Investigating the Struggles of Chris Devenski

Simply put, Chris Devenski has not pitched well in 2019. He’s currently sporting a 4.60 ERA and 4.59 FIP in 31 1/3 innings this season. It is also unfortunately a continuation of his struggles from last season. Do I even dare say it is going back to the second half of 2017? For a pitcher who was considered a key cog in the Astros’ bullpen only two years ago, the decline has been sharp for Devenski.

We’ve witnessed Devenski’s ERA noticeably worsen every season since his major league debut in 2016. In his rookie season with the Astros, we saw the former White Sox farmhand post a 2.16 ERA in 108 1/3 innings. He also finished fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting that year. The right-hander then made his first All-Star Game in 2017, which culminated with a 2.68 ERA in 80 2/3 innings and a World Series championship ring. If there were any warning signs with the right-hander in 2017, it was the roughly 10% jump in home run per fly ball rate. Devenski was still a quality reliever, however, in only his second season in the majors. Fast forward to 2018 and we saw more issues begin to emerge.

In addition to his ERA (4.18) and FIP (4.49) noticeably rising, Devenski’s hard hit rate experienced a spike from 28.2% in the previous season to 33.3% in 2018. His strikeouts and ground-ball rate were also down while fly balls went up. More of the same trend applies this season, where his results still remain far from optimal. The hard hit rate, for example, has taken another extreme jump in 2019 to 42% , a nearly nine-point increase from last season. Hitters are posting an average exit velocity of roughly three miles per hour faster than last year. Combined with the gradual climb in fly balls, which can lead to more home runs, the trends around Devenski have to be disconcerting.

Even his most notable pitch, the changeup, has taken a hit in its effectiveness over the last couple of seasons.

Changeup wOBA, 2016-19

  • 2016: .214
  • 2017: .207
  • 2018: .231
  • 2019: .256

For example, against the Brewers on June 11th, Devenski struck out Christian Yelich, Ben Gamel, and Eric Thames, all on changeups. However, he surrendered a three-run homer to Yasmani Grandal via a changeup. In a more recent performance against the Yankees on June 23rd, Devenski got Luke Voit called out on strikes and Aaron Judge to ground out softly to third base, again on changeups. Before those events, however, DJ LeMahieu took a changeup deep to right-center field for a triple. It is debatable, in my opinion, whether outfielder Jake Marisnick should’ve been charged with an error on the play, but LeMahieu did hit the ball hard as it had a measured exit velocity of 98.3 mph. In short, Devenski’s changeup still generates outs, yet it isn’t quite as effective as it was in the past.

From a results perspective, Devenski’s struggles have been going on for a while. When viewing his game logs, I did notice one game that may have signaled the beginning of this rather surprising decline: July 8th, 2017, against the Blue Jays in Toronto. In this particular affair, Devenski surrendered four runs on three hits and a walk. An RBI double by Josh Donaldson and a three-run home run by Troy Tulowitzki were the source of bleeding for the Astros on that day. I decided to use this game as an arbitrary cutoff point to see how Devenski performed before and after. The results are telling.

From 4/8/16 – 7/7/17:

160 IP, 2.14 ERA, 2.29 FIP, 9.90 K/9, 1.86 BB/9, 0.45 HR/9

From 7/8/17 – 6/26/19:

107 2/3 IP, 4.18 ERA, 4.88 FIP, 9.53 K/9, 3.01 BB/9, 1.84 HR/9

Well, yikes. The difference is glaring. I am not going to state anything substantive about that one game in Toronto when Devenski was so-called “broken,” but the results haven’t been kind. The 2017 postseason, in particular, was rough for not only him but the entire Astros’ bullpen. In fact, Devenski was left off the postseason roster entirely in 2018.

The struggles have been real for “The Dragon.” The numbers above do indicate that Devenski’s control has also taken a noticeable hit in recent seasons. In addition to the hike in walks, we can also see how many pitches the right-hander has thrown in the strike zone, which is another indicator of a pitcher’s control.

Again, yikes. Devenski has thrown less and less pitches in the strike zone in every season since his major league debut. To his credit, the right-hander’s zone rate in 2019 (43%) is currently above league average (42%), which could represent a step in the right direction when compared to last season. In all fairness, the league-average zone rate has also gradually declined in the past couple of seasons. But the lack of control is another reason why we’ve seen Devenski’s role in Houston lessen since the start of the 2018 season. Combine this information with the fact that hitters are really stinging the ball against him, and it is no wonder why Houston has avoided using him in very many high-leverage situations (eight totals batters faced) this season.

In theory, the Astros could use one of Devenski’s remaining three options to give him time to iron out any issues at Round Rock, the club’s Triple-A affiliate. He’s already low on the depth chart, so why not? There are various internal options on the farm along with the pending return of Joe Smith sometime following the All-Star break. It may be time to give Devenski a reset in a place where he can regularly pitch to work out the kinks in his game.

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Operation Shutdown

Interesting stuff, yeah Devinski has a number of notable splits this year. He seems to be struggling from the stretch (batters have a 1.323 OPS against with RISP, .665 with bases empty), and is excellent against the first batter faced (.133 OPS against), but has had issues finishing innings (1.010 OPS against with 2 outs, vs .702 and .655 with 0 and 1 out, respectively).