The success of Astros reliever Chris Devenski could have a lasting impact across Major League Baseball.
For the past 20-plus years, major league bullpens have often followed a general formula. You have your closer, who always pitches the ninth inning of a close game, and your setup man who pitches the eighth. If you’re lucky, you have a reliable seventh-inning guy too. The Astros had two such trios with Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, followed by Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Lidge.
Then you have your middle relievers, including one or two lefties, who rarely pitch more than one inning at a time. Finally, there is the long reliever, who mostly pitches in a mop-up role or when a starter leaves early.
These days, however, that formula is shifting. The prime example is the Cleveland Indians using Andrew Miller basically whenever he’s needed. He’s their best relief pitcher and he’s not the closer, bucking the established trend.
The Astros have a player who is making a similar impact on the game in a slightly different way. He’s also their most effective reliever and he’s also not the closer. What’s different is that he can earn saves the old-fashioned way.
When Chris Devenski cracked the Astros’ 2016 opening day roster, he wasn’t expected to be a key cog in the bullpen. The 25-year-old rookie was a former 25th-round draft pick who came to the Astros as a player-to-be-named-later in the deal that sent Brett Myers to the White Sox.
The majority of his minor league appearances were as a starter, and he’d never pitched at the Triple-A level, yet he managed to win a major league bullpen job. And he was dazzling.
Devenski posted a 1.61 ERA in 83.2 relief innings in 2016 with a microscopic 0.81 WHIP and a 6.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of his 43 relief appearances, 27 were for more than one inning. He went three innings or more in 10 of those games.
His success continues this season, as he’s pitched to a 1.35 ERA across his first five appearances. In 13.1 innings, Devenski has struck out 25 and walked just one — almost video game-like numbers. He doubles as a multi-inning middle reliever and a go-to guy in high leverage situations.
Changing the Game?
Devenski, along with Miller, are the primary examples of a growing trend. In cases such as these, managers are using their most effective relievers in high-leverage situations outside the ninth inning. These teams still have closers, but the closer may not be the most important guy in the bullpen.
There’s no doubt other teams would love to have their own version of Devenski. The trick, of course, is finding him. Devenski was a rather unlikely candidate for such a distinction, though his formula for success sets him up quite well. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to thrive.
Economically speaking, pitchers like Devenski could get paid as highly as the game’s top closers. Miller is paid like a closer, but he also had success as a closer. If Devenski provides roughly 100 innings of shutdown relief per season, one could argue he’s worth more than a guy who pitches 60-70 innings.
Of course Devenski won’t be eligible for free agency until 2022, so time will tell if he earns big bucks. If this is the start of a trend, however, other teams will start throwing money at pitchers who can give them multiple innings at a time. This is especially true as bullpens continue to gain importance.
One thing is for certain: The dynamics of relief pitching in the major leagues are changing. Teams will start looking for their own version of Devenski.
***Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference***