For most of modern baseball history, a relief pitcher needed to be a closer to have a chance at winning a major award.
Only nine relievers have ever won a Cy Young Award. All were closers.
Since the Rookie of the Year Award was established, 10 of the 11 relievers to win the award were their team’s primary closer. The lone exception, Scott Williamson with the 1999 Reds, still had 19 saves.
And since the conception of the Reliever of the Year Award in 1976, 87 of the 88 winners—44 in each league—were closers.
Devin Williams is not a closer. And yet, in perhaps the greatest testament to his dominance this season, the Brewers righthander is firmly in the race for both NL Rookie of the Year and NL Reliever of the Year.
Williams, 26, has been arguably baseball’s best reliever this season as the Brewers setup man for Josh Hader. Through Wednesday, Williams had a 0.36 ERA with 52 strikeouts and nine walks in 25 innings. He has struck out 55% of the batters he’s faced, highest among all pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched this season, and has allowed only six hits and one earned run all year.
For a non-closer to even be in contention for Rookie of the Year or Reliever of Year, they have to be extraordinary. Williams has met that threshold, and then some.
“I came in expecting to pitch well,” Williams said, “but I would be lying if I thought I’d be doing this right now.”
Williams’ changeup is at the heart of his success. A mid 80s, tight-spinning, late-dropping Frankenstein of a pitch, Williams has thrown his changeup 218 times this season, according to Statcast, and allowed only one hit off of it. Batters have swung and missed at it 69 times, per Statcast, nearly a third of the time he’s thrown it.
Williams’ changeup was not created in a high-tech workout facility or under the tutelage of a famous coach, but on the youth fields of St. Louis where he grew up. The Brewers drafted Williams in the second round in 2013 out of Hazelwood (Mo.) West High on the strength of his easy velocity and athletic frame, as well as the “fading, sinking changeup (that) can throw hitters off balance” his draft report noted.
“It kind of stemmed from just messing around with my friends as a kid, probably since I was 10 or 11 years old, throwing a pitch that would kind of trick them,” he said. “It looked like a fastball and then it darted the other way.”
As fate would have it, those same youth fields in his hometown are where Williams would take his changeup to another level.
Williams made his major league debut last season and pitched to a 3.95 ERA in 13 appearances. His changeup was an effective pitch, but not an overly dominant one. He quickly diagnosed why.
“I was overthrowing it whenever I got up to the big leagues,” Williams said. “In the minors I’d throw it around 84-85 (mph) pretty consistently. Then up here it was upper 80s, getting close to 90, and I noticed that it wasn’t having that same depth on it, that same movement. There were a few that got hit pretty hard last year, so I was kind of looking at that this offseason and then really into quarantine.”
When spring training shut down in March, Williams returned home to St. Louis. There, he and a group of minor leaguers and college players who lived in the area met 1-2 times a week at various fields around the city, mostly at Vianney High School, to take live batting practice and scrimmage.
During those live BPs, Williams found the changeup feel he was looking for.
“(I was) just throwing it against guys in lives and seeing how slow I could throw it while creating that movement also,” Williams said. “Sometimes I would try and throw it like 70 just to play around with it and keep that feel. That low 80s, 82-84, is right where I want it.”
When Williams reported to summer camp in July, he quickly noticed batters were reacting differently to his changeup. By the time the season started, he had it exactly where he wanted it.
Williams’ changeup averaged 86 mph last year, according to Statcast. This year, it’s averaging 84 mph.
With the additional movement generated at the lower velocity, combined with the added separation from his 96-97 mph fastball, it has transformed into one of baseball’s most unique and dominant pitches.
“What’s impressive is the different heights he can throw it at and the hitter’s reactions to it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Generally a changeup up is seen as a bad pitch. I mean, he’s got a ton of takes on changeups up because it almost feels like it starts at a lefthanded hitter and then goes back into the zone. That pitch to a righthander has been fouled off a bunch but pulled way foul, like not even close to field of play.
“Hitters’ reactions to it have been unique, and I think that’s when the buzz gets started about somebody’s pitch.”
That Williams is here, in awards contention with one of baseball’s most dominant pitches, seemed unlikely just two years ago.
Williams failed to get past the Class A levels in his first four seasons and then had Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire 2017 season. When he returned in 2018, he went 0-3, 5.82 in 14 starts at high Class A Carolina.
At the end of that season, Williams was a 23-year-old who had yet to get out of Class A ball. He openly began to wonder if it was time to leave baseball behind.
“I was going home after the ’18 season and I didn’t even want to go to instructs, honestly,” he said. “I was thinking about just finding a different career path.”
What kept him going, more than anything else, was pride.
“I never quit anything in my life,” Williams said. “I never would have been able to live with it if I had quit.”
For both Williams and the Brewers, it’s a good thing he didn’t. He began his upswing in 2019 with a move to the bullpen at Double-A Biloxi, made the Futures Game and was in the majors by August.
Now, he’s one of baseball’s most unhittable pitchers. Batters are hitting .072 off of him this season, lowest among any pitcher with at least 20 innings pitched.
“Not only has his stuff been good, and we’ve kind of talked about his changeup, but it also means you’re throwing pitches in places where hitters can’t hit it,” Counsell said. “He’s not making mistakes with his fastball, he’s not making mistakes with that changeup, so there’s also the execution of the pitches that I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for. He’s kind of getting credit for this great stuff and this unbelievable changeup and 97, but the execution has been absolutely brilliant as well.”
Williams will be challenged to win NL Rookie of the Year with Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth and Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm playing every day and Dodgers righthanders Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin throwing more innings as starters.
The NL Reliever of the Year award is more likely, but he still faces competition from Padres lefthander Drew Pomeranz (19 scoreless appearances).
Williams has four more days to make his case. If he can, he’ll join the short list of relievers to win a major award despite not being his team’s primary closer.
“Now that we’re here, it’s so close I feel like it’s attainable,” he said. “I’m just trying to continue doing what I’m doing. Just keep pitching the way that I have been and hopefully enough people will notice.”