No relief pitcher has gone over the 90-inning mark in the last two MLB seasons. As relievers become more specialized, the idea of ‘roles’ makes for more pitching changes, more handedness matchups, and fewer major-league swingmen. The Astros’ Chris Devenski looks like he may be changing that mold.
The 26-year-old righty has four pitches, including a standout changeup that generates a significant amount of swings-and-misses. His 108 innings last year were a combination of some longer relief appearances supplemented by five starts, which represented about a quarter of his innings. His performance was ordinary as a starter — a 20.2 percent strikeout rate, 7.7 percent walk rate, and 4.01 ERA — but the real value came in the second half, when he threw 49 2⁄3 innings in relief. Across those nearly 50 innings, Devenski posted a sub-2.00 ERA, and struck out 57 of the 183 batters he faced. Opposing hitters hit a putrid .176/.208/.274 against him when the Astros called him from the ‘pen. In total, of all American League pitchers with at least 100 innings, Devenski led the League in ERA (2.16) and FIP (2.34).
While Devenski has a four-pitch repertoire, he can concentrate on his two best pitches to make the most of his arsenal. Last year he threw his four seamer 45 percent of the time and his change 31.5 percent of the time, mixing in a curveball and slider. This season, without the pressure of having to face batters more than twice in a game, he’s increased his changeup usage to 44.2 percent, upped his slider usage from 11.5 to 27.5 percent, and junked the curveball entirely. The changeup is the real prize, as Devenski’s cambio has a natural sink to it that generates an extremely high whiff rate.
His fastball, on the other hand, rises a bit, which leads to fly ball outs, though few leave the yard (only four in total in 2016).
The Astros had a decision to make in the offseason. Should they put Devenski in the back of the rotation and try to get 170+ innings out of him, or should they use him in relief? They ultimately settled on him as a long-reliever/swingman, which already bore fruit for them in the first week of the season, when he worked four no-hit frames of relief in an extra-innings game against Seattle.
2014 was the last season in which any pitcher threw 90 innings of relief — the Mets’ Carlos Torres and Yankees’ Dellin Betances threw 92 and 90 innings, respectively. While Torres’ performance was forgettable (-0.1 fWAR), Betances posted an excellent 3.2 fWAR, the second highest value on the team, behind only 199-inning starter Hiroki Kuroda. While it’s unlikely Joe Girardi will use Betances more than as his “eighth inning guy,” teams with more creativity and flexibility with their relievers can gain an advantage.
Baseball is a copycat game. When clubs such as the Rays and Pirates brought back the old-school “Ted Williams Shift”, other teams started to reevaluate their own defensive positioning. The same can happen to baseball’s “lost swingmen.” If Chris Devenski throws 100-120 innings of excellent relief and helps propel the Astros to the AL West title, teams will take notice. In an era where it’s become normal to carry more pitchers than bench depth on a postseason roster, it’s possible the addition of a reliever like Devenski could open up a spot to a role player, such as a pinch-runner.
Devenski’s performance is worth monitoring, as he may be starting a trend most teams don’t even realize they’ll quickly adopt.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano