I had never heard of Chris Devenski until this year. There may be a lot of baseball fans who still don't know who he is. In order to catch you up to speed here is what you need to know:
--He was a 25th round pick by the White Sox in 2011 who was traded to the Astros a year later as the "player to be named later" in the Bretty Myers deal.
--He reached the majors as a 25-year-old in 2016 and finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. His 2.16 ERA led all AL pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.
--Devenski made 48 appearances last season, which included five as a starter. Once he became a full time reliever in the second half he threw 49 2/3 innings and struck out 57 with a sub 2.00 ERA.
Basically he's a pretty good reliever. So what? There's plenty of those in the majors these days. That's true, except Devenski isn't your typical relief pitcher - at least not the way he's being used right now by Astros manager A.J. Hinch. I want to call him the next Andrew Miller but even that isn't a perfect comparison. Here's Devenski's game log so far in 2017. Notice how many innings he's pitched in each appearance:
The Astros are a very analytically oriented club so they are subscribing to the theory of using your best relievers in the game's biggest spots regardless of the inning. And whether or not you buy in to advanced stats the thought process is hard to argue with.
So this begs the question - when should baseball teams use their best relief pitcher? Traditionalists will tell you to save him for the ninth inning since those are "the three toughest outs to get". In a sense this is true. The final three outs of a ball game are when every batter is locked in and all the fans/media are watching closely. But what if the opposing team has their 7-8-9 hitters coming up to bat in the ninth and you have a three run lead? Is it worth using your best reliever in this spot? If it's a must win game, sure, but we don't want to fall into the trap of having to use your best bullpen arm in the ninth just because it's the way we've always done it.
I'm going to use my favorite team, the Red Sox, as an example here. Let's say it's the eighth inning and the Sox have a one run lead against the Orioles. Coming up to bat is the heart of their order including Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Mark Trumbo. Should Boston use their perfectly fine set up man Matt Barnes, or their dominant "closer" Craig Kimbrel? Traditional baseball wisdom would have you use the set up man since it's the eighth inning, but that would mean Barnes would pitch against the Orioles' best hitters while (assuming all went well) Kimbrel would get the bottom of the order. That doesn't make sense. If Kimbrel is Boston's best reliever, and if in this particular game the eighth inning happens to be the highest leverage spot, shouldn't the Red Sox use him then?
Of course, not every example is going to be that cut and dry. The point is not just to use your best arm against the opponents best bats. The point is that teams should be open to thinking differently when it comes to bullpen usage. But each team is different. Some have three great relievers while others only have one. Part of what makes the Indians so dangerous is they can use Andrew Miller in the earlier innings and still hand the ball off to a dominant Cody Allen in the ninth. During the first few weeks of 2017 Houston appears to have a similar luxury, with Ken Giles typically handling the ninth while Devenski filling in wherever he's needed.
All this bullpen usage theory has gotten me away from celebrating the great Devenski. Through 13 1/3 innings he has a 1.35 ERA with 25 strikeouts and just one walk. Essentially the Astros are using him the way the Indians used Andrew miller last post-season. They'll bring him in to pitch in high leverage situations (whether it's the fourth inning or eighth inning) and they'll ride him for multiple innings. The only difference is that Devenski was a starter so recently that he can go four innings on a day if need be. Right now he is on pace to throw around 120 innings out the bullpen, which is very out of the norm for relief pitchers. But that's why Chris Devenski isn't your typical reliever. He's Andrew Miller on steroids.