As the leading lights of the baseball world sit around Nashville, Tennessee, waiting for Shohei Ohtani to choose his forever home, the reliever market finally sputtered to life on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings, with two veteran right-handers signing contracts for 2024. Kirby Yates, late of the Braves, is bound for Texas on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Chris Devenski, meanwhile, re-signed with the Rays on a one-year deal with a team option; the first year will pay him $1 million, after which the team holds a $2 million option with a $100,000 buyout.
As much as a balky bullpen can derail an otherwise championship-caliber team, the 2023 Rangers were the kind of club that makes you think the whole thing just isn’t worth worrying about. Texas won the World Series with a relief corps that did not fit its implacable offense, posting the worst strikeout rate of any playoff bullpen. The only team whose relievers fared worse on an ERA basis was Miami, and the Marlins lasted all of two games against a Phillies lineup that thrashed them around like a hungry cat tormenting a lizard.
Aroldis Chapman constantly teetered on the edge of collapse, and I can’t imagine how sick Joe Davis got of having to say some version of, “Josh Sborz is better than his 5.50 regular-season ERA makes him look.” Eventually manager Bruce Bochy shifted to a reliever usage pattern I can only describe as “I’m gonna make it through this series, if it kills José Leclerc.” And they did make it through the series, so fair enough.
Nevertheless, with Chapman, Will Smith, Chris Stratton, and various members of the rotation bound for free agency, the Rangers would be wise to bring in some reinforcements. And so they have, signing Yates, a former All-Star and major league saves leader, to a one-year contract.
Much has transpired between 2019, when Yates had a generationally great season for the Padres, and now. Various elbow injuries, including bone spurs and a torn UCL, cost him the lion’s share of three seasons. He signed a two-year deal with the Braves before the 2022 season and barely made it back in time to throw a couple times at the end of that season. I talked to him at some length about that injury recovery in mid-September. He described an arduous path back to the majors and was quite candid about what had and had not returned for him. He had recovered his stuff, for the most part; his fastball velocity had returned, and he was happy with how that pitch was dovetailing with his splitter.
Here’s sort of a quick and dirty rundown of how hitters have fared against Yates in 2019 against 2023. By most measures, he isn’t on par with his 2019 self, but he’s pretty close, which is what you’d expect, partially because he was four years older, and partially because repeating an all-time great reliever season isn’t very easy. There’s a long way to come down from “best in the league” to “very good.”
There is, however, one aspect of his former game that Yates has been (so far) unable to recapture. Take a gander at this table and see if you can guess what it is:
One of These Things Is Not Like The Other
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
That’s right: walk rate. In 2019, Yates had the 17th-best BB% out of 158 qualified relievers. In 2023, he was 158th out of 162. When he and I talked, he was on a six-week run that seemed to indicate that he was ready to leave the realm of the serviceable behind and return to the elite. Then his next time out, the Marlins tagged him for four runs in 2/3rds of an inning, so maybe he hadn’t quite ironed everything out yet. The Braves, who declined Yates’ $5.75 million option for 2024, seemed to think there was room for improvement.
Yates admitted freely that his command hadn’t returned yet. (He might as well have, since it was clear to anyone with an internet connection that he was struggling to throw strikes.) So there are two extreme bounds for his 2024 outlook. In scenario no. 1, he starts to locate better as his three-season layoff goes further into the past. His walk rate returns to a less conspicuous figure, and he follows up an occasionally stressful 2023 by returning to something approaching his 2019 form. Maybe he’s not capable of All-Star level performance anymore, but he has the potential to be better than any non-Leclerc Rangers reliever was last season.
In scenario no. 2, Yates is unable to cut down on his walks, and some of his more concerning underlying numbers (a .211 BABIP and 85.4% strand rate) regress to league average. He will turn 37 just before Opening Day, so demographics are not in favor of a renaissance. What’s the downside of less-lucky Yates? Well, in 2023 his FIP was 4.63, compared to his ERA of 3.28. The Rangers might as well have just brought back Chapman.
The Rays quickly followed the Yates news by bringing Devenski back. This contract, a one-year deal with a team option for 2025, indicates that Tampa Bay was happy with his one-month tryout to end the 2023 campaign.
Devenski burst onto the scene as a multi-inning reliever with the Astros in 2016, boasting a distinctive fall-off-the-mound motion and a killer changeup. He made the All-Star team in 2017, but the ensuing few years were less kind to him. After the Astros cut him loose in 2020, he made brief (and mostly ineffective) stops with the Diamondbacks, Phillies, and Angels, who cut him at the end of August; the Rays signed him the same day. With Tampa Bay, Devenski threw 8 2/3 innings over nine appearances and somewhat bizarrely took the decision in five of them. The results: nine strikeouts, four runs (two of them earned), two walks, and five hits, including one home run.
When a reliever comes to the Rays, the assumption is that something about him is going to get tuned or tweaked. Comparing Devenski’s brief Rays tenure to his salad days in Houston (2016 and ’17), two things stand out. First, even though his changeup was always his best pitch, he is throwing even more of them now. Last season, he was one of only four pitchers to throw a changeup more than 50% of the time. And second, his windup has changed; he’s no longer bringing his glove up over his head in the windup, and his arm slot is slightly lower. But both of those are things he was already doing with the Angels.
The More Chris Devenski Change-Ups…
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
It’s a small bet on Devenski, but it’s one worth noting given the Rays’ reluctance to commit to major league free agents. In 2023, he was a better-than-replacement-level pitcher for the first time since 2019, and it was the first season since the pandemic that he threw more than 20 major league innings or posted an ERA under 8.00.
Perhaps Yates and Devenski signing in such rapid succession will kick off a run on relievers who were fun in the late 2010s but struggled in the early 2020s. Mychal Givens should wait by his phone.