The Runner Sports

Seismic Shift In Baseball: Astros’ Chris Devenski Re-Defines Bullpen Roles

Paradigm shifts rarely engender press releases; nor are they accompanied by parades. Too bad, because a pitching fissure has opened in the Houston Astros’ bullpen, and the earthquake will soon be felt by MLB. Thank Chris Devenski.

He finished fourth in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2016, and if he wore Yankee pinstripes or socks of red, he’d be as ubiquitous as Unicorn Frappuccinos (but far more popular).

Last year, Devenski logged innings 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 innings.

On paper, Devenski is responsible for one of Houston’s 16 wins so far this season (through April 30), with a record good enough for the team to be in the early stages of running away with the AL West, at 16-9, three games up on the second-place Angels (4 games up in the loss column). In reality, however, Devo has enjoyed the leverage-heavy responsibility of holding leads and even closing, contributing to many more wins.

In fact, on Thursday, April 20 in Houston, the Astros’ right-hander scored a seven-out save, the first one by a reliever entering with a lead of three or fewer runs (non-mop-up) in over four years. The Tigers’ Drew Smyly did so in April 2013, in a win over the Yankees.

Devenski entered that game in the 7th with two on and two out, with the ‘Stros up by two. He quickly retired the first four Angels he faced, before giving up a solo shot to Mike Trout to start the 9th. He struck out the final two batters to end the game, stranding runners at second and third. Save #1 on the season, and he’s not even the team’s closer…usually.

Video: Watch Devenski pick up his 2nd career save, logging whiff after whiff in Thursday’s game

Therein lies the genius of manager A.J. Hinch. A well-known practitioner of the “long line-up,” versatility, and mound match-ups, Hinch’s team has no announced official closer. One night, it might be Ken Giles; another, maybe Luke Gregerson, or Will Harris. You may see James Hoyt or Michael Feliz shutting down the 9th. Or, a 2.1 inning closer like Devenski was on Thursday.

“He’s pitched his way into this super-utility role,” Hinch said this week. “He’s probably the hottest pitcher on the planet, and that’s what earns him the right to get those last outs.”

New Traditionalists

While this may not sound new–after all, Cleveland’s Andrew Miller shouldered a lot of the heavy bullpen lifting in the Indians’ playoff run last fall–other teams seem to be toying with stronger and longer relief stints, if they’ve got the horses to do it.

The question, though, at least for using this construct for an entire season (and not just the playoffs and their run-up), is whether arms and bodies will tire sooner and more frequently.

Twice in this season’s first seven games, Hinch used Devenski in 4-inning stints that stretched into extra innings, with the Astros winning both games. The price tag for such usage? After those marathon appearances, Devo got three and four days off, respectively. And, well he should have.

Hinch laid out the plan this way, after one of those games: “It’s not easy. 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 (with him being unavailable), which is why it’s key to win those games when I use him that way.”

So far, Devenski is sporting a dapper 2.16 ERA in his 16.2 innings, and has sat down 32 on strikes, with only two walks. He’s got a BAA of .136, with an OPS-against of .469 through games of April 27.

Devenski had an uncharacteristic blow-up outing, April 27 in Cleveland. In 2.1 relief innings, he gave up a walk, and a fatal home run to Francisco Lindor, as the Indians took the lead (and kept it), 4-3. The 5 players he didn’t walk or yield a homer to, he struck out. The loss evened his record this season to 1-1.

“It was a 2-0 changeup,” Devenski explained post-game. “Lindor put a good piece on it, and drove it out of the park. I think the walk is what hurt me prior to that. I’ll keep my head up and keep moving forward, and we’ll face these guys again sometime.”

Pinpointing the reason for the rise in strikeouts, the pitcher with the ankle-breaking change-up recently explained, “I think my fastball command has been a little better, and it has had good action on it. My slider, which I worked hard on this offseason, has been working so I think it is just all the hard work I’ve put in is starting to pay off.”

Related: Finding Devo: Devenski Waits His Turn in the Dragon’s Lair

A former 25th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2011 (out of Cal State-Fullerton), Devenski came to Houston in the trade that sent Brett Myers to Chicago in 2012. He yo-yoed between the rotation and the bullpen as a minor leaguer (but spent more time starting), at one point throwing a 16-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter for Class A Quad Cities.

The Devo Revo

Dave Sheinin, in his April 21, 2017 Washington Post article, speaks of a “bullpen revolution” emerging in Houston, and explains baseball’s increased use of high leverage, long-duration relief pitchers:

“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.”

Piggy in the Middle

Skipping Triple-A altogether, Devo may actually be inventing a role: What others would call “middle reliever,” I would call “middle starter.” In other words, he’s ready to finish the game from the 6th inning on, if needed.

This concept isn’t new to the Houston organization. Four springs ago, newly-arrived Houston GM Jeff Luhnow proposed a system-wide tandem pitching scheme with his starters, known as “piggy-backing.”

From the March 28, 2013 Houston Chronicle: “‘I don’t believe that it’s ever been done (in baseball) at the Triple-A and Double-A levels,’ Luhnow said. ‘It’s been done at the lower levels. When I was with the Cardinals, we did it at both of the A-ball levels.’

“He added: ‘It worked very well. It’s anecdotal. But we found pitchers were healthier and we suffered very few injuries as a result of this.’

“Luhnow hinted at the idea during the offseason. After evaluating the Astros’ big-league team and minor-league players throughout spring training, the GM recently made a decision to make the ground-breaking move.

“‘Pitchers who pitch well get the same amount of innings as they would get in a five-man rotation,’ Luhnow said. ‘It enables you to guarantee all eight of those starters’ innings. What happens in a five-man rotation, a lot of times, is middle relievers get a whole lot of innings. And we feel like these eight starters at all four of our full-season (minor-league) levels are the priority to get the innings.’

“‘The primary purpose is to allocate your innings to your starters and not limit it to your starters. We’ve got more than five. You could argue we have nine. We’ve really got nine (AAA) starters.'”

Finally, in offering further rationale: “Among many reasons behind the tandem push, is a ‘credible’ theory that starting pitchers suffer injuries after they become fatigued late in a game, and hit a 90-to-120 pitch count. ‘We protect our young arms by not allowing them to get that far,’ Luhnow said.”Related imageWhile it’s unclear if the tandem scheme is still being used anywhere in the Houston organization, we know Luhnow and Hinch are certainly familiar, and the “piggy-backing” concept may be experiencing a whisper of a comeback, even if not officially. Dallas Keuchel is the only starter still with the team who has had experience, in 2013, with the tandem system, while with the then-AAA Oklahoma City team.

Chris Devenski may not be the first to be utilized in this not-your-father’s-bullpen way, but his results, and the creativity of his manager to slot him into games appropriately (while assuring he’s rested), is making him the poster boy of the high-leverage reliever.

“Chris Devenski has the ability to be able to handle different game plans and not just be a ‘stuff guy’ with the fastball and changeup, and he’s able to disrupt the timing of hitters,” Hinch said. “It’d be hard to argue that there’s been a better reliever.

“From what I’ve seen, there’s been no one better.”

Video: Watch little-seen team-produced interview with Devenski, talking about growing up, learning the game, and his faith journey

NEW: Astros’ 2017 Draft Prospect: Seth Romero (U. of Houston), Lights-Out Lefty With Issues

and, Rise of The Phenom: Astros’ AA RHP Akeem Bostick Can’t Be Stopped

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

At TRS, you'll get full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and maybe a little rock'n'roll!
Brad Kyle
  • Jason Hawkins

    In my eyes, Micheal Feliz and Brad Peacock have been used and will probably be used similarly, if not as often as Devo

    • Brad Kyle

      Well…and, that’s the key. Both Feliz and Peacock have had long histories of starting (minors, and in Brad’s case, majors, too), so long relieving isn’t a real stretch for either. I almost think that if you’re an Astro farmhand starter, best be prepared to maybe be slotted into the bullpen, perhaps moreso than in other organizations.

      Not a bad thing, but I think that’s the definition of a paradigm shift, as Houston is employing it. The good news for Devo, though, is that he’s earned the trust of Hinch, in that he’s virtually a slam dunk to shut down wherever he’s put in games, and for how long.

      Appreciate your checking in, Jason! What are your thoughts on the rapid progress of Bostick (and is HE destined to debut in the Astros’ pen)? And, whatever UH starter Seth Romero’s personal demons are, do you think he can get his act together to be a first-round draftee, with Houston or anyone? Both are featured in recent articles on the site!

      See you at the World Series!

  • Jonathan Vega

    I just wanna say what a great article thanks for the read Brad. Devo is a BEAST and were lucky to have him.

    • Brad Kyle

      Thanks for the kind words, Jonathan! Nice to see you here! He’s definitely in Beast Mode, and I really think his 2017 will reflect positively on Hinch, and the creative way he’s running the team, including, of course, the bullpen….and, don’t get me started on his daily lineup changes, yet another ground-breaking way he’s changing the status-quo!

      The days of the “usual” lineup construct is gone, mercifully! If I hear one more “Springer? He’s not a lead-off hitter,” I’ll tear up my Texas Rangers fold-up schedule (wait, I was gonna do that, anyway)! Or, “Aoki should lead off…he’s a “regular” lead-off hitter!” They’re only leading off once, at the start of the game. Tear up your father’s lineup card.

      And, how about Bregman batting 9th, as he did Saturday? Hinch is careful to inform all the guys about his lineups: You’re not being “punished” because you’re down in the lineup! There’s a method to A.J.’s “madness,” and thankfully, not the other way around! I dig The Chronicles of Reddick batting second, too—gets that LH bat in there right away; in fact, I’ve noticed Hinch spots the left-handers strategically throughout the lineup. Watch for that in coming games.

      Again, thanks for checking in, Jonathan….many of the players, BTW, are regular readers, from Houston throughout the system, so you’re in good company!