WTNYMarch 11, 2004
By Bryan Smith

One of my favorite baseball hobbies is looking into the past to tell us things about a player’s future. Joe Sheehan tried this on Baseball Prospectus yesterday, trying to discredit Joe Mauer based on his height. I am going to e-mail Joe my comments, but a great rebuttal on this argument is made by Aaron Gleeman today.

Anyway, I’m going to look into the past to tell me about a 2003 breakout player, Dontrelle Willis. Dontrelle holds a spot in my heart since he’s an ex-Cub, traded away for Matt Clement and Good Ol’ Six Fingers. Willis came out of nowhere, and his 27 starts were very important in the Marlins quest for the Wild Card. Willis entered the picture in May, when injuries had already begun to decimate the team. It was Willis’ sensational stuff and huge media exposure that put the Marlins on the map, and turned the team in the right direction. Jack McKeon gets a lot of credit for what he did with this team, but Willis played a significant role as well.

But like most breakout players, Willis has his skeptics. Dontrelle saw his ERA fall to 3.30 after a second half in which his earned run average was 4.60. He started to allow more home runs, walks, and hits, trends that scare away most fantasy owners. But the reason to hope with Willis is his age, since last year was only his age 21 season.

Last year Dontrelle became the fourteenth southpaw in the last 80 years to have twelve or more wins while being twenty-one. The group, chronologically, with their ERA+:

Curt Simmons- 1950- 120
Mike McCormick- 1960- 129
Wade Blasingame- 1965- 94
Marcelino Lopez- 1965- 116
Vida Blue- 1971- 183
Pete Falcone- 1975- 91
Frank Tanana- 1975- 136
Tom Underwood- 1975- 90
Britt Burns- 1980- 143
Fernando Valenzuela- 1982- 121
Jim Abbott- 1989- 97
Steve Avery- 1991- 116
C.C. Sabathia- 2002- 103
Dontrelle Willis- 2003- 122

Of the thirteen, eight players would go on to be All-Stars, which speaks very highly of Willis. But what I noticed was that most of the All-Stars would reach the Midsummer Classic early in their careers, and by the time they met their thirties they were all but forgotten. Blasingame, Vida Blue, Britt Burns, Marcelino Lopez, and Mike McCormick would all have a career year in ERA+ at 21. Steve Avery, Fernando Valenzuela and Frank Tanana would reach their career year in ERA+ before their 25th birthdays.

Nine of the thirteen players in this study had an ERA+ better than 100 at 21 years of age. Seven of these players would see their career year before 25, and C.C. Sabathia could very well make an eighth player. Only Curt Simmons, the oldest player on this list, would have good years late, seeing his ERA+ reach it’s high both at 25 and 34 years of age.

I decided to use the Sheehan technique, and compare body types for this study as well. In the end, Steve Avery and Dontrelle Willis turned out to be pretty similar: 6’4’’, just short of 200 pounds, capable of throwing pretty hard. Avery would have his career year at 23, but remained fairly consistent in both his 22 and 23 seasons. Avery then suffered a slow decline, and exited the Majors before his 30th birthday. Last year the Tigers gave Avery a chance in their bullpen, but I doubt we’ll hear Steve Avery’s name in the Major Leagues again.

My guess here is that Willis will also join the group of people having their career year at 21. An ERA of 3.30 is going to be very difficult to beat, and I don’t see Willis doing it during his career. But expect him to keep the ERA under wraps for the next few years, before seemingly falling apart. The Marlins would be smart to use him as a reliever down the road, a notion that pitching coach Larry Rosenthal has already stated.

Don’t be afraid to draft Willis this year, but know what you are getting into. His strikeout numbers will be pretty good, and his ERA is likely to drift to around the 3.80-4.00 territory.

After doing this study, I consulted PECOTA, the Prospectus projection system. Jim Abbott is seen as Willis’ best comp, but Lopez, Burns, Avery, Tanana, and Underwood are all in the top 20. The system also sees a similar decline that I did, with the number of wins he contributes dropping each year. The weighted mean forecast has Willis’ ERA at 3.89, and his VORP staying at a modest 21.8. It seems like PECOTA and I see eye-to-eye here, while most of the time I blame the system for being too pessimistic. But I love it regardless, and if you either haven’t gotten the book or an on-line subscription yet, you’re crazy.

Matt Clement is going to be a Cub for one more season, and Antonio Alfonseca’s tenure is already up, thank God. Clement will end up having three seasons with the Cubs, and should have his ERA+ be above 100 each time. If he does this, then no Cub fan is going to regret this trade, unless Willis really contributes in the bullpen at 27 years of age.


Thanks for the info Bryan. As a Cubs fan I hope Willis goes away quickly, but he did excite Miami for a short time and that is good for baseball.

I remember watching Zambrano and Willis go at it last summer....and the Cubs shelled Willis after a lengthy rain delay. Zambrano knocked a pitch off the centerfield fence at Pro Player, and I haven't felt as bad about the Cubs missing out on the D-Train ever since.