The Brewers’ Devin Williams Has Punched Himself Out of the Postseason

The Brewers clinched the NL Central title on Sunday, becoming the third team to wrap up their division after the Rays and White Sox. The occasion was certainly cause for celebration, but one key player took things too far. Devin Williams, the team’s top setup man, fractured his right hand — his pitching hand, that is — punching a wall and will require surgery that could keep him out through at least the National League Championship Series and perhaps longer.

Renowned for his Airbender changeup, one of the game’s most effective and unhittable pitches, Williams won NL Rookie of the Year honors and Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year honors in 2020 while posting a 0.33 ERA and 0.86 FIP in 27 innings. A bout of right shoulder soreness, later diagnosed as a rotator cuff strain, kept him off the Brewers’ roster during last year’s Wild Card Series, during which the team was swept in two games by the Dodgers.

Though he did not require surgery, Williams was brought along slowly in the spring, and scuffled early in the season. He missed 10 days in July due to right elbow discomfort and was limited to five appearances in September due to a right calf injury but still posted a 2.50 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 54 innings.

Via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak:

“After our celebration, I went out to have a few drinks and on my way home I was a little frustrated, upset, and I punched a wall,” Williams said. “That’s how it happened.

“I’m pretty upset with myself. There’s no one to blame but me. I feel like I’ve let the team down, the coaching staff, the fans, everyone. I know how big a role that I play on this team and there’s a lot of people counting on me.”

Yeesh. According to president of baseball operations David Stearns, the 27-year-old righty actually suited up in St. Louis on Tuesday (the Brewers were off on Monday) and tried to play catch before realizing the severity of his injury. After informing the Brewers’ medical staff, he was X-rayed during the game, and on Wednesday, doctors confirmed the fracture and the necessity of surgery.

While Stearns confirmed that Williams was not involved in an altercation, one would think that every pitcher has Crash Davisadvice not to hit any thing (or anyone) with his pitching hand ingrained, but this season has already illustrated that’s not the case. Braves righty Huascar Ynoa missed three months after fracturing his moneymaking hand punching a dugout bench in frustration. Current Brewers reliever Hunter Strickland is also in this dubious club, having missed two months in 2018 after punching a door with his pitching hand; like Williams, he suffered a fracture and require surgery, but at least he was working out his frustrations over blowing a save, not [squints at notes] celebrating a trip to the playoffs.

For however long they’re around this October, the Brewers are likely to miss Williams. His 1.4 WAR is tied with Dylan Floro for seventh among NL relievers, while his 38.5% strikeout rate (down from last year’s eye-popping but unsustainable 53.0%) ranks second only to teammate Josh Hader’s 44.2%.

Some kind of regression was inevitable for Williams given the extremity of his 2020 stats and the late start he got on Grapefruit League action (he didn’t debut until March 20). With his fastball velocity down 1-1.5 mph relative to last season in April and May, he was quite shaky early on, allowing three homers in his first seven appearances, two more than he allowed all of last year, and walking 12 batters in 19.1 innings over the first two months. From June through August, he was closer to last year’s form, however, delivering a 0.69 ERA, 1.69 FIP, 0.3 HR/9, 40.3% strikeout rate and 10.1% walk rate. Though he was roughed up for four runs in 0.2 innings by the Giants on September 2, the three-run homer he served up to Thairo Estrada was just the second longball he’d allowed since April 24. Since the Estrada homer, he had struck out nine of the 15 hitters he faced, and while he hadn’t pitched since September 18, he was expected to be available for the postseason.

Williams’ Airbender — part circle change, part backwards slider, part screwball – wasn’t quite as unhittable as it was last year, when batters went a ridiculous 2-for-62 while striking out 41 times. This time around, they hit .161 and slugged .232 while striking out 70 times in 170 PA. The pitch, which Williams threw 63.8% of the time, has still been the game’s most valuable changeup:

Most Valuable Changeups of 2021
Player Team Pitches PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff % Run Value RV/100
Devin Williams Brewers 634 170 .161 .232 .225 47.2 -15 -2.3
Jordan Montgomery Yankees 612 181 .179 .280 .222 39.3 -12 -2.0
José Suarez Angels 439 131 .145 .210 .184 38.2 -12 -2.8
Lucas Giolito White Sox 928 278 .219 .387 .288 35.8 -11 -1.1
Steven Matz Blue Jays 571 181 .216 .339 .280 24.2 -10 -1.7
Cole Sulser Orioles 350 122 .127 .182 .180 34.5 -10 -3.0
Chris Flexen Mariners 419 116 .152 .241 .183 27.2 -10 -2.5
Sean Manaea Athletics 709 206 .241 .328 .271 30.5 -9 -1.3
Julio Urías Dodgers 472 162 .188 .234 .216 29.1 -9 -2.0
Wandy Peralta Giants/Yankees 358 109 .212 .303 .261 32.5 -9 -2.6
Brandon Woodruff Brewers 400 92 .193 .295 .232 41 -8 -1.9
Mychal Givens Reds 318 81 .118 .176 .232 26 -8 -2.4
Patrick Sandoval Angels 428 132 .139 .209 .223 51.4 -7 -1.6
Connor Brogdon Phillies 310 102 .156 .271 .216 32.3 -7 -2.1
Matt Harvey Orioles 266 77 .203 .284 .242 12.9 -7 -2.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Among full-time relievers, only the Braves’ Luke Jackson (-17 runs with his slider) and the White Sox’s Liam Hendriks (-16 runs with his four-seamer) have a pitch that has surpassed the value of Williams’ changeup, though Hader’s four-seamer has equaled it at -15 runs. Hader and Williams are just two of the seven Brewers with a pitch among the majors’ top 33 in value:

Brewers on Most Valuable Pitch Leaderboard
Rk. Pitcher Pitch Pitches PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff % Run Value RV/100
3 Corbin Burnes Cutter 1332 360 .233 .316 .280 32.3 -24 -1.8
4 Adrian Houser Sinker 1268 355 .209 .268 .286 13.8 -23 -1.8
7 Freddy Peralta 4-Seamer 1219 309 .156 .308 .277 30.9 -20 -1.7
22 Devin Williams Changeup 634 170 .161 .232 .225 47.2 -15 -2.3
25 Josh Hader 4-Seamer 610 130 .100 .173 .201 39.9 -15 -2.5
27 Brent Suter 4-Seamer 858 231 .251 .391 .310 20.7 -14 -1.6
33 Brandon Woodruff Sinker 752 182 .242 .342 .311 15.0 -14 -1.9
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Hader is putting the finishing touches on another elite season; his 44.2% strikeout rate and 1.84 FIP both lead all qualified relievers (50 innings minimum), while his 1.27 ERA is second only to Loup’s 0.95. His 33.2% strikeout-walk differential merely leads all NL relievers, as does his 2.4 WAR.

With Williams in front of him, Hader hasn’t pitched more than one inning in any of his 58 appearances, but in the setup man’s absence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the closer is asked to get more outs in the postseason, particularly given the extra off days. Four of Hader’s nine previous postseason appearances have gone longer than one inning.

With Williams out, setup duties are likely to involve the lefty Suter and righty Brad Boxberger, both of whom have been good this season (2.71 ERA and 3.91 FIP for the former, 3.41 ERA and 3.71 FIP for the latter) but still a step down from the man they’re replacing. Rookies Aaron Ashby, a 23-year-old lefty, and Jake Cousins, a 26-year-old righty, could be part of the mix as well. Both have missed bats aplenty in limited duty (39.7% strikeout rate in 31 innings for Ashby, 35.2% in 30 innings for Cousins), but both have gaudy walk rates; Cousins is on the IL with a biceps strain, though he’s expected to be ready for the Division Series. Strickland, who has defied his peripherals while pitching in lower-leverage duty since being acquired from the Angels in June (1.83 ERA, 3.74 FIP), could see later-inning duty as well.

With Burnes, Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta certain to start in the Division Series — likely against the Braves, whose magic number to clinch is one — either the righty Houser or lefty Eric Lauer is likely to join the bullpen. All four righties are in uncharted territory innings-wise, and so the odd man out is more likely to be used in a multi-inning capacity following a shorter start. Lauer could be particularly useful against the Braves, who own just a 93 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season.

The first glimpse of how manager Craig Counsell might handle things in Williams’ absence came on Wednesday night, as the team halted the Cardinals’ 17-game winning streak with a 4-0 win. After Houser pitched five strong innings, Suter and Boxberger added a scoreless frame apiece, and Ashby got the final six outs, five via strikeout; an eighth-inning walk to Paul Goldschmidt was the only baserunner he allowed.

While Counsell and teammates such as Woodruff said all the right things about picking Williams up on Wednesday, there’s no getting around his poor timing. In the annals of self-inflicted injuries with postseason implications, Williams’ broken hand has more in common with 2006 Dodgers lefty Joe Beimel‘s 10-stitch wound on his pitching hand, sustained via a broken glass in a bar (“I wasn’t there drinking sodas all night,” he later admitted), than 2004 Yankees righty Kevin Brown’s broken non-pitching hand, sustained when he punched a wall. Mets lefties teed off on the Beimel-less Dodgers, sweeping them out of the Division Series.

Self-infliction aside, any discussion of key reliever postseason absences or Brewers postseason history must also include the plight of Rollie Fingers. After winning the AL Cy Young and MVP honors in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Fingers tore a muscle in his forearm on September 2, 1982. The Brewers nonetheless edged the Orioles for the AL East title and the Angels in the ALCS, but lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series. Decades later, those Brewers still wonder what might have been had he been available. The current squad can only hope it doesn’t come to feel the same way about Williams.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Nice article title. Season-ending punch-out.