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O Brother Devenski, Where Art Thou?

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With a major exodus in 2019 from the 2018 pitching staff, a resurgence of Chris Devenski would be most timely. Will it happen?

Not the Man of Constant Sorrow, since coming to the Astros organization as the player to be named later in the 2012 Brett Myers trade, Chris Devenski could more aptly be called the Man of Pleasant Surprise.

Devenski Career

In 2016 he came seemingly out of nowhere to become one of baseball’s most effective multi-purpose pitchers, even eliciting comparisons with the Indians’ Andrew Miller. He threw 108.1 innings, with five starts, long and short relief, whatever, wherever or whenever he was needed. He had a 2.16 ERA and was fourth in rookie of the year balloting. His circle of death change up became notorious as one of the most feared pitches in baseball.

Although in 2017 there was arguably a small fall-off, nonetheless he was good enough to be chosen for the All Star team.

Looking at his season stats for 2018 it seems like he suddenly fell into the pit of misery. Here are some basic career stats by year for Chris Devenski, 2016-2018.

Chris Devenski career pitching statistics, 2016-2018

Year IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
Year IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
2016 108.1 8.64 1.66 0.33 0.271 2.16 2.34 3.6 2.8
2017 80.2 11.16 2.9 1.23 0.22 2.68 3.49 3.51 1.4
2018 47.1 9.7 2.47 1.71 0.275 4.18 4.49 4.01 0

Looking at the overall trajectory, since 2016 Devenski’s ERA and FIP have increased by 2 runs, innings pitched have dropped by more than half, and his WAR has gone from almost 3 to 0. Digest that. In 2018 Chris Devenski, he of the deadly change up, had become a replacement level pitcher.

Let’s take a look at what happened and see if there’s a chance for Devo to again whip it, and whip it good.

Or has he just become the Man of Constant Sorrow?

The Disaster

First, we must understand that 2018 was really the story of two seasons for Devenski, from March- June, and then July. After a stint on the DL in August and rehab he returned in September, but was not used much in the late season. But if we look at the early season Devenski, we see he was pitching pretty much to form for his career. Then he just collapsed.

The following chart is Devenski from March until July 10th in the top column, and Devenski from July 12th until July 27th in the bottom.

Devenski stats, March -July 10, 2018, and July 12-July 27, 2018

Year IP Batters faced K% BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
Year IP Batters faced K% BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
2018, 3/29-7/10 36.1 140 30.0 6.4 0.74 .253 1.73 2.91 3.48
2018, 7/12-7/27 2.1 21 9.5 9.5 11.57 .571 42.43 20.73 8.97

Though the early season statistics for Devenski show he was outperforming his peripherals to a degree, low BABIP, FIP and xFIP above ERA, he was still on track for an excellent season. His K% at 30% was above his career 27.7%, and his BB%, 6.4%, was identical to his career average.

Then the deluge. On July 12th he faced five batters, gave up four hits and three earned runs. On July 20th he faced four batters, gave up a walk, three hits, two home runs, and three earned runs. On the 27th he faced five batters, allowed a walk, four hits, another homer, and five earned runs. During this stretch of July Devenski faced 21 batters, allowed 11 hits, two walks, three home runs and only retired seven batters, mostly due to two spotless innings on July 14th. His ERA was 42.43 and his FIP was 20.73. Based on this and a few other rocky outings in early July and after his return from rehab, Devenski’s season statistics were wrecked.

Even Tyler White, in his two innings pitched in the big leagues, managed better, escaping with “only” a 13.50 ERA and a 16.15 FIP.

What happened?

To start with, of course four outings and 21 batters faced are a small sample. But to be that bad, something else was definitely wrong besides bad luck. The Astros claimed Devenski had a hamstring injury (more on that later) but upon return from minor league rehab he was seldom used and was not on the play off roster. The Astros had lost faith in Devo. To the baseball jailhouse he went.

In order to save time and space I’m not going to reproduce every possible chart or graph just to show the things that didn’t change much because, mostly, things didn’t change much. Here’s what mostly stayed the same. The plate discipline numbers, i.e. the contact percentages and swinging strike percentages didn’t change much in July from early season and career norms. Velocity on the pitches did not change, or rather, Devenski’s velocity was actually about one MPH greater throughout 2018 than in 2016. The batted ball percentages were mostly unchanged, i.e. the percentages of grounders, line drives and fly balls. And his pitches still seemed to have good movement according to the charts I read.

Here’s what did measurably change. As one would expect, (a) the quality of the pitches, what Fangraphs calls pitch value, plummeted. (b) The percentage of hard hits went from 29.1% in early 2018 to 47.1% during the July period. (c) The pitch selection changed, with Devenski only throwing 26.4% change ups during the time in question, compared to 41.4% in earlier 2018, per Fangraphs.

And, (d) although Devenski continued to throw balls and strikes at about the same rate, and it’s hard to detect with such a small sample a change in pitch location, one difference I have found is a definite change in his arm slot.

Let’s look at the pitch values first. Below is a chart of Devenski’s pitch values from 2016, March -July 10, 2018, and July 12-27 2018. High numbers indicate good pitches. Per C means per 100 pitches.

Devenski pitch values, 2016, 2018, March-July 10, and July 12-27, 2018.

Year Fast ball/C Slider/C Change/C
Year Fast ball/C Slider/C Change/C
2016 1.33 3.36 2.52
March-June, 2018 0.15 0.49 3.70
July 12-July 27, 2018 -8.71 -6.49 -9.03

The pitch values Devenski flashed in 2016 were excellent. It is rare for a pitcher to have three pitches that highly rated. Before his demise in July, Devenski’s numbers were still positive, with the change up more effective than ever and used more than in 2016.

I guess that the pitch values reflected in the last column are the values that correspond to a 42.43 ERA.

Here are the results and averages against each of his pitches during the July period courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

As I said before, I have looked at every aspect of Devenski’s performance during this time when half the batters got a hit, and I have found few anomalies; little meaningful difference in velocity, command and control, or movement and trajectory of the pitches. I did find this one clue; release point. The following graph shows the vertical release points of Devenski throughout his career. Look at the part of the graph on the far right that corresponds to 7/18. That is not exactly corresponding to the 7/12/18-7/27/18 dates we have been exploring, but it is close.

What you should notice is that at the time roughly corresponding to Devenski’s demise, his vertical release point on all three pitches dropped substantially. This had happened before, it seems Devenski is rather inconsistent in this area, but also note that the release point on all three pitches was lower than at any time in his career for all three. Notice also that for the only time in 2018, his release point on all three pitches was different, although this had happened in prior years and in greater degree.

The following is a chart showing pitch usage, trajectory, movement and release point on each of Devenski’s pitches for his career. Ignore the curve, as he dropped that pitch early in 2016.

Following are the charts for the early 2018 season up until July 10.

Now compare these to the numbers during the July 12 - July 27 period.

Although there is some variation in trajectory and movement, these are within normal parameters. But look at how Devo went from throwing more change ups than any other pitch, to throwing them the least. And again, look at the drop in the vertical release point of all three pitches, either by career standards, or just by what he was doing earlier in the same season.

One more chart. This one shows the variations in the horizontal release point through Devenski’s career. Again, look at the far right but this time above the month labelled 8-18.

Again we find in late 2018 a sudden change in release point, although this one occurred just after the time of Devenski’s collapse. Although it is clear that Devenski has not been consistent in regards to release point, and this is a small sample of pitches, this sudden one month change again shows me a pitcher struggling to find his comfort zone.

The Good News

In my opinion this is good news. The Astros said all along that Devenski’s problem was “hamstring soreness” that was affecting the way he threw. As A. J. Hinch said,

“Devenski has had on-and-off hamstring soreness for a little while coming out of the [All-Star] break. We felt it was affecting his pitching and the ball wasn’t coming quite out [of his hand] the way it normally does. He’s never one to tell us, never one to not want to take the ball. I talked to him a ton in Seattle and he’s not quite himself and 100 percent.”

Trouble is, the Astros haven’t seemed very transparent of late concerning injuries, being about as forthcoming about such things as Bill Belichick. Jose Altuve’s “knee soreness” turned out to be major knee surgery. Carlos Correa’s “back soreness” turned out to be your best slugger can’t swing a bat above the Mendoza line. I’m thinking just maybe Devo was really OK health-wise but they wanted him to get his mechanics straight while giving the rookie Cionel Perez his first shot.

But whether Devenski was really injured or not doesn’t matter. For whatever reason it appears that Devo was working through mechanical problems, as pitchers often do, and I see no reason to think he can’t see his way through it. He also seemed to lose confidence in his best pitch, the change up, and as many have speculated, perhaps there was something in his delivery that was tipping it to the batters.

Tipping?

This tipping theory may get some validation from the QOPA tool, which is, the quality of pitch average. This tool scores each pitch according to speed, trajectory, late break and location and averages the score of the pitches making pitcher or team ratings possible. Unsurprisingly, the Astros staff in 2018 had the best QOPA rating at 4.70, 4.50 considered average.

Looking at QOPA, Devenski had a downturn in the July period but not nearly as dramatic as the Fangraph pitch value scores would indicate. In fact, his change up QOPA actually went up to 5.53 from 4.90 in the pre-July 12th season. The fastball declined from 5.11 to a still respectable 4.32, but the slider fell from 4.38 to 3.68.

The batting averages against these three pitches, per Brooks Baseball was: slider, 1.000; fastball, .556; change up, .500.

Devenski’s change up QOPA during this time, if extrapolated for the season, would have been the 4th highest in the league, behind only Blake Snell, Noah Syndergaard, and Jordan Montgomery. Snell’s change up BAA per Brooks Baseball was .196. For Montgomery it was .223. For Devenski, .500.

Even Devenski’s sub par slider was being slugged beyond sensibility. I found two other pitchers with QOPA’s of 3.68 on their sliders, Derek Holland and Heath Hembree. Holland’s BAA was .246 and for Hembree it was .222. Devenski: 1.000.

During this time when Devo literally, at times, could not get anyone out, he was throwing decent to exceptionally good major league pitches. Tipping has to be considered a possibility here.

I believe he may have suspected as much, as he showed an unusual aversion to throwing his best pitch at a time when his best pitch was even better than usual by QOPA.

If so, release point might be a part of it. The charts above show that in the July time frame Devenski’s horizontal release point on the change was +0.25, and the release on the fastball was 0.0, a .25 difference. That’s about three inches. Earlier in the year the difference was 0.18. For his career the difference was only 0.10. I don’t know for sure if these differences are significant enough to constitute tipping, but perhaps there is a high level pitching coach in the readership who can answer this question.

But after returning from the Minors there was a radical change in horizontal release (see graph above), with all the pitches coming from a range of -0.25 (FB) to -.12 (CH). These negative release points had occurred before in Devenski’s career but what may be more relevant is that the difference between FB and CH release points had narrowed to their career norm.

Was the purpose of Devenski’s late season hiatus to change his mechanics? Or were these changes made to correct a tipping problem? I leave these questions open for discussion.

However, with his extreme delivery, sending his right leg landing far to the left side of the mound, maybe the most extreme example since Bob Gibson, inconsistency is probably just a part of Devo’s game. He can’t give that up, it’s what puts the spin on the change up, but his delivery has so many moving parts that improvisation mid-pitch seems a part of the Devo package.

Well if it’s good enough for Bob Gibson, its good enough for me. But I sometimes wonder how either one of these guys could manage to ever throw strikes so off balance.

So, was Devo’s problem month just bad luck, natural inconsistency, mechanical glitches, injury or tipping? Or all of the above? I don’t know, but for the most part these are all fixable or temporary. Methinks in 2019 the Sorrow ends.

We are Devo!