Devin Williams’ 2022 season has not gotten off to a great start. In six games, the Brewers setup man has allowed four runs in 4 1⁄3 innings for an 8.31 ERA. While he has been credited with a hold in each of his appearances, Craig Counsell has twice had to remove him before completing a full inning to avoid blowing a late lead. Williams nearly coughed up a lead in Wednesday’s 4-2 win over the Pirates, allowing both of Brent Suter’s inherited runners to score before escaping the inning.
While diminished fastball velocity has also been a concern, walks have been the changeup specialist’s Achilles’ heel. Williams has faced 27 batters so far in the young season and issued a free pass to seven of them. In particular, he has struggled to land his changeup for a strike. In 2021, 44% of his changeups were in the strike zone. That number has dropped to 37% to start this season.
Missing low with his changeup has been a theme for Williams. He has thrown many of his changeups well below the zone, including plenty in the dirt.
An effective changeup starts at the bottom of the zone before diving out and away from the hitter. That is especially true in Williams’ case. However, many of his changeups are not even starting in the strike zone and are therefore failing to tempt hitters. The chase rate against his changeup is down from 42% to 35%.
These control problems can be traced back to an issue with Williams’ release extension. He is releasing the ball noticeably closer to home plate than he has in the past, including when he throws his changeup.
Williams has always had a long stride. Last season, his average release extension was 7.0 feet in front of the rubber, which was the 39th-highest among all pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches. This year, it is up to 7.3 feet, which is currently tied for second. The release extension of Williams’ changeup has jumped from 6.8 to 7.1 feet.
Given that he already had above-average extension and has been one of baseball’s best relievers for the past two seasons, it seems unlikely this is a conscious change.
Pitching features many moving parts, so unknowingly releasing the ball four inches closer to the plate—and four inches farther down the slope of the mound—can easily lead to command problems. A longer extension indicates that Williams may be striding out too far during his delivery. If that is the case, it can lead to a host of other mechanical issues.
Williams provided some hope of getting back on track when he threw eight of 11 pitches for strikes in a perfect inning in the second game of the Pirates series on Tuesday. In that outing, his average release extension when throwing his changeup was back to 6.8 feet. He only threw four of them, but he landed one on the outside corner, one at the bottom of the zone, and none in the dirt.
It appears Williams is fighting a minor mechanical issue to begin his season, but his track record inspires confidence that he will get it sorted out. The movement on his changeup remains sharp as ever, which is arguably most important at this time of the year. If his extension is the problem, it will not be difficult to fix. Better results are on the horizon.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Baseball Savant.