WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With due respect to Rogers Hornsby, a baseball fan need no longer spend the offseason staring out the window and waiting for spring. We have the internet now, and the internet contains enough information about baseball to provide at least some sweet statistical sustenance for the winter months devoid of actual on-field baseball.
That is to say: For reasons both professional and personal, I spend a heck of a lot of time every offseason clicking around on sites like baseball-reference.com, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus in search of interesting tidbits that could prove useful down the road, for writing about or talking about or for informing the way I put together my fantasy teams.
And while rooting through various esoteric 2016 pitching leaderboards, one unexpected name kept popping up: Astros reliever Chris Devenski, a relative unknown who never pitched in the regular season at Class AAA ball before reaching the Majors at age 25 last year. And Devenski’s incredible effectiveness last season now forces the Astros to make a tough decision: They can give him a full-time job in their starting rotation and hope he’s able to maintain his performance over 200-some innings, or keep him in the bullpen, where his endurance and durability made him a huge asset in 2016.
A 25th round pick out of Cal-State Fullerton by the Chicago White Sox in the 2011 draft, Devenski saw limited minor league success before his big-league breakout. He made his big-league debut last season with a career 4.37 minor league ERA, albeit one inflated by a couple of rough stints in the Class A Advanced California League, a nightmarish place to pitch.
Devenski uses a quietly quirky-looking delivery, rearing back before he throws as if to portend a violent follow-through but finishing instead with a surprisingly graceful pirouette on his front leg that carries him off to the first-base side of the mound. His average fastball sits in the low 90s but he can dial it up a bit in big spots, and he features one of the sport’s biggest velocity gaps between his fastball and his changeup — his best pitch.
Early in the 2015 campaign at Class AA, manager Rodney Linares told Devenski to “unleash the dragon,” and the pitcher liked it so much he began demanding Linares refer to him as “Dragon” in speech and on the lineup card. Devenski now travels with a green toy dragon and confirmed that he brought it with him to Astros’ camp — though he had not yet unpacked it by the club’s first official pitchers and catchers workout on Wednesday.
“All I know is that they breathe fire,” Devenski said, when asked what appealed to him about dragons. “I try to let that fire burn every day: Stay motivated, stay fired, stay fueled to achieve goals.”
The right-hander joined the Astros’ organization in August of 2012 as a player to be named later in a July trade that sent Brett Myers to the White Sox. Devenski never appeared on any national prospects lists, and, in fact, did not even crack the Top 10 (or in some cases, 20) on any major outlet’s list of Astros prospects before his rookie season.
But Devenski dominated as a swingman on the Astros’ staff in 2016. Check this out: Devenski threw 108 1/3 innings across five starts and 43 relief appearances last season. His 2.16 ERA led all American League pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, as did his 2.34 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Devenski’s 5.2 strikeout-to-walk rate ranked fourth among all Major League pitchers in that same category, and his minuscule rate of 0.33 home runs per nine innings tied him for first with Rich Hill. His 0.91 WHIP was second best behind only Clayton Kershaw.
Situational wins — an obscure but useful stat abbreviated as WPA/LA and best summarized in “Lesson #10” here — aims to quantify which players most often “won” individual pitcher-batter matchups over the course of the season. To get a sense of its value in assessing pitchers, consult the leaderboard: AL Cy Young runner-up Corey Kluber and Cy Young winner Rick Porcello ranked first and second in the league in WPA/LI in 2016, and the Top 10 — save one name — comprises about the entirety of the league’s Cy Young field, including dominant starters like Chris Sale and Masahiro Tanaka and top relievers like Andrew Miller and Zach Britton.
The only guy in the Top 10 who did not receive a Cy Young vote? You guessed it: Chris Devenski, who ranked third behind Kluber and Porcello. Huh.
“He had one of the most remarkable reliever seasons that I can remember — certainly for a rookie,” said manager A.J. Hinch. “He can really pitch.”
All of that is just a long way of saying that this guy Devenski, a pitcher unfamiliar to even hardcore baseball fans, performed with the best of the big leagues in 2016. And he did so despite having no real defined role for the Astros, save the absence thereof: Devenski technically opened the season in Class AAA ball but never entered a regular-season game at that level. He got promoted to the big club during the first week of the season and began working in mop-up duty, then moved into the rotation for four starts beginning in late April, and slid back into long relief in late May. He began seeing higher-leverage situations after the All-Star Break while still working multi-inning stints when Hinch needed them. Excluding his starts, Devenski’s 83 2/3 relief innings ranked third in the Majors, and he averaged nearly two innings per outing — practically unheard of for relievers in today’s era of hyperspecialized bullpen usage.
“He was like a Swiss Army Knife last year,” said fellow pitcher Collin McHugh. “He can do everything. He filled spots when we needed them in the rotation, in the front of the bullpen, in the back of the bullpen, long relief. He did it all. For him, I’m sure he would love and cherish a little bit of definition when it comes to what he’d be doing this season, but for a staff to be able to have a guy like that who can basically come in and do anything you ask, it’s a huge commodity to have.”
Therein lies the issue: Devenski wants to start, and he opened camp competing for the fifth spot in the Astros’ rotation. But the Astros have a bunch of options for the back end of their starting staff, and none of them has ever been as valuable out of the bullpen as Devenski was in 2016.
On top of that, aspects of Devenski’s stat line make it difficult to count on his continued success. Devenski yielded a lot of fly balls and line drives last season, but allowed only four homers in 108 1/3 innings. It’s uncommon for a pitcher to allow as few groundballs as Devenski did without allowing a higher rate of home runs per fly ball, and, anecdotally most of the guys who sustain success that way — among them closers Kenley Jansen and A.J. Ramos — are late-inning relievers with massive strikeout rates. Devenski offered no explanation for his ability to yield consistent weak fly-ball contact, a skill many experts meet with skepticism, other than to say he trusts the defenders behind him to turn flies into outs.
The 2016 postseason forced a league-wide discussion of reliever roles: First, Orioles manager Buck Showalter failed to use his best bullpen arm, Zach Britton, in his club’s late loss in the wild card game. Then Indians manager Terry Francona used his own best reliever, Andrew Miller, for several multi-inning stints throughout his team’s World Series run.
It would likely be impossible for any pitcher to remain healthy and effective for a full season throwing as often as Miller did in October, but the so-called “Andrew Miller role,” played out realistically over the regular season, might look a bit like the way the Astros used Devenski last year, save some obvious distinctions in leverage: The righty entered games in early innings, in middle innings, in late innings and in extra innings and made 26 relief appearances of more than an inning. So it’s tempting, naturally, to pencil him back into a relief role for 2017.