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The Kid With The KICK
Chris Ballard
June 30, 2003
High-styling, high-fiving Florida rookie Dontrelle Willis has everybody, even the famously indifferent Marlins fans, talking about his historic start
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June 30, 2003

The Kid With The Kick

High-styling, high-fiving Florida rookie Dontrelle Willis has everybody, even the famously indifferent Marlins fans, talking about his historic start

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NOT SO FAST?
How hot is 21-year-old Dontrelle Willis? Since division play began in 1969, no pitcher younger than 22 has won more games in his first nine career appearances (all starts). Those quick victories, however, are no guarantee of future success, as shown by this list of the best nine-start debuts by 21-and-under hurlers since '69.

PITCHER, TEAM

DEBUT YEAR(S)

W-L

ERA

Dontrelle Willis, Marlins

2003

7-1

2.38

Best start by a rookie under 22 since Jim Nash went 7-0 with a 2.11 ERA in '66 for the Kansas CityA's

Wayne Simpson, Reds

1970

6-1

2.26

Was 14-3 and an NL All -Star before a shoulder injury ended his season; won only 22 more games in six-year career

Jerry Garvin, Blue Jays

1977

6-1

3.51

First ace for the expansion Jays collapsed after quick start, losing 17 of his final 21 decisions in '77

Rich Dotson, White Sox

1979-80

5-1

3.46

Won 22 games for AL West champion White Sox in '83 but finished with a lifetime record of 111-113

Dennis Blair, Expos

1974

5-2

2.76

Fell victim to poor mechanics and was back in minors by age 22; career record of 19-25 over four seasons

Dan Petry, Tigers

1979

5-3

2.94

Won at least 15 games four times, including in '84, when he was 18-8 and finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Even Dontrelle Willis will tell you that the Dontrelle Willis story is becoming a tad surreal. In early May, Willis was a little-known prospect pitching for the Double A Carolina Mudcats in Zebulon, N.C. Last Friday the 21-year-old Florida Marlins rookie lefthander was at a Hooters outside Miami, autographing large baseball cards for a flock of fans. "It's crazy," said Willis of his Hooters appearance. "There was a line out the door, and people were coming back a second time. I didn't think that many people were in tune with the Marlins."

They're not. Rather, it is Willis, he of the animated demeanor, corkscrew windup and 7-1 record and 2.38 ERA at week's end, who has Floridians fired up. Granted, that is a relative concept in Miami, where the crowds at Pro Player Stadium are so sparse (average attendance through Sunday: 13,020) that they should be referred to as gatherings, but Willis has still succeeded in creating a buzz. TV ratings spike when he pitches—his June 11 start against the Milwaukee Brewers was the highest-rated local telecast of a Marlins game in the last five years—and last week alone he received more than 50 interview requests. By now he has answered the same questions so many times that he says he wishes he had a tape recorder so that he could just cue up the responses.

What's all the fuss about? For starters, Willis is putting on one of the best rookie pitching performances in recent history. Drafted in the eighth round by the Chicago Cubs in 2000, Willis came to Florida as a highly touted prospect last year, along with righthander Julian Tavarez and two other minor leaguers, in a deal for righthanders Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca. After winning 16 of 18 decisions in the minors following the trade, Willis was called up on May 9 to take the rotation spot of righthander A.J. Burnett, who is out for the season after undergoing right elbow surgery.

Since then Willis had won seven of nine starts through Sunday, including his last six, the most impressive of which was a one-hitter against the New York Mets on June 16. During that six-game span, Willis's ERA was 0.84 and opponents batted .184 against him. For the season, he had 55 strikeouts and 18 walks in 56? innings. Those are not the numbers of a flash in the pan. After fanning three times against Willis, Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd told reporters, only half jokingly, that Willis was "the best pitcher I've ever seen," adding he didn't want to give Willis too much credit because he had to face him again someday, but that "he deserved it."

As eye-catching as Willis's numbers are, his windup is even more so. It's been described as "unorthodox" ( Marlins skipper Jack McKeon), "funky" (pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal) and "goofy" ( Willis himself), but Burnett may sum it—and the rookie's pitching style—up best when he says, "He's an effing lunatic out there. It's absolutely wonderful."

If ever the term windup was appropriate, it is in regard to Willis's delivery. Here's how it looks: The long-limbed, 6'4", 200-pound Willis starts with his shoulders slouched. After receiving the sign and nodding at the catcher, he rocks back to his right and hoists his right leg in what looks like a particularly ambitious Twister move. Torquing to the rear, he spins his body around so far that, for a brief moment, his back is facing the hitter, while his leg remains Rockette high and his eyes briefly fix on a faraway spot in the sky. Then he uncoils and swings his arm low to a three-quarters, abdomen-high release.

By keeping his body turned away from the hitter for as long as he does, Willis conceals the ball far longer than most pitchers, making it extremely hard for batters to pick up. The entire motion, when combined with Willis's excitable demeanor-full of high fives and glove slaps and huge grins—has generated comparisons to everyone from Juan Marichal and Vida Blue (the leg kick) to Mark Fidrych (the quirkiness) to Luis Tiant (the back-to-the-batter position) to Fernando Valenzuela (the skyward glance).

Marlins lefty Mark Redman recently told Willis he needed to remember only two things: "Strike one and work quick." Indeed, once he's on the mound, Willis appears to be doing his damnedest to get off it. He routinely throws in the low 90s, and his best pitch is a two-seam fastball that Rosenthal describes as "exploding." He also throws a four-seamer, a curveball and a slider. But it's his improved changeup that has been the crucial component of his success. "At this time last year he didn't have a consistent changeup or breaking ball," says Rosenthal. "He worked on it in the pen all year with Gil Lopez"—the pitching coach for the Class A Jupiter (Fla.) Hammerheads—"and now he has the confidence to throw it when he needs to."

To get a feel for the off-speed grip Willis carried a baseball around with him in Miami so he could finger the seams. "I took it everywhere until a couple of times in church I sat on it, so I cut off doing it on Sundays," says Willis with a laugh. "But I'd always had trouble with the changeup, so I knew if I could get it down, it would make me that much more successful."

Another reason for Willis's success can be found under the bill of his cap, where he's written one word: JOYCE. Willis learned much of his baseball from his mother, Joyce Harris, a welder who raised Dontrelle by herself in Alameda, Calif. (He never knew his father.) A catcher and first baseman with power, Joyce played in several elite-level softball leagues during her son's childhood. "I remember going out there to watch her play," says Willis. "It was basically a bunch of mothers going out there and bashing." Now, after every one of Willis's starts, the two talk on the phone. "She's my inspiration," says Willis. "She's a tough woman."

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