Devin Williams Is Out for Three Months. How Will Milwaukee Cope?

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers were already coming out of this offseason with more unanswered questions than a contending team would typically like. They’ve lost their top two starting pitchers to trade or injury, they’ve changed managers, and their big offseason free agent signing hasn’t played a meaningful game since the 2022 postseason.

And the questions continue to pile up. Devin Williams, one of the best closers in baseball and arguably Milwaukee’s best player, is going to be out for the next three months. The good news is it’s not an arm or shoulder injury that would lead to long-term problems or a multi-year absence. But it’s a pretty gnarly-sounding injury nonetheless: Not one but two stress fractures in his back.

Williams pitched through back soreness since at least last September — and with two fractures in a vertebra at the bottom of his ribcage, “soreness” is probably an understatement. Williams won’t need surgery, but he’ll be totally shut down for the next six weeks. The long ramp-up to game fitness will take at least another six weeks, which puts the target date for his return sometime in late June.

There are two valid ways to look at this news. The first is that the Brewers were already hurting for pitching depth after losing Brandon Woodruff to a shoulder injury and trading not only Corbin Burnes but Adrian Houser as well. Those losses in the rotation don’t necessarily line up with needs in the bullpen, but having a closer like Williams eases the pressure on the rest of the pitching staff.

And there are few, if any, closers like Williams. Since 2019, when he made his debut, 144 pitchers have thrown 150 innings out of the bullpen. Among those, Williams is fifth in WAR, third in K% and FIP, and first in ERA, opponent batting average, and WPA. His changeup has a nickname — do you have any idea how good a changeup has to be to get a nickname?

In terms of guys who can protect a lead for one high-leverage inning, against any lineup, Williams is one of the best. There isn’t really anyone you can just promote or go out and sign to fill that role, and he’s gone for half of a season in which the Brewers will need to get most of the breaks if they’re going to make the playoffs.

And it sounds like Brewers skipper Pat Murphy isn’t going to try. Murphy said, “I got this vision of this fireman’s hat that we’re passing onto different relievers every night when they spin the wheel after a victory.”

I love that idea as both a metaphor and a postgame celebration prop. Less so as a piece of in-game equipment: Fire helmets can weigh as much as four pounds, and it feels like having that much weight on your head would throw off a pitcher’s mechanics quite badly.

But generally speaking, I like a closer-by-committee. Without a capital-C closer, relievers’ roles can be more flexible, and determined more by matchup than by inning and score. It prepares the bullpen for the type of usage they can expect in the playoffs, and spreads the pressure out over a group of pitchers tasked with getting saves.

And here’s the good news: The Brewers have a pretty good committee set up. Abner Uribe was electric — nearly as good as Williams — in his first half season of major league action last year. And Milwaukee is pretty good generally at conjuring quality relievers from nowhere. Last year, Bryse Wilson, Joel Payamps, and Hoby Milner all posted ERAs below 3.00 for the Brewers. Trevor Megill had a 3.63 ERA and a 2.13 FIP. All four of those guys were fringe big leaguers before the Brewers got a hold of them. I’m not saying the Brewers have some magical potato field of middle relief arms between Milwaukee and Madison, where Quad-A pitchers are hewn from the very living Earth ready to throw high-leverage major league innings. That’d be ridiculous.

What I’m saying is that the Brewers have at least one very, very good young reliever — a Williams to Williams’ Josh Hader, if you want to look at it that way — and a bunch of other guys who can share the fireman’s hat.

True top-end relievers aren’t valuable because of the outs they get in April and May. They’re valuable because they can reliably get specific outs against Cody Bellinger and Ian Happ with the division on the line in September, or Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies in the NLCS. That’s where the Brewers wouldn’t be able to replace Williams. And fortunately for them: Unless this injury turns out to be way worse than it looks now, they’ll have him back with time to spare.

Until then, Murphy can fudge it.

Over half a season, what’s the difference between a good reliever and a great one? It’s definitely big, but not insurmountable.

Let’s assume that Williams is going to miss the first half of the season, which based on his previous workloads, would come out to about 30 innings of work. I defined Williams’ replacements as the top six relievers currently on Milwaukee’s RosterResource depth chart, plus its two new starters — Jakob Junis and DL Hall — who might end up back in the bullpen.

Devin Can Wait, 2023 Real-Life Stats
Name ERA vs. Williams R/30 IP FIP vs. Williams R/30 IP
Devin Williams 1.53 Same Same 2.75 Same Same
DL Hall 3.26 1.73 6 3.00 0.25 1
Jakob Junis 3.87 2.34 8 3.74 0.99 3
Bryse Wilson 2.58 1.05 4 4.13 1.38 5
Trevor Megill 3.63 2.10 7 2.13 -0.62 -2
Joel Payamps 2.55 1.02 3 3.48 0.73 2
Taylor Clarke 5.95 4.42 15 5.07 2.32 8
Abner Uribe 1.76 0.23 1 2.77 0.02 0
Hoby Milner 1.82 0.29 1 3.13 0.38 1

Over 30 innings, the difference between Williams and Uribe was negligible last year. Obviously, Williams will be replaced on the roster by a much, much worse pitcher. But Uribe or Megill or Payamps will take over the higher-leverage innings vacated by Williams, with the new, presumably close-to-replacement-level arm throwing innings where even 10 extra runs wouldn’t change things too much. If you want to project things forward rather than looking backward, we can take a gander at this year’s ZiPS projections.

Devin Can Wait, 2024 ZiPS Projections
Name ERA vs. Williams R/30 IP FIP vs. Williams R/30 IP
Devin Williams 3.00 Same Same 3.41 Same Same
DL Hall 3.89 0.89 3 3.98 0.56 2
Jakob Junis 4.26 1.26 4 4.20 0.79 3
Bryse Wilson 4.34 1.34 4 4.65 1.23 4
Trevor Megill 3.47 0.47 2 3.39 -0.02 0
Joel Payamps 4.02 1.02 3 4.33 0.92 3
Taylor Clarke 4.50 1.50 5 4.51 1.10 4
Abner Uribe 3.74 0.74 2 4.09 0.67 2
Hoby Milner 3.88 0.88 3 4.21 0.79 3

So by this extremely back-of-the-napkin math, Williams’ injury is probably going to cost Milwaukee around five runs. Maybe three, maybe eight or 10, but somewhere in that neighborhood.

In a context-neutral environment, that’s nothing. That’s less than a win, over the course of half a season. In the high-leverage innings Uribe or Megill or whoever is going to inhabit in Williams’ stead, that could be much more significant.

Particularly considering that the Brewers usually don’t leave themselves much margin for error. Last year, they won the NL Central by nine games. But in 2022, they finished one game out of the playoffs. In 2021, they won the division by five games. In 2020, they made the playoffs on a tiebreaker. In 2019, they made the playoffs by three games. In 2018, they won the division on a tiebreaker. In 2017, they missed the playoffs by one game.

An extra four runs could turn a 10-2 win into a 10-6 win. Or they could turn two one-run save opportunities into walkoff losses. And that could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

For the next three months, only the most devoted Brewers observers will even notice Williams is missing on a game-to-game basis. But while the margin between him and his replacements is thin, it could be extremely important.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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LightenUpFGmember
2 months ago

If the Brewers are able to some purloin a reliever or two from another team, maybe they can stick it out until June by mixing and matching. The Red Sox would probably be open to sending Jansen to Milwaukee, but there’d likely be an issue of roles when Williams comes back.

montrealmember
2 months ago
Reply to  LightenUpFG

True on Jansen being a possibility as I’m sure the Red Sox would be happy to unload him but in July the role would go back to Devin for sure. But I suspect the Brewers will stay in house with one of Payamps, DLHall or Megill. Uribe is too wild in my view.