After injuries forced the Milwaukee Brewers to go with a ‘depth over impact’ type of approach at the trade deadline, the front office decided to extend an opportunity to a couple of homegrown prospects who were having loud seasons in the minor leagues. On the offensive side was Trent Grisham, who was called up on the first day of August. A few days later, right-handed pitcher Devin Williams received his first call to The Show. Williams made his MLB debut on August 7th, tossing 1.2 innings to finish a blowout victory over the Pirates.
The road to the big leagues was not a smooth one for Williams, who was Milwaukee’s highest selection in the 2013 Draft. Chosen 54th overall after the Brewers gave up their first round pick by signing Kyle Lohse, Williams immediately found his name listed alongside the organization’s top prospects. But the prep pitcher was slow to develop; he didn’t make full season ball until his third professional season in 2015, then spent almost two full seasons in the Midwest League before a late-season promotion to Class A-Advanced in 2016. Then disaster struck in the form of a blown elbow in Spring Training 2017. Williams underwent Tommy John surgery and missed that entire year, not returning to action until June 2018. He pitched a series of short starts last summer as he worked his way back to full strength and perhaps predictably, put up poor results.
This year, in advance of his age-24 season, the decision was made to convert Devin to a full-time reliever in an effort to fast-track his advancement to the big leagues. In no time, the right-hander looked in his element. He sliced through Southern League hitters like a knife through butter, logging 53.1 innings across 31 appearances with 76 strikeouts versus 29 walks. The led to a short stint in Triple-A, which lasted only three appearances and 3.2 scoreless innings with six punchouts. Now, it looks like he’ll get extended opportunity to pitch for a big league contender down the stretch.
The transition to relief fueled Devin Williams’ meteoric rise up prospect lists, an appearance in this year’s All-Star Futures Game, and a rapid ascension to the game’s highest level. So, what can we expect from the high-octane hurler going forward?
Williams was drafted with one of those “projectable” frames that scouts love to dream on, a tall (6’3”) skinny kid (165 lbs) with plenty of room to add muscle and good weight. He didn’t fill out much during the early portion of his career, but he was able to use his time away from the mound rehabbing to add more muscle to his frame and his listed weight ought to be updated for next year’s media guide. The added bulk has helped his durability, and the organization believes that he’ll be able to hold up under a regular multi-inning workload.
HIGHLIGHTS: Take a look back at all of today's action! #Brewers prospect Drew Rasmussen makes his Double-A debut, Devin Williams tosses three scoreless frames & Bruce Caldwell delivers the game-deciding swing!— Biloxi Shuckers (@BiloxiShuckers) May 8, 2019
Our Shucklights of the Game ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/GHxOe4e09b
On the mound, Williams pitches primarily out of the stretch and begins his delivery with a slow leg kick that leads into his stride as he increases his forward momentum. He briefly hides the ball behind his knee before delivering from a very high three-quarters arm slot that borders on over-the-top. The extension he generates helps add another mile-and-a-half of perceived velocity to his fastball, making it even more difficult for hitters to deal with his powerful arsenal.
Since returning from surgery and getting the chance to go all-out in shorter relief appearances, Williams has seen his heater go from a low-90s offering to one that sits in the 95-98 MPH range. The pitch has even burnt up radar guns in the triple-digits at times this season, and then add another mile or two of perceived velocity on top of that. He isn’t afraid to challenge hitters ‘up’ in the strike zone with it, either. Devin’s changeup has evolved into his best secondary offering. He makes it difficult to distinguish from his fastball out of the hand, but it typically comes in at about a dozen MPH or so slower than his average heater. The pitch gets plenty of downward movement and tails away from left-handed batters with late movement, giving it almost screwball-like action. Williams also throws a slider in the mid-to-upper 80s that has been scouted as an above-average pitch throughout his career but isn’t one that he uses frequently these days. Devin has had difficulty filling up the strike zone in the past and those concerns don’t appear to have subsided as he walked nearly 5 batters per nine innings with the Shuckers this year.
Williams’ early results in the minor leagues can be mostly disregarded at this point, since they were accrued while he was pitching as a starter or in a long-relief tandem. He tallied a 3.79 ERA and 3.70 FIP in 287.2 innings from 2013-16, punching out roughly a batter-per-inning (9.02 K/9) while walking 10% of opposing batters that he faced (3.88 BB/9). His best season came as a 20 year old in 2015 with the Timber Rattlers, as he worked to a 3.44 ERA and 80 DRA- in 89.0 innings pitched. But after blowing out his elbow and returning to the mound last year, he struggled mightily while opening games for the Carolina Mudcats. His 14 “starts” were probably more indicative of the org’s desire to closely manage his workload than to continue developing him as a rotational option, as he only worked a max of 3.1 innings and never threw more than 58 pitches in a single outing. His ugly 5.82 ERA was accompanied by an equally grody 133 DRA- in 34.0 innings pitched.
As mentioned earlier, though, Williams has looked flat-out dominant while pitching as a multi-inning fireman out of the bullpen in 2019. Combining his work at Double-A and Triple-A adds up to 57.0 innings of 2.21 ERA baseball with 12.9 K/9, 5.7 H/9, and a .175 batting average against. His 4.7 BB/9 rate, though, contributed significantly to his 1.158 WHIP. Williams worked multiple frames 21 times in 34 outings before tossing 1.2 innings in his big league debut. Because he relies on a changeup as his primary off-speed pitch, Williams has decimated left-handed hitters this season, holding them to a .487 OPS in the minor leagues. Righties have hit him a little bit better, but a .614 OPS allowed is still pretty terrific.
Williams’ improved stuff and outstanding performance helped him shoot up the top prospect lists this year, going from unranked to #14 in the org according to MLB Pipeline and #27 overall per Baseball America. His fringey command could lead to consistency issues against MLB hitters, and he doesn’t figure to be able to maintain the 0.5 HR/9 mark that he’s produced as a minor leaguer in the current juiced ball environment of the big leagues. But if Williams can maintain his stuff and take another step forward with his control/command, even if only a modest one, it isn’t hard to envision him at his best becoming something along the lines of a right-handed, multi-inning complement to Josh Hader. Devin Williams figures to get the opportunity to pitch in some high-leverage spots before too long, and how well he handles those chances will determine if he can eventually be counted on as a late-inning weapon for the Cream City Nine. But if he cannot overcome his strike-throwing troubles, the greater the chances are that he ends up as just another talented but ultimately underwhelming arm along the lines of Jacob Barnes or Taylor Williams.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant