The Greatest Reliever Season Ever
Many legendary names come to mind when you talk about the greatest reliever season ever. Baseball fans may bring up the start of Eric Gagne’s save streak in 2003, where he’d go on to win the Cy Young. Others may bring up Mariano Rivera’s 2005 season, where he placed second in Cy Young voting and 9th in MVP voting. Some may even bring up Edwin Diaz’s dominant 2022 campaign, where his blazing walkout song swept across social media. In the hearts and minds of baseball fans, it’s impossible to pick out just one relief season and call it the greatest ever. That is unless you’re a liar.
Baseball is beautiful in part because of the way we’re able to use statistics to measure and compare players. We can see how fast you are to first base, how strong your arm is from the outfield, and how hard you hit the ball from the box. Statistics are also great because they are irrefutable pieces of fact. Funnily enough, statistics can help us lie too.
ERA+ and OPS+ are statistics that have become more popular in the sabermetric era. ERA+ is calculated by normalizing a player’s ERA across the entire league while keeping track of factors like ballpark differences.
The league average ERA+ is 100, with a higher score indicating performance above league average and vice versa. Because ERA+ is standardized, it is the closest statistic we have to compare player performances across the years.
Gagne’s career-high ERA+ was 337. Rivera’s career-high ERA+ was 316. Edwin Diaz’s 2022 ERA+ was 297. These are very impressive accomplishments, with each pitcher performing more than double the amount of the average pitcher. But what if I told you there was a reliever who pitched to a 1375 ERA+ while winning Rookie of the Year? Statistically speaking, that would certainly be the greatest relief season of all time, right?
Devin Williams of the Milwaukee Brewers pitched to a minuscule .33 ERA in his rookie season. Williams finished the season with an ERA+ of 1375 while winning Rookie of the Year and the Trevor Hoffman reliever award. But the circumstances surrounding these numbers and accolades are highly unusual, resulting in a statistical season that can never be replicated again.
2020 was a strange year for all of us. Businesses sent workers home, schools held classes online, and sports leagues had to reshape their entire schedule.
The MLB may have suffered the worst, with the season being reduced from 162 games to just 60. In retrospect, this reduction in games may have made the game more exciting. The Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics made the postseason while role players like Hyun Jin Ryu and David Fletcher received MVP votes.
Devin Williams also happened to make his debut in 2020. Williams would go on to pitch only twenty-seven innings, allowing eight hits and one earned run throughout the entire season. The reduction in games caused relievers like Williams to pitch an incredibly low amount of innings while still technically playing an entire season. While an ERA+ of 1375 is a fun number to look at, it would be practically impossible to achieve over the course of a full regular season.
While the shortened season helped inflate Williams’ ERA+, does that make this statistical anomaly of a season any less impressive?
While reliever performance often ebbs and flows throughout the years, William’s 2020 campaign was by no means a fluke. Devin Williams followed up his rookie campaign with an excellent 2.50 ERA in 2021 and a 1.93 ERA in 2022. Williams served as the Brewer’s closer in the back half of 2022, racking up a career-high fifteen saves.
This past season, Williams ranked in the 99th percentile in Barrel%, K%, xBA, Avg Exit Velocity, HardHit%, SLG, and Whiff%. Simply put, Williams is one of the most devastating relievers in the game today. And the scariest part is he’s only getting better.
Devin Williams: NL Rookie of the Year! pic.twitter.com/BljOAu2iVc— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) November 9, 2020
The Modern Screwball
The screwball is as rare as it is misunderstood. Legendary screwball pitchers like Fernando Valenzuela would throw the pitch by heavily pronating their arm. While many claim the screwball to be extinct, modern pitchers often pronate their circle change in a similar way. However, this pronation is incredibly difficult and does not usually produce the spin a “reverse curveball” would. Devin Williams’s changeup, however, may be the closest a pitch has ever gotten to being a true screwball.
Williams threw his changeup around 60% of the time in 2022 and gets incredible movement by heavily pronating his wrist. This causes the ball to spin perfectly on its side, almost like a UFO. Williams is able to pronate this pitch so well in fact that his changeup averages a 3:30 spin axis. This means that Williams pronates the ball so much that the ball actually spins like how a lefty curveball would. This unique spin gives Williams’ changeup elite depth, averaging 5.9 inches of drop more than the average major league changeup.
This changeup was even better in 2020. The pitch averaged 8.4 inches of drop with an absurd -13 run value despite only being thrown 227 times. While Williams makes his money on his changeup, his 4-seam fastball has seen considerable improvement over the last few years. Williams throws his fastball with a spin efficiency of 99%, meaning that the ball tends to stay up in the air longer. While Williams’ fastball had only 2% more vertical movement than average, this is a significant increase from his -7% in 2021. While Williams’ vertical fastball movement hovers around league average, the depth he gets on his changeup creates a nearly 30-inch difference between the two.
Like his changeup, William’s fastball was also better in 2020. Williams threw his fastball 43% of the time in 2020 and averaged a career-high 96.5 miles per hour. This speed complimented his slower changeup, averaging around 12 miles per hour of difference.
The Greatest Reliever Season Ever?
Saying Devin Williams had the best relief season ever is a lie. But chalking this incredible campaign up to the shortened season is also not the full truth. Even compared to the best relievers from 2020, Williams was leagues ahead. Liam Hendricks, the only relief pitcher to match Williams’ 1.4 WAR, only pitched to a 238 ERA+. Even Alex Colome, who recorded a .88 ERA in fewer innings than Williams, only pitched to a 558 ERA+.
The truth is that Williams’ 2020 campaign was a perfect storm that created one of the most fun statistical anomalies in all of baseball. A shortened season, combined with a lights-out rookie reliever with a deadly fastball and changeup combination, led to amazing strikeout and earned run stats in a shortened time, thus creating the ERA+ we see today. While it’s important to use these kinds of weighted stats to analyze players across baseball’s history, we have to remember these numbers do not exist in a void. Events like the steroid era, the Covid season, and the sticky stuff crackdown should invite us to be skeptical of the stats we see on paper.
Ultimately, Williams’ 1375 ERA+ deserves an asterisk but there’s no denying that Williams pitched a 2020 campaign worthy of the greatest reliever season ever.
Main photo credits:
Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA Today Network