The saddest sports story of the summer so far happened last weekend. It wasn't captured in big headlines, and it had nothing to do with the World Cup, the NFL or the NBA. Instead, Dontrelle Willis was ''designated for assignment'' by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Five years ago, Willis looked like the best African-American pitcher in a generation, and the heir to a long, glorious history of great pitchers that includes Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins and Dave Stewart. Now he's 10 days from being out of baseball.
His pending release from the Diamondbacks comes after being designated for assignment by the Detroit Tigers earlier this season. In general, when a star is kicked to the curb once, he gets another chance. When he gets kicked to the curb twice in a short period of time, it's a sure sign that his career is essentially over. It might have been different if Willis' coaches had heeded some basic country wisdom.
The question is, what happened? Willis had a meteoric rise. In 2003, his rookie season, he helped pitch the Florida Marlins to a World Series title, one of the least likely championships in baseball history. (From 1998 to 2002, the Marlins suffered through five straight losing seasons, and 38 games into the 2003 campaign, they fired the manager.) Willis won Rookie of the Year for that season.
By 2005, Willis was one of the best starting pitchers in the game. He won 22 games, sported a remarkable earned run average of 2.63, was named to the All-Star team and finished second in the Cy Young voting. He was charming and charismatic; he appeared in public service announcements for Major League Baseball. His unusual pitching windup, which featured a very high leg kick, made him a favorite of sports telecasts. He was 23 and, it seemed, in the early stages of a long career as one of the game's superstars.
Then came the downturn. In 2006 he won 12 and lost 12 with a respectable earned run average of 3.87. In 2007 he was mediocre, winning 10 and losing 15 with an E.R.A. of 5.17. He was traded to Detroit, where, during two injury-plagued seasons, he struggled mightily, posting E.R.A.'s of more than seven runs per nine innings in limited action. This year, with both Detroit and Arizona, the nightmare continued. He was better but still not good; his combined E.R.A. for the season is 5.62, well above the average, and eye-popping for a man five years removed from baseball's elite. Willis has had a drunk-driving arrest and has been diagnosed with anxiety problems in recent years. The only thing missing in this spiral was the tearful confession on Oprah.
What happened is detectable by looking at his statistics. From 2003 to 2005, he rarely walked opposing hitters. His walks per nine inning rates ranged from 3.2 in his rookie campaign to 2.1 in his best season, 2005. Then it spiked; during his brief stint with Arizona, he was walking 11 men per nine innings. No pitcher can allow that many men on base and be successful. Willis had lost his command, the ability to control where his pitches went when they left his hand. It's as if sometime after 2005 he gradually forgot how to pitch.
What happened is one of baseball's great mysteries. Like his fellow starting pitchers on that '03 Marlins staff, Willis has suffered through an array of injuries, but the other pitchers, A. J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett have been effective pitchers when not spending time on the disabled list. Willis' problems go deeper. Even when he was healthy, he stopped pitching well.
Yet five years of changes wrought exactly what they were trying to prevent, an injury plagued career filled with bad pitching. The strange thing is that if you change something and it doesn't work, then you change it back. That hasn't worked either. And it's unlikely that anyone will take a chance on Willis until they see some evidence that something he is doing does work. It won't have to be a repeat of 2005, but he will have to show some sustained evidence of authoritative pitching. After five years, it isn't impossible, but it doesn't seem likely.
Since he's only 28, Willis' career may not be entirely over, but the visions of 2005, the notion that kids across the country would enthusiastically sport D-Train gear, and that Willis would become a leading African-American, public face of baseball (replacing the surly, controversial Barry Bonds) are so over. Baseball's pitching authorities appear to have learned an old lesson that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Two of the leading young pitchers to emerge since Willis' problems began, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer, have mechanics that concern the authorities, but their response has been as long as it is working …
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.