The D-Train’s mechanics

A reader recently sent me this email, asking me about Dontrelle Willis:

“Considering his unique mechanics from the time he was called up in the bigs until now, I just wonder if something has changed that has either made him lose his control/command, allowed hitters to see the ball better, etc. that has caused his backslide. Let me know what you think if you have the opportunity.”

Willis’ mechanics are certainly unique. He has always been a pitcher that messes around with his mechanics, changes arm slots, and overall, just does things a little different than everyone else. Admittedly, I have not been following Willis, so I went into this analysis thinking that I wasn’t going to find anything significantly different that would make me write an article about it. I was wrong.

There are several things that I could point to in Willis’ mechanics that have changed over the years, but what instantly jumped out at me is something that I like to talk about often:

Tempo

Consider this clip comparing Willis in 2005 versus Willis in his July 18 start this year:

As you can see above, I’ve started both those clips as his right leg passes over his left leg on its way to his knee lift. Willis in ’05 is better at keeping his body moving in order to help accelerate his arm. As many of you know, generally speaking, I prefer pitchers who move quickly through their delivery and use momentum to their advantage. I would bet that Willis’ velocity is consistently lower now that he’s significantly slowed himself down. I would like to point out that the July 18 start is the slowest tempo I’ve seen from Willis (and his worst velocity as well).

That said, here’s a clip tracking Willis’ tempo throughout the past few years. I synchronized all these clips from the first movement down from the top of their knee lifts. From left to right, they are in chronological order, starting with two clips from 2005, followed by two from 2006 and then three from 2007. I’ve stopped the animation every time one of the he releases the ball to show you the differences in where each one is, relative to the others.

As the above clip illustrates, the 2005 version is the quickest of them all, with the ’06 versions next, followed by the slower ’07 versions.

Thoughts

When discussing Willis’ mechanics, the main comment that I hear is how he’ll have to revamp his mechanics as he ages. I understand the argument. As he gets older, it will become more and more burdensome and tiring for him to consistently repeat his high-energy delivery. I could argue that this guy successfully lifted his leg up to his face into his mid-40s, but some consider Ryan to be a freak of nature so let’s not go there.

Most pitchers do tweak and refine their mechanics as they age, and much of what Willis does in his delivery can be considered unnecessary. I vividly remember a start last year in Atlanta (that I saw in person) where he displayed his best velocity when pitching from the stretch and basically “punching-and-going” (a modified slide-step) to the plate. I happen to think that Willis would perform just as well if he were to do something like this:

That said, many will argue that Willis’ unique mechanics has a lot to do with his success. I happen to agree with that despite firmly believing that he could pitch just as well by eliminating a lot of the excess noise in his delivery. As I said when I profiled Ryan Pope, the Yankees’ 3rd round pick, pitching coaches tend to slow pitchers down who are considered to be “too fast.” In Willis’ case, it isn’t that he was too fast. It is that he was considered to be “out of control.” Judging by the July 18 start, Willis seems like he was really trying to “stay back over rubber” longer so as to prevent from “rushing.” But he did look like he was more “in control” of his body, that’s for sure.

Conclusions

If you’re the Marlins, do you want the slow and controlled 2007 version of Willis? Or do you prefer the “out of control,” legs flying everywhere, high-energy, looks like he’s rushing, aggressive 2005 version of Willis? I’m not claiming that Willis will instantly turn into 2005 Dontrelle if he speeds his delivery up. There’s much more to pitching than mechanics. My question is: Why not start there?

Lower the leg lift? Fine. Ask him to not counter-rotate (turn his back to the hitter) so much? That’s OK too I guess. Just don’t slow him down. His arm, the radar gun, his agent, his fans and the entire organization will be better off if he doesn’t slow down. If I’m the Marlins’ pitching coach, here’s my simple instructions to Dontrelle before his next start:
1) Speed it up
2) Get Rid of it
3) Throw the $!%? out of it

Good luck, Dontrelle.

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