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D-Train's First Start: The Unbearable Lightness of Low Expectations

The Detroit Tigers ended up playing almost nine full innings after Dontrelle Willis was taken out of last night's loss to the Minnesota Twins, so he probably shouldn't be the story this morning. (But until we find out why Nate Robertson wasn't brought in, there's not much else worth discussing.) Since it was his first start of the season, however, and there's such a heightened curiosity over his recovery and performance, the D-Train gets our attention despite not really being a factor in the final outcome.

So how did Willis pitch?

Four runs and eight hits in 4.2 innings is nothing to get excited about. And if we were talking about any other pitcher, we'd be saying he didn't play well. But since we're talking about someone who only pitched in eight major league games last season, who's spent the first month of the season recovering from anxiety disorder in the minors, who's become more of a project than a professional, it feels like Willis did a decent job.

"Hey, not bad" seemed to be the general consensus once Jim Leyland took him out of the game. Especially because the Tigers had several chances to win from there. Giving the team a chance to win is really all that can be asked from Willis at this point.

Yet as I look over the numbers this morning, and watch the replay of his performance, I can't help but feel the same way I felt when my grandmother used to stick up for my delinquent cousin. Grandma would rave about my cousin improving in school. And then I would ask how she did.

"Well... she got a D." And upon seeing the look on my face, she'd say, "She passed! She's really trying." Never mind that achieving the bare minimum, at a below average level of performance, should be the absolute least of expectations. With the bar set that low, just staying in school seemed good enough.

Isn't that the pass we're giving Willis right now? Never mind that pitching in the major leagues, at a mediocre level of performance, should be the bare minimum of what should be expected from him. (Especially with a salary of $10 million this year.) With the bar set low, any game in which Willis doesn't give up eight runs and eight walks in less than five innings seems good enough.

Of course, he has to start somewhere. And an outing in which Willis only gave up two walks and threw 53 of 87 pitches for strikes holds some promise. It's a bit of a concern that he didn't strike out any batters in his 4.2 innings, but after beginning somewhat tentatively, Willis began to throw hard, touching 95 m.p.h. on the radar gun. The Tigers didn't lose last night's game because of him, and that alone seems like something to build on.

But at what point is "Hey, not bad" still not good enough? When does the bar get raised? Or should we pass out cookies after each of the D-Train's starts and keep those expectations low?