Once upon a time, Chris Devenski was a bona fide relief ace and fan favorite in the Astros bullpen. In 2016, the former 25th round pick posted a staggering 2.7 fWAR in 108.1 innings (48 games, 5 starts), often throwing in multi-inning stints out of the pen. He showed an ability to both limit walks and hard contact, and was an unbelievably valuable weapon for A.J. Hinch, at times perhaps his most trusted stopper.
The following year, he looked to be poised to take yet another step forward. He began to pitch exclusively as a reliever, and was suddenly missing more bats. For the first 3 months of the 2017 season, he was perhaps as good as he has been at any point in his career. His walk rate had jumped a bit, disconcertingly, but that was offset by the added strikeouts. He allowed four homers in 48.1 innings through the end of June- a higher rate than in 2016, but still very solid, and looked poised to maintain a late inning role for Houston for the foreseeable future.
This is where things began to go off the rails. Our own Cody Poage investigated what went wrong in a Community Research article on FanGraphs this June, which does a great job of breaking down how Devenski’s profile began to unravel gradually. In short, his command has taken a step back, and his changeup, once his signature weapon, has lost effectiveness. Though still capable of generating swings and misses, his change has more frequently resulted in hard contact in recent history. Per Cody’s findings, the results took a hard turn for Devo in mid-July 2017, and he’s been unable to return to his previous level of performance since. While my prevailing memory of Devenski’s 2017 will always be his clutch strikeout of Yasiel Puig with two outs and runners on in Game 7 of the World Series, at that point his best stuff had already left him.
Despite the struggles, the Astros have stood by their man throughout 2018 and 2019, a stretch over which he has been worth a total of 0.1 fWAR. While Devenski is still just 28, it’s fair to wonder if his heavy workloads over 2016 and 2017 have sapped him of his best stuff permanently. Given his mediocrity over the last 27 months, the Astros opted to leave him off of their ALDS and ALCS rosters this year, to the surprise of few. However, this morning, the team’s World Series roster was announced, and Devenski’s name was present. This struck many as a perplexing call- while few argued with the decision to remove Wade Miley after the ALDS, Devenski wasn’t a common suggestion for his replacement, which ended up being Bryan Abreu.
Abreu ended up making just one playoff appearance, following up his outstanding September. He came in for the 9th inning of Game 1, with the Astros trailing 5-0, and promptly allowed four baserunners in 0.2 innings, two of whom ended up scoring before Hector Rondon mopped things up. This was by far the biggest spot Abreu had ever pitched in. Not only did he have just 8.2 regular season innings in the Majors- he finished the 2018 season in High-A ball. He’s frequently lauded for his raw stuff, considered second best in the system to Forrest Whitley, and has made considerable strides over the last two seasons. That said, his command still needs to be sharpened a bit before he’s ready to contribute to his potential at the big league level, as the pitch-to-pitch consistency with regards to location is still lacking.
Command issues tend to be magnified in the postseason, where the league’s best squads are facing off and inefficient approaches are less common. Pressure is a real factor in these games, and experience is valuable. If that weren’t true, Josh Reddick likely wouldn’t be playing very much right now. The Astros’ front office is surely as excited as anyone about Abreu’s late season performance, and he’ll figure heavily into their long term plans, but the World Series is the game’s biggest stage, and it’s hard to trust a rookie with a single digit career innings total and a reputation for wobbly command in such a situation. Devenski, even after his summer of 2017 collapse, has shown that he won’t be intimidated by the moment. I’m guessing that’s what earned him the final spot in the end.