Devin Williams Is Here To Strike You Out

I like Devin Williams. Devin Williams does not like opposing batters.

There are plenty of monikers that can apply to Williams. Jake Mailhot of Fangraphs dubbed him a Unicorn. He’s no Aang, but PitchingNinja’s nickname of Airbender fits him pretty well.

Me? I call him a mystery. A puzzler that Fenton Hardy can’t even solve. He’s unique, a late-bloomer that represents a breath of fresh air in a league that sports a plethora of fastball-slider heavy relievers.

Williams debuted with the Brewers last season, and although his 3.95 ERA/4.82 FIP didn’t warrant much hype, his brief cup-of-coffee was impressive enough that he entered Spring Training 1.0 in the mix for a spot in the Brewers’ relief corps.

During an abbreviated Spring Training 1.0, Williams posted a 14.40 ERA, but made an impression on the Brewers’ higher-ups, earning a spot on the the team’s Opening Day roster. Because of his prospect pedigree, or lack thereof, Williams’ roster addition didn’t turn too many heads at the time.

In his first five outings, Williams came on with an average leverage index of 1.03 and posted a 1.69 ERA. But then something happened during his outing on August 11th, something that would forever change his career.

On August 11th, he struck out Byron Buxton on a nasty changeup. This pitch had a ton of arm-side tumble and finished an inch away from Byron Buxton’s buttocks. (try saying that 10x fast). It was nasty, it was unhittable, and, thanks to the influence of PitchingNinja, it introduced the world to Devin Williams.

Since that tweet, he’s become a viral sensation on Twitter, in addition to becoming one of Craig Counsell’s most trusted arms.

His success (and online popularity) can be attributed to his duple arsenal, a duo of deliveries that cause grown men to bow down on their knees to Williams and revel him as a God.

Williams is a worthy recipient of that distinction. After all, in the game of baseball, he truly is a God among men. A man among boys. A high-school hurler facing elementary kids.

In 21 relief appearances this season, Williams has run up a 0.39 ERA, a 0.84 FIP, and a 1.11 SIERA. Among pitchers with 20+ innings, his wCH (weighted change-up runs) ranks first in the Majors, leading San Diego’s Zach Davies by a hefty 3.7 Runs. As of September 22nd, he’s racked up 52 strikeouts, which equates to a historically-good 54.0% strikeout percentage.

His Baseball Savant page *chef’s kiss*

Many pitchers rely on their fastball, opting to throw it the majority of the time. Williams isn’t like those other girls, he’s different. He prioritizes his changeup, then his fastball. And for good reason. His fastball is the weakest part of the duo.

As we can see in BaseballCloud’s BallR visualization, his 4S fastball has a spin direction of 222.7˚ and rotates at 2369 rpm, resulting in an outstanding 99% spin efficiency.

Results-wise, his fastball has produced a .322 wOBA, a .341 xwOBA, and a 39.7 whiff rate this season. Although it doesn’t puzzle batters the way his changeup does, it does well to set the changeup up. (Wordplay unintended)

A couple weeks ago, Friedman gifted us with an overlay showing the effectiveness of Williams’ two offerings.

BaseballCloud brought me abroad to write a whole lot of words about baseball this fall. When I can’t find the words to accurately describe a pitch, that’s when you know it’s a good pitch.

Meanwhile, his changeup has emerged as one of the more unforgiving offerings in the game. It’s his most-used delivery, and for good reason, its results are off-the-charts.

Williams has thrown the pitch 203 times in 2020. Out of those 203 times, hitters have made contact with the pitch 18 times. Out of those 18 BBEs, only one batter (Kolten Wong) has tallied a base hit.

BallR shows us the orientation of his change-up.

The pitch has produced as expected. Williams has recorded a 61.0% Whiff rate and 52.1% PutAway rate with it. When hitters do make contact, it’s pretty weak, as evident by the 77 mph average exit velocity against.

This pitch is the key to Williams’ success. Without it in his repertoire, he might be a run-of-the-mill reliever, one with some upside, but rather a player that could fall into obscurity.

But with it, he’s baseball’s equivalent of Superman, Homelander, and Captain America rolled into one.

The pitch is thrown with a significant amount of side-spin, which contributes to its fantastic movement profile.

MLB.com’s David Adler recently profiled the ridiculousness of the pitch. To recap, its horizontal and vertical movement on the pitch are both among the tops in the Majors. Adjusted for velocity, its horizontal movement ranks first in the big-leagues, while its vertical movement places him in fifth.

With all chatter Williams’ success has drummed, there’s bound to be some controversy. In this case, the drama involves the classification of his change-up.

The issue with Williams’ changeup is that, well, it’s not really a changeup.

I’m not willing to take this argument to the pitcher himself, mainly because I’m sure a 6’2″, 200-pound pitcher can easily deck this 130-pound college junior, but still, it might be a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the sake of this argument.

As many pundits have pointed out on Twitter, Williams’ spin rate on his changeup is exceptionally high. Its spin rate is easily in the best among changeups in the Majors this season. Pitchers have averaged 1769 rpm on their changeups in 2020; Williams rotates his changeup at 2849 times per minute.

Combined with his insane movement profile and his unique arm pronation, his spin rate adds to the theory that his pitch isn’t a changeup. Rather, as others have pointed out, it’s more of a screwball or a “reverse slider”.

Whatever it is, it’s been an amazing asset. The Brewers are currently tied for the final Wild Card spot and Williams is a huge reason they’re not further down in the standings.

Williams has virtually created a brand-new pitch out of his back pocket. Usually, it’s not a move that works out (see: Coello, Robert), but the Brewers are fortunate that the Williams continues to be an anomaly to the rules of baseball.

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Quick Note: BallR’s visualization contains data from the 2019 season.

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