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Taking another look at Chris Devenski’s ongoing struggles

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Once a valuable reliever for the Astros earlier in his career, Chris Devenski’s ongoing issues continue to confound.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

What could one say about Chris Devenski, the baseball player? Well, he’s currently sporting a 5.25 ERA and 4.76 FIP in 60 innings this season. That’s not optimal in the slightest. As detailed thoroughly here by bilbos last offseason, the right-hander’s performance has gradually deteriorated over the past couple of years. I also wrote about Devenski’s decline earlier this season in a FanGraphs community blog post here before I joined TCB.

Even though there is already a lot of information on the subject, there remains plenty of information to sift through when it comes to the right-hander. Here are some metrics to provide a quick snapshot into this worsening downturn. Devesnki’s hard hit, for example, has climbed from 28 percent in 2017 to 43 percent this season. For any pitcher, that is a rather precarious situation.

His strikeout-to-walk ratio continues to worsen with each passing season from 5.2 in 2016 to 3.3 this season. Sure, Devenski won’t ever be known for high strikeout totals, but the rising walk rate is a pause for concern.

And the home run per nine rate has skyrocketed from 0.3 in 2016 to 1.8 this season. The juiced ball is one notable explanation behind this specific rate increase, but that is still quite the climb. Simply put, there are other factors in play besides the juiced ball for Devenski.

While it is also clear that the twenty-eight year old is trying something different this season when it comes to release points, the results are trending in the wrong direction.

Even the aptly named, at least at the time, “Circle of Death” is no longer inspiring fear from opposing hitters. As of this writing, hitters have a collective .284 wOBA against Devenski’s changeup, In his first season back in 2016, hitters only had a measly .214 wOBA against his changeup. But here’s a pitcher who bursted onto the scene with a robust 2.38 ERA in his first 189 major league innings, then followed it up with a 4.78 ERA in his next 107 13 innings. There is something obviously amiss.

Let’s look a situation from the past that may shed some light on today’s predicament. Francisco Lindor’s home run off of Devenski way back in April 2017, unknown at the time, now looks like an ill omen of things to come for the Astros’ reliever. Even the comments following that home run to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, with the benefit of hindsight, makes it sound like hitters have gradually adjusted to know what to look for when Devenski is on the mound. For context, Lindor did line out via a changeup in his first at-bat against Devenski that game. But he wasn’t fooled the second time around when he homered off the pitch thrown in an eerily similar location.

“Seeing it on video and stepping into the box is completely different,” Lindor said. “The first time I faced him, I saw for the first time this year the changeup that he’s throwing, and the fastballs. You get an idea of what the pitch is going to do, and then you go off that.”

But let’s not get distracted solely by the changeup, although it is Devenski’s infamous pitch. In fact, more of the right-hander’s issues seem to be rooted in his four-seam fastball. Here is his wOBA allowed per season since 2016 via a four-seam fastball, which he has used 43.7 percent of the time in this current campaign:

  • 2016 - .304
  • 2017 - .314
  • 2018 - .374
  • 2019 - .437

Those are not inspiring numbers, especially once you find out that 54.7 percent of all Devenski’s base hits occur when he throws a four-seamer. Out of the thirty-five total base hits via a four-seamer, twenty-eight have come in either even or behind in count (pitcher) situations. It is when Devenski tries to get a strike to help improve the counts to his favor is when he gets in trouble. Let’s take a look at his four-seam heatmap when he is ahead in the count and either behind or even.

It is universally known pitchers produce better numbers when they are ahead in the count. Devenski is no different in this regard, but we can’t discount the issue that he is pitching himself into a fair bit of trouble. In fact, he finds himself throwing in behind the count situations (pitcher) 24 percent of the time this season. The league average for a reliever in 2019 is 11.5 percent.

If hitters, like in Lindor’s case back in early 2017, were starting to pick on certain tendencies, then they probably realized that Devenski prefers to throw his four-seam fastball high while burying his changeup low in the zone. Sure, his slider is the wild card, but the right-hander only throws it 2.1 percent when he is behind in the count. If he attempted to throw a higher frequency of sliders in those counts, he would risk hanging one in the strike zone. And no one, minus the hitter, would want to see that. Opposing hitters are really just waiting for a fastball, which they’ll lay off if it is too high, or that changeup low in the zone. And the home run Lindor hit back in 2017 was in a 2-0 count on a changeup low in the zone.

One could argue that Devenski was a ticking time bomb when trailing in counts. In his first two seasons, 2016 and 2017, he allowed a combined .357 wOBA when behind in the count (pitcher) situations. The league average for a reliever, during the same time period, was .422. Fast forward to 2018 and 2019, Devenski’s wOBA when trailing in counts has jumped to .467. While there is likely far more behind his overall struggles, Devenski appears to have been lucky to a degree in past seasons. It would also partly explain why his BABIP has jumped from .220 in 2017 to .317 in 2019.

Right now, I am not sure there is a quick way to fix Devenski in the immediate future. What we’ve seen is probably what we’ll get for the rest of the season. There is most likely more to his struggles beyond what I just mentioned above, however, it seems as any issues (mechanics, pitch tipping, release points, location) will require a longer investigative look in the offseason.