CLEVELAND – Like so many others, Chris Devenski watched in fascination last October. He observed, on the flat-screen television of his offseason home in San Diego, as Cleveland continuously elected not to save their best arm, Andrew Miller, for the ninth inning, but rather to utilize him in high-leverage situations earlier in the game.
Unlike the many other major-league pitchers watching, however, Devenski recognized the part Miller was playing: he himself had already assumed a similar new-age bullpen role in the second half of the season with Houston. He had, in fact, become accustomed to entering games at unlikely spots much earlier than that, from his experience as a piggy-back tandem starter in the Astros’ farm system. As Cleveland advanced through the playoffs, Devenski watched as the movement to rethink bullpen usage and role — a movement of which he’s a part — advanced. The revolution was televised.
“I saw my role, man,” Devenski told FanGraphs last week. “I saw what they were doing with Miller here [in Cleveland] and [Aroldis] Chapman with the Cubs, it seems like that is what is coming about now in the game. It’s changing a little bit. I saw [in Miller] what I do. It was pretty cool. It’s big-time situations there. It’s important.”
But Devenski is arguably more of a revolutionary, more of disruptive figure than Miller. Since joining the Indians, Miller has pitched in high-leverage situations often, but he’s only recorded two or more innings in an outing three times in the regular season. He’s never recorded more than six outs in an appearance. Devenski had 18 such outings last season alone, including nine in August and September when the then-rookie was thrust into more high-leverage situations.
Devenski has recorded six or more outs in seven of his nine appearances this season and has an absurd 49.2-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) and 22% swinging-strike rate. He has become a unique weapon in an unusual role.
Devenski said his wide range of experiences — from starting to relieving to tandem-starting — made the job a natural fit. While most pitchers would rather start or rack up saves, Devenski seems to have embraced his work in a hybrid capacity.
“I think it’s just something I’ve been accustomed to and I kind of grew into it a little bit starting last year,” Devenski said of his responsibilities in Houston. “Starting last year, I did a lot of multiple-inning outings, where, you know, I was able to keep our team in the game or hold a lead… [T]hings like that. It’s something that kind of developed.
“I feel [the role] is pretty huge. The thing with this is you do need a couple days off if your pitch count goes up to the 30s and 40s, but it can also save a bullpen and give guys a rest.”
It’s not just that he’s pitching multiple innings at important junctures in the game that makes Devenski unusual. Like Miller and like Rich Hill, he’s one of the few pitchers in the game proving an unconventional pitch mix can work.
Devenski is throwing his changeup 42.9% of the time early this season — more often than his fastball (35.4%). Devenski threw the changeup at a 31.4% rate last season. He came by the approach simply, he says, because he feels really good about his changeup. Unlike Hill, he didn’t require a conversation to move away from the fastball as a primary pitch.
“I was throwing a lot of changeups. I had success with it,” Devenski said. “I’ve been able to really lock that pitch in.”
Devenski’s changeup ranks sixth in whiff-per-swing rate (52.2%) among all pitchers this season who have thrown at least 50 changeups, according to Baseball Prospectus. The pitch ranked 54th last season (39.4).
The Devenski changeup is a diving…
… bat-missing pitch:
It’s not as if Devenski lacks an effective fastball. The pitch is averaging 93.7 mph and has an above-average spin rate, averaging 2,371 rpms.
He can elevate the fastball for swings and misses above the zone, and generates swings and misses below the zone with his changeup and slider, the latter of which ranks 77th in whiff-per-swing rate (33.3%) this season and 26th last season (50.6%).
Devenski is unorthodox in a variety of ways, but it’s his role that’s most notable.
He’s perhaps giving us a glimpse of an arm that might soon be a staple of every pitching staff. He and Miller are perhaps equally important figures in the revolution of the bullpen. Miller was the best relief arm on his team, and he was moved out from traditional ninth-inning duties to maximize his value. Devenksi is perhaps the arm necessary to fill in the middle- to late-inning voids created by the reduced volume of innings logged by starting pitchers. It’s an arm like Devenski’s that could allow the sabermetric ideal of rarely allowing a starting pitcher to go through the lineup three times to become something like a reality.
Of course, finding and developing a Devenski is easier said than done.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, ideally, wanted an impact multi-inning option when he arrived in Houston.
“We value leverage a lot differently than we did a decade ago,” Hinch said. “Managers are judged by how much they recognized leverage and how much they use it for situations offensively or defensively. That attention to the unconventional [bullpen role], the trust and support and value of that role, has grown over the last five years.”
In a vacuum, the multi-inning leverage role is rooted in logic — and, increasingly, necessity — but finding the right arm wasn’t as easy. Hinch tried deploying Ken Giles in extended, high-leverage situations early in 2016 and it hadn’t worked as well as he hoped.
“It just sort of happened,” Hinch said of the Devenski role. “In a perfect world, you have a couple guys like this. I did this last year with Giles; he didn’t respond as favorably to the unknown as [Devenski] did. It’s not for everybody. I think what Andrew Miller did [last October] is crazy good, but Chapman did not do quite as well in the hybrid role. [Devenski’s] performance sort of mandated he be used differently than a one-inning reliever.
“I’ve had three different teams [in Houston], and I’m even asked about my managing experience in Arizona. I’m a little bit different as I’ve learned to trust myself a little better, but you can’t hand me any team and I manage it the same way as I manage today. You can’t just make someone in next year’s bullpen be Chris Devenski because I believe in leverage innings. You have to manage to players.”
How did Hinch and the Astros arrive at developing this role and filling it with Devenski?
“He started striking everybody out,” Hinch said.
Indeed. Devenski struck out 31.2% of batters and walked just 3.0% in the second half last season as he began to lean even more on his slider and changeup, trends which carried over to this spring.
“His performance has sort of pushed it [forward],” Hinch said. “We were doing this last year. He didn’t get the attention because we were chasing the playoffs… [I]t wasn’t nationally recognized. But if you look at his usage in August and September of last year, it started to be a little more… It’s based upon performance. [Astros reliever] Will Harris came to me two days ago and said ‘Devenski is available. Do I even need to put my spikes on?’ He meant it. That’s the sort of respect [Devenksi] has garnered through his performance. I have told them all since spring training, this is possible since we’ve taken him out of the rotation competition.”
In theory, every team should have a Devenski.
In practice, finding one is another matter.