Walking off the mound at Busch Stadium after an inning-ending double play, Brewers right-hander Devin Williams was shaking his head, visibly angry with himself.
What could he possibly be angry about? Williams pitched a scoreless fifth inning in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader to preserve Milwaukee’s three-run lead over the Cardinals. He faced the minimum three batters and needed just 10 pitches (seven strikes) to do so. Yet his look of disdain was clear; he was disappointed with how he pitched. That’s how good the 26-year-old Williams has been this season. He did his job, but he didn’t do it well enough.
It makes sense why his standards are so high. Williams has emerged in this extraordinary season, his rookie year, as the best reliever in baseball. In 22 games, Williams has allowed just one earned run over 27 innings (0.33 ERA), and he’s struck out 53 of the 100 batters he’s faced. His signature pitch is his changeup, and it’s easy to see why. Dubbed “The Airbender” by Rob Friedman—better known as The Pitching Ninja for his Twitter account dedicated to breaking down pitchers—the changeup spins like a slider, moves like a screwball and is about as unhittable as a Mariano Rivera cutter. He surely will receive some NL Rookie of the Year votes and could be a dark-horse candidate to win the NL Reliever of the Year award, which has gone to his teammate, lockdown closer Josh Hader, each of the last two seasons.
The Brewers beat the Cardinals, 3–0, in the first game Friday, and lost the nightcap 9-1. Entering play Saturday, Milwaukee trails the Cardinals by two games for the NL Central’s second playoff spot with two games remaining, and is one game behind the Giants for the second wild-card berth.
Williams’s breakout campaign is a big reason why the Brewers are still in postseason contention. He’s served as the indestructible bridge between the rotation and Hader. That’s exactly what Williams did Friday, even if he wasn’t satisfied with his performance. He went back out for the sixth inning, gave up a leadoff single to Harrison Bader and got Kolten Wong to ground into a double play before striking out Tommy Edman on three fastballs. It was the first time all year that he allowed two hits in an outing; they were the seventh and eighth hits against him all season.
“When spring training started I was pretty terrible,” Williams says Thursday afternoon from his St. Louis hotel room. “I mean, I had a 14 ERA in the spring. But, I felt like that was more due to bad luck. Everything was just falling in.”
Any good sorcerer has to learn to control his powers. He was overthrowing his changeup, which he realized was because of a difference between the major-league baseballs and the ones he used in the minors.
So when baseball shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams got to work mastering his signature pitch. He slowed it down and improved his command with it; the first fix to create more movement, the second so he could throw it effectively to both lefties and righties.
“I wasn’t getting the same [rotation] or the same movement profile because it was too hard,” he says. “I was just tinkering with it. It probably would have double the amount of depth on it when I would throw it at 84 than it was when I’d throw it at 88.”
To lower the velocity, he couldn’t just slow his arm down. That would defeat the purpose of a changeup, which moonlights as a fastball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand and approaches home plate. As the batter swings, the Trojan Horse heater reveals itself as an undercover changeup and, if it’s a good one, dives away from the barrel of the bat. Instead, to kill the velocity and maintain deception, Williams doesn’t drive as hard with his legs during his delivery but keeps the same arm speed.
His elite spin comes from the pressure he applies with his fingers as he releases the pitch. His fingertips push the ball as he throws it, and because of his traditional circle-changeup grip, the upper-inside part of the baseball is the last to leave his hand, which naturally turns his palm outward as he snaps his wrist. This forces the pitch to break down and to the side of the pitcher’s throwing hand. The greater the spin, the bigger the break.
The average MLB changeup has a spin rate of 1,767 rpm; Williams’s average is 2,852. Opposing hitters are batting .032 against his changeup, and it has a 61.1% whiff rate. He throws it 52.7% of the time.
“As I've gotten older and as I’ve understood what I’m doing with it more and what I need to do to make it good,” Williams says, “I’ve been able to create even more spin and even increase that at will.
“Sometimes I’ll throw it at [2,500 rpms] if it’s just one I’m trying to throw for a strike, and then if I’m ahead in the count and I’ve got room to play with, I might try and really spin one, and that would be closer to 3,000 rpms. I’m trying to get that sharper movement to make them swing and miss at it.”
Perhaps no single plate appearance encapsulates Williams’s dominance more than what he did in the eighth inning of Milwaukee’s Aug. 25 game against the Reds. With one out and nobody on, Williams baffled Nick Castellanos, who saw three pitches, all changeups, and whiffed at all three of them.
Coming out of his hand, the first pitch looked perfect for Castellanos: low and in and not too fast; the Reds outfielder hacked and caught air. Instead of a below average fastball, the 85.8 mph changeup disappeared below the bat head. The second pitch, initially leaking out over the middle of the plate, burrowed below the zone at nearly the same speed, away from Castellanos’s flailing barrel and into the catcher’s mitt.
He wouldn’t dare throw that pitch again, would he? He would. The third changeup, came in slower but with more spin and located somewhere between the first and second ones. The result was the same.
“I had never used that sequence against him before then,” Williams says, “so he was probably expecting a fastball at some point that at-bat, and he never got it.”
Williams grew up in the St. Louis area, in Hazelwood, Missouri. His family lives about 15 minutes away from the hotel where the Brewers are staying. But, because of the coronavirus, he was not allowed to go home. Sequestered in his hotel room except for when he goes to the stadium, he’s left with little to do but talk on the phone with a reporter 1,000 miles away whom he’s never met before. So it goes in pandemic baseball.
“I was a huge Cardinals fan growing up, honestly,” he says, naming Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols as his two favorite players. “I really liked [Adam] Wainwright, but I wouldn’t say he was my favorite.”
The Brewers selected him out of Hazelwood West High School in the second round of the 2013 MLB draft. He was an 18-year-old starting pitcher with a good fastball who didn’t use his changeup much. He had Tommy John surgery on March 23, 2017 and missed all of that season.
“I was depressed for a while, initially, after I had surgery,” he says. “You get over that and you just have to keep going. It was either that or just let this derail my career.” He credits Brewers rehabilitation coach Scott Schneider, who is also the pitching coach at Phoenix College, for helping him mentally, in addition to all they did for his physical recovery.
Williams was moved to the bullpen at the start of last season and made his MLB debut on Aug. 7. The first home run hit off him came against the Cardinals in his home city on Aug. 19. St. Louis shortstop Paul DeJong crushed a 95.6 mph fastball that took out the “M” in the “Big Mac Land” sign in the left-field stands.
“I told everyone, ‘You’re welcome for the free Big Mac,’” Williams told reporters the next day, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, referring to the McDonald’s giveaway when someone hits the sign.
He finished with a 3.95 ERA in 13 games with the Brewers. What a difference a year makes. Now, among qualified relievers, Williams leads the majors in ERA (0.33), batting average against (0.089), strikeouts (53) and strikeouts per nine innings (17.67).
When asked what he’s learned about himself this season, he said: “I can be as good as anyone in this league if I just believe in my abilities. I think I got the stuff to pitch in this league for a long time.
“Hopefully, I will.”