In the wake of the Cleveland Indians’ run to the American League pennant last fall, a run built largely on the backs of bullpen ace Andrew Miller and his fellow late-inning relievers, many in the industry wondered whether Manager Terry Francona’s model — using his best relievers for multi-inning stints in the highest-leverage situations of most games — could be replicated in the regular season.
The answer seemed to be: not really. With the everyday nature of the regular season (as opposed to the frequent off-days in the postseason), you would risk burning out your best relievers by using them too frequently, and for too long.
But in the early days of the 2017 season, we can already discern a Franconian shift taking place in reliever usage. More teams appear to have identified one or more bullpen aces, who increasingly are being used for longer stints in high-leverage situations.
With that in mind, you may want to get to know the name Chris Devenski, if you haven’t already.
On Thursday in Houston, the Astros’ right-hander entered with two outs and two on in the seventh inning of a game in which the Astros were leading the Los Angeles Angels by two runs, and struck out Danny Espinosa to end the seventh. He then remained in the game for the eighth, stayed in the game for the ninth — surviving a solo home run by Mike Trout — and closed out the win.
That, folks, is a seven-out save — the first by a pitcher who entered with a lead of three runs or fewer (in other words, in non-mop-up duty) in more than four years, since Detroit’s Drew Smyly logged a four-inning save in a win over the Yankees in April 2013.
It was Devenski’s first save of the season (and second of his career), but it wasn’t the first time this season he has saved the Astros, who are in first place in the American League West. Twice in the season’s first seven games, Astros Manager A.J. Hinch used him for four-inning stints that stretched into extra innings, with the Astros winning both games. But the corresponding price has been steep: After those marathon appearances, Devenski got three and four days off, respectively.
“It’s not easy,” Hinch said after the second of those. “But we needed him to get two of our four wins. When the situation calls for it, I can stretch him out. It does cost us the next couple days, which is why it’s key to win those games when I use him that way.”
In other words, Devenski has been to the Astros in April what Miller, essentially, was to the Indians in October — a shutdown fireman who can enter in any inning necessary, pitch multiple high-leverage innings and occasionally close a game out. Devenski’s numbers this season are Miller-like: a 1.35 ERA, a batting-average-against of .149, an OPS-against of .465, 25 strikeouts and only one walk in 13 1/3 innings.
Whereas Miller, a lefty, uses a wipeout slider as his primary out pitch, Devenski, a right-hander uses a devastating change-up as his — he actually struck out one batter Thursday on a change-up that bounced in front of home plate.
But Devenski isn’t the only reliever being used in unconventional ways. According to the Play Index tool at the indispensable Baseball-Reference.com, it is happening all over. In 2016, through the season’s first 20 days, there were 20 instances of a reliever pitching two or more innings in a game in which his average leverage index was 1.5 or greater. (Leverage index is a measure of how critical each plate appearance is to the outcome of the game, with 1.0 being average and 2.0 or greater being high-leverage. An average leverage index of 1.5 or greater for an outing simply means the pitcher was pitching in higher-than-average situations throughout.)
In 2017 there have been 27, an increase of 35 percent. Devenski alone accounts for three of them.
A former 25th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2011, Devenski was the player to be named in the trade that sent Brett Myers from Houston to Chicago in 2012. He toggled between the rotation and the bullpen as a minor-leaguer, at one point throwing a 16-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter in Class A.
Last year, his rookie season in the majors, Devenski again logged time as both a starter and reliever, going 4-4 with a 2.16 ERA, a .914 WHIP and 104 strikeouts against only 20 walks in 108 1/3 innings. This spring, he was given a shot at making the rotation, but the Astros ultimately chose to make Devenski their newfangled bullpen ace, their fireman, their Miller.
The early results justify the decision — and demonstrate the growing importance of relief work in modern baseball, with a corresponding devaluation of starting pitching. Had Devenski been placed in the back of the Astros’ rotation, he would have three starts by now. As a reliever, he has appeared in five games, entering anywhere from the sixth to the ninth, and pitching anywhere from one to four innings. The Astros have won all five games.
There is a new paradigm of pitcher usage sweeping across the game, and Chris Devenski is its new face.