Devin Williams Was Preposterous

Here’s a chart I used for a story I wrote last week:

I came across this while writing about Houston Astros left-hander Brooks Raley, whose 2020 season is marked by the dot in yellow. But had you come across this chart in the wild, Raley’s dot wouldn’t be the one that gets your attention. That would be the dot in the upper left, isolated all by itself with baseball’s best whiff rate and one of its lowest exit velocities allowed. If you’re the dot in yellow, it means you had a sneakily good year. If you’re the one off by itself, you’re probably one of the best pitchers in baseball.

That lonesome dot in the corner belongs to Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award on Monday. Among the finalists he defeated for the award were a former third overall pick who reached based 40% of the time in his debut and an out-of-nowhere breakout utility player who helped lead his team to its first playoff appearance in 14 years. From where I sit, the decision shouldn’t have been all that controversial.

Williams has already been featured in this space recently after my colleague Jake Mailhot wrote about him in the first week of September. In his piece, Jake did a great job of doing a rather scientific breakdown of Williams’ changeup, his impossible standout pitch. In light of his award pick-up, however, I thought it would be worth taking a perhaps less scientific, more googly-eyed look at his overall season.

At the time Jake wrote about him, Williams had 0.60 ERA, 31 strikeouts, and six walks allowed in 15 innings pitched. Over the next month, he somehow improved upon those numbers, finishing with a 0.33 ERA, a 0.86 FIP, and a 1.09 xFIP. He allowed just one earned run in 27 innings — that occurring thanks to a single homer — struck out 53, walked nine, and allowed just eight hits. Williams, an oft-injured 26-year-old who clocked in as just the 20th-ranked prospect in a weak Brewers system before the season and had a very boring 13.2-inning stint in the majors in 2019, now looks like the best reliever in baseball.

That title, “best reliever in baseball,” can be a pretty fluid one. But in Williams’ case, it’s particularly fun to visualize just how much he stood out from his competition this year. You saw the chart above showing how much he dominated his peers with his combination of whiff rates and soft contact. Let’s do a similar chart with FIP and xFIP:

Having a great FIP usually means having a killer K/BB ratio, but in order to pair that with a great xFIP, you also can’t be getting unusually lucky with your HR/FB ratio. Williams was untouchable this season, but instead of doing so with stuff that would typically turn into fly balls like many other pitchers do, he was forcing opponents to hit the ball on the ground with the little contact they achieved.

There are great relief seasons, and then there are those that make you ask whether the pitcher was throwing from a mound 40 feet from home plate. According to Statcast, Williams finished in the 100th percentile in xERA, xBA, xSLG and xwOBA. He somehow looks even more dominant with all context stripped away than he did in real time.

As you may imagine, Williams’ numbers this season were historically great. Evaluating exactly how history should regard his 2020, however, is complicated. When the season was officially shortened to 60 games, there were debates raging in baseball circles as to what outlandish numbers we might see and how legitimately those statistics should be thought of. Most of those numbers had to do with offense — a batter hitting .400, a .500 on-base percentage, things like that. As it turned out, not even a dramatically shortened season was enough to get any hitter above those marks. Instead, it was a previously anonymous reliever who broke baseball.

If we set the innings minimum to 20, Williams’ K% of 53.0% is the highest in baseball history. His K-BB% of 44.0% is the third-highest in baseball history. His 0.63 WHIP ranks ninth, his 20 FIP- ranks second, and his xFIP — a category we only have measurements for dating back to 2002 — is second. The caveat here, though, is obvious. The other great relief years of history had to be accomplished under the full weight of a six-month regular season grind. Williams got to turn his in during a sprint that afforded him just 22 appearances. Here is how Williams stacks up to the 15 best FIP- seasons turned in since 1947:

Best FIP- Seasons of Integration Era
Player Year Innings K% BB% K-BB% WHIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Eric Gagne 2003 82.1 44.8% 6.5% 38.2% 0.69 30 19 26
Devin Williams 2020 27 53.0% 9.0% 44.0% 0.63 7 20 25
Craig Kimbrel 2012 62.2 50.2% 6.1% 44.2% 0.65 26 21 23
Aroldis Chapman 2014 54 52.5% 11.9% 40.6% 0.83 54 23 32
Sergio Romo 2011 48 40.0% 2.9% 37.1% 0.71 42 25 38
Liam Hendriks 2020 25.1 40.2% 3.3% 37.0% 0.67 42 26 46
Kirby Yates 2019 60.2 41.6% 5.3% 36.2% 0.89 28 29 50
Carter Capps 2015 31 49.2% 5.9% 43.2% 0.81 31 30 31
Brad Hand 2020 22 33.7% 4.7% 29.1% 0.77 44 30 86
Pedro Martinez 1999 213.1 37.5% 4.4% 33.1% 0.92 42 31 N/A
Noah Syndergaard 2017 30.1 27.4% 2.4% 25.0% 1.05 73 31 58
Kenley Jansen 2017 68.1 42.2% 2.7% 39.5% 0.75 32 31 42
Wade Davis 2014 72 39.1% 8.2% 30.8% 0.85 26 32 51
Craig Kimbrel 2017 68 49.6% 5.5% 44.1% 0.68 31 32 34
Stephen Strasburg 2011 24 27.3% 2.3% 25.0% 0.71 39 33 64
Min. 20 IP

Sort the columns any way you like, and Williams looks fantastic. The innings difference here, though, is significant. Gagne, probably responsible for history’s greatest relief season, has three times as many innings as Williams here. Kimbrel, Chapman, and Romo’s best years came with much larger workloads as well. It isn’t as though Williams got off easy this year — only 12 pitchers in baseball threw more innings in 2020 without recording a start. The season just wasn’t long enough for him to prove himself. If he was given a full slate, he might have been Gagne-like, but he also might have struggled for a week and fallen off this list entirely. We’ll never know.

We can take comfort, however, in knowing Williams was recognized for what he could accomplish within the constraints of this strange year. Voters for the Rookie of the Year award are asked to do nothing more than name who the best-performing eligible player was that season, but I’ve always thought of the award as also being a bit of a statement — a declaration from voters that the chosen player is someone who will make his mark on the game for years to come. It sounds silly, but think about how out-of-place it seems when you’re reminded Marty Cordova won the award over Andy Pettitte and Garret Anderson in 1995, or that Angel Berroa beat Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui in 2003. Without even looking at the numbers, your instinct is to believe people got fooled.

It’s very easy to get fooled by 27 innings, but you’ll forgive voters for rewarding one of the best 27-inning stretches we’ve ever seen. Shortened season or not, 2020 Devin Williams was the greatest strikeout relief arm of all-time. Simultaneously, he was one of baseball’s best soft-contact artists. He earned as much WAR as Gerrit Cole in less than half as many innings. It is nearly impossible to do more with less.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Greg Simonsmember
3 years ago

I have never understood the argument for the Rookie of the Year award being a statement about expected future performance. MVP and Cy Young awards are based on that year’s performance, and ROY should be also.

3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Simons

So you’re the guy who voted for Marty Cordova.