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Can the Arizona Diamondbacks make Chris Devenski great again?

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The most recent minor league signee has very encouraging peripherals, but has struggled to limit runs the past two seasons.

MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks continue to make moves around the fringes this offseason, but they inked an intriguing piece in former Astros bullpen ace Chris Devenski. After acquiring him for Brett Myers back in 2012, the former 25th round pick developed into a bullpen weapon for Houston. In his first two seasons, Devenski put up a 2.38 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 4.7 bWAR over 189 innings with a 204/46 K/BB ratio out of the Astros bullpen. His work helped Houston clinch a World Series title in the 2017 season.

After his stellar entrance into the MLB, Devenski regressed to a league-average reliever in 2018. His HR/9 rate ballooned to 1.7 for the 2018 and 2019 sesons, which turned him from a dominant reliever to a replacement-level arm. In September 2019, Devenski would undergo surgery to repair bone spurs in his pitching elbow. With an expected recovery time of 4 months, Devenski was supposed to be ready to pitch for Houston in 2020. Unfortunately for Devenski and the Astros, that did not materialize as Devenski only was able to pitch in 4 games, totaling 3 23 innings, and spent most of the season on the injured list. That led to Houston non-tendering him with just one year to go before free agency.

After his non-tender, Devenski was unable to get a Major League deal from any team and wound up settling for a Minor League deal with the Diamondbacks. Nick Piecoro has the details:

Since the deal includes incentives, the first question is to ask if there is a closer competition. The D-backs certainly have open spots in their bullpen, with incumbent closer Stefan Crichton the only player who I can project onto the 2021 roster without any doubt. With a wide open bullpen competition for the other seven spots, Devenski has a good shot of cracking the D-backs bullpen and sticking around.

The biggest thing is to deflate his home run rate, as a 1.7 HR/9 is not going to cut it for Devenski or Arizona in 2021. Looking at his 2019 Statcast profile, Devenski has a lot of interesting peripherals at his disposal. He has a knack for missing bats thanks to a combination of a high spin fastball, a wipe-out change, and some deception in his delivery. He does a fairly decent job of avoiding hard hit contact in terms of exit velocity, but the underlying issue comes with barrels. When batters got him, they really got him. That’s a similar issue that D-backs ace Zac Gallen had in 2020, although on a much smaller scale than what plagued Devenski in 2019.

When looking at the individual performances of his pitches, the one big takeaway is his fastball gets hit very hard. Velocity is not a concern, as his fastball has sat around 94 MPH in each of the past three seasons he’s been healthy. In 2019, batters put up a .393 wOBA against his 4-seam fastball while putting up a .282 and .238 against his change-up and slider. His fastball and change-up usage hover right around 40% each while his slider has sat around 20% since 2017. He’s very aggressive in the zone with his fastball, which is both a strength and weakness. At only 94 MPH however, regardless of spin, batters are skilled enough to whack that pitch if it catches too much plate, so Devenski will need to move further out to the edges of the strike zone to be successful again.

The other major concern is that Devenski is an extreme fly ball pitcher who isn’t exceptionally stingy at keeping them in the ballpark. In his last two healthy seasons, 15.8% and 14.0% of fly balls he induced would result in home runs. For a pitcher who allows almost of the contact to come in the air, that’s a problem waiting to happen. The good news for Devenski is that three of the five NL West ballparks (Chase Field, Petco Park, and Oracle Park) were very stingy at giving up home runs in 2019.

With an open bullpen, there is a solid chance that if the team can get Devenski closer to his 2017 results that he could be useful in a multi-inning role in the pen. I don’t see him as a guy who should be pigeonholed into a single inning because it limits the way that Lovullo could theoretically use him. In Houston, he was a guy who could get anywhere from 2 to 6 outs in particular portions of the game. He’d be asked to perform in a similar role, getting more than 3 outs in an appearance from time to time in the D-backs bullpen should he make the team.