03/30/2004 6:48 AM ET
For sophs, time to do it again
Teams, fans expect strong second years from starters
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Last spring, Dontrelle Willis didn't even know he was going to be a rookie, much less National League Rookie of the Year. A non-roster invitee to Marlins camp, he just wanted to make a good impression.
Once he made it to the Majors, Willis made an indelible impression on the baseball world, energizing a young Marlins team toward greatness while earning a World Series ring and Rookie of the Year honors.
Willis went through it all in his rookie season.
Why should he worry about his sophomore season?
"The big change this spring is I know what to expect," said Willis, who turned 22 in January. "If I don't do well, it will be a sophomore jinx. If I do do well, it will be a sophomore sensation."
The lefty with the funky delivery and the infectious smile knows that determination will be made by fans and the media, not by his own perceptions. Besides, he's got enough on his mind without worrying about jinxes and sensations and whether this year can rank with last year.
"I'm going to worry about going out trying to win," said Willis, who went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA in 27 starts for the Marlins in '03.
That's the same goal of a couple of other starters who made breakthrough rookie performances in 2003. Like Willis, both Arizona's Brandon Webb and San Francisco's Jerome Williams set high standards of excellence their first season in the Majors, which naturally puts that much more focus on the second season.
You don't have to explain that to Colorado right-hander Jason Jennings. He went from Rookie of the Year in 2002 to a taste of Major League reality in 2003, going 12-13 with a 5.11 ERA -- not terrible, but not up to the standard he'd set as a rookie.
|"If I don't do well, it will be a sophomore jinx," says Dontrelle Willis. "If I do do well, it will be a sophomore sensation." (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
His advice for Willis and Co.? Don't change a thing. Jennings made changes, and they didn't work.
"What he did (last) year, he doesn't need to change," Jennings said after Willis was named the 2003 top rookie. "It got him to the big leagues and got him the Rookie of the Year. He should just do the same thing (this) year."
Obviously, that's the idea for any pitcher who had a successful debut season. But even if the pitcher doesn't change, things change around the sophomore starter, from other teams' perception to the expectations of one's own team.
Williams, who went 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts for the Giants last season, didn't earn a single Rookie of the Year vote, but people definitely know about him now. Other hitters have an idea of what to expect from him, and Giants fans have high hopes that he'll take that impressive rookie showing to the next level.
"Maybe the hitters do catch up to you in the second year, but if my pitches work, they work. If they don't, I'll change," said Williams, who is 22 heading into his sophomore season. "In some people's minds, they expect more from me now, but I try not to dwell on that. If I do, I'll mess up."
Despite a rough spring for Williams, Giants manage Felipe Alou still expects good things from his second-year starter.
"If the arm is healthy I don't see why he can't be as good as last year or better," Alou said.
The Diamondbacks are banking on that with Webb -- literally. The club signed the 24-year-old Kentucky native to a three-year deal plus an option for a fourth that could earn Webb as much as $10 million.
Not too shabby for a guy who started the 2003 season in Triple-A Tucson, only to post numbers for Arizona -- a 10-9 record and a 2.84 ERA, good for fourth in the NL -- that earned him third place in voting for Rookie of the Year behind Willis and Milwaukee outfielder Scott Podsednik.
"I'm not going to focus too much on it," Webb said upon signing the multiyear contract before even becoming a multiyear Major Leaguer. "I'm just going to go out there and pitch my game like I did last year, get people out and win ballgames for us."
Ah, yes. It's so simple.
Well, we'll find out just how simple it is in the coming weeks and months, as Willis, Webb and Williams all try to rack up W's in their second season in the bigs. There will never be another rookie season for these guys, but there will never be another second season, either.
So let the sophomore scrutiny begin.
Just don't expect any of the sophomores to buy into the whole jinx thing.
"Even last year I never really got caught up in all the hoopla," Willis said. "I go out there and try to do the best for my team. ... It's a new year. A new beginning."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Joe Frisaro and Rich Draper contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.