pitcher is throwing strikes and executing your pitches. If you have command, you then start to think about strategizing with your pitches. But you can't do any of that without confidence. If you are second-guessing, either in your windup or at the moment of release, you are not going to be able to execute. You could have a sound plan of attack, but if you flinch -- even imperceptibly-- you will push the ball off-line or even out of the strike zone. You need full conviction all the way through the delivery and release. Anybody who has stood on a mound at any level knows what that feels like.

It's trite, but true, that he needs to think about pitching one pitch at a time and not worry about results until after the game is over. One of the things that I used in my career was the idea of execution-thinking, not result-thinking, meaning that all you are thinking about is what it takes to get the guy at the plate out and what you need to do to accomplish that. You really need to put the thoughts of "if something happens" out of your mind. Everyone fears failure, but to focus on the outcome -- positive or negative -- before it's been determined is no good. If you do that, you are not in the right mindset to execute the pitch and give yourself the best chance for success.

It looks to me right now that he has lost a little bit off of his pitches. His fastball isn't quite at 95-96 mph anymore. It's closer to 92-93, and his breaking ball doesn't have that extra gear, though it is big and sharp again. He's good enough to get results. At the very least, he's left-handed and has a heartbeat. You can't write off any lefty these days. Look at Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer, still effective as lefties in their 40s. Willis, at 27, has so much time left in his career if he can get this straightened out.

Reading the quotes following last week's start lead me to believe that he's getting back on track. His teammates appear to have that impression as well. Those are the guys closest to him, and they said they saw a different person. A look at the numbers is also encouraging. He walked only two batters, both on full counts, and he threw 53 of his 87 pitches for strikes. Also, I think the fact that he was not really a deciding factor in his team's 14-10 extra-inning loss was a plus. He didn't have to feel like he let the team down at all. It was almost like a glorified rehab outing.

Obviously, we'll know more after Tuesday's start, but he's going back home to Comerica Park and that should help his confidence even more. He'll be in familiar surroundings and in a pitcher-friendly environment.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: May 17 | May 14 | May 13 | May 12 | May 11

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPPITCHER SITUATION
K. Millar, Tor2CWSRichardBot 2: 3-1, 1 Outs. None on.
J. Thome, CWS7TorCarlsonTop 8: 0-1, 2 Outs. 1 on.
M. Teixeira, NYY9MinPerkinsBot 1: 2-0, 0 Outs. 2 on.
A. Rodriguez, NYY4MinPerkinsBot 1: 3-2, 0 Outs. None on.
C. Monroe, Pit3WasDetwilerTop 3: 1-1, 1 Outs. 2 on.

The complete list of Monday's homers

ON DECK: TUESDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Rangers at Tigers

A pair of unlikely division leaders start a series. Dontrelle Willis isn't the only pitcher on the mound Tuesday struggling to find a groove. Brandon McCarthy, though 3-1, is toting a 5.92 ERA so far this season.

Blue Jays at Red Sox

The Blue Jays haven't blinked yet this season, and now face another test on the road to proving they are here to stay in the AL East. After a rough start to the year, Toronto's Brian Tallet (2-1, 4.68) enters coming off three consecutive solid outings.

Phillies at Reds

The day's best pitching matchup, with Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels meeting. Cueto is 4-0 over his past six starts and has given up one run or fewer in five of those outings. Cole Hamels has been just as good his past three starts, giving up three runs over 17 1/3 innings.

For the rest of Tuesday's schedule, click here.

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BBTN ON THE AIR: TUESDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
9:30 p.m. ET
ESPN2
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: John Kruk, Peter Gammons, Fernando Vina
1:30 a.m. ET
ESPN2
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: John Kruk, Fernando Vina

BBTN MINUTE: BLUE JAYS VISIT BOSTON

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at the big nights from guys named Jason. No, it wasn't Friday the 13th, but these Jasons had big efforts on Monday:

Good to be Jason
What these Jasons did Monday
Jason Kendall Jason Bartlett Jason Marquis
Achievement 2,000th career hit Drove home five runs Beat former team
Notable because Eighth catcher to reach Established a career high Entered w/ 11.45 ERA vs. ATL
Season highlights Back-to-back multihit games Now hitting .384 on year Improved to 5-3; 3-1 on road

WEB GEMS

MONDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Jack Wilson• Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson had a busy day at the plate, going 4-for-4 with two RBIs, three runs scored and a walk. Wilson had a single, two doubles and a triple, falling only a homer short of the cycle. How much did his performance help his batting average? It went up 39 points, from .254 to .293.
WORST
Sean Gallagher• Oakland's pitching has been awful lately. How bad? The A's staff has given up 47 runs over the past four games, all losses. Sean Gallagher had one of the uglier lines of the season -- 2 1/3 innings pitched, three hits, nine runs (seven earned) and five walks.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Johnny Cueto has been dynamite for the Cincinnati Reds this season. After a rough first start on April 11 against the Pirates, the right-hander has gone 4-0 and given up only six earned runs in 40 2/3 innings.

Cueto's success stems from his ability to get batters out with any of his pitches. Since that one rough outing, all of his pitches have been tough to hit. Cueto got his revenge on Pittsburgh by tossing eight shutout innings in a 5-0 win on May 3. He faces the Phillies' Cole Hamels on Tuesday.

Johnny Cueto's BA against by pitch
April 11 Since
Fastball .308 .200
Slider .125 .178
Changeup .750 .091
IP 6.0 40.2
ER 4 4
ERA 6.00 1.34

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF TUESDAY'S GAMES

Adam Madison examines the 15 games on Tuesday's slate.

Fantasy Madison ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Tuesday. Daily Notes