Williams first reliever to win ROY since 2011

November 10th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- on Monday was named the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s 2020 Jackie Robinson National League Rookie of the Year Award winner, making him the first relief pitcher to take the honor in either league since the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel in 2011, the first non-closer since the Reds’ Scott Williamson in 1999, and the first pitcher ever to win the award without logging a single win or save.

There was more history, too. Williams and the winner in the American League, Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis, were the first Black ballplayers to sweep the rookie honors since Dwight Gooden and Alvin Davis in 1984, three years before the BBWAA renamed the award in honor of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. The significance was not lost on Williams, especially in a year in which he and other Major Leaguers lifted their voices for social justice.

“I feel like you need someone who looks like you to show you it's possible,” Williams said. “Growing up, I had guys like Derek Jeter and other biracial and Black players who just kind of opened the door to that possibility for me. When you don't see anyone who looks like you, it doesn't feel like it's attainable, in a way."

On Monday while vacationing in Jamaica, Williams attained an honor he said he never thought possible while being raised in St. Louis by a single mother, or while struggling in the wake of Tommy John surgery in Milwaukee’s Minor League system.

He received 14 of 30 first-place votes and 95 total points in the BBWAA’s system to win over the Phillies’ Alec Bohm (nine first-place votes, 74 points) and the Padres’ Jake Cronenworth (six first-place votes, 74 points). Lewis unanimously won the AL award, beating out Luis Robert of the White Sox and Cristian Javier of the Astros.

The news was still sinking when Williams was asked about bucking the historical odds and becoming the 12th relief pitcher to win a Rookie of the Year Award in either league.

“To me, it's all the same. It holds the same weight. There are analysts who may argue with that,” Williams said. “Everyone is given the same number of games this year so what you did with them is what you did with them. I saw some people saying I didn't have that many innings and things like that, but I did with mine what I did, and they did with theirs what they did. We all had the same opportunity.”

He’s the third Brewers player to win his league’s Rookie of the Year Award and the first Brewers pitcher to be so honored. Ryan Braun was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007 after a debut season at third base, and shortstop Pat Listach won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1992, when he had 54 stolen bases.

It’s Williams’ second win in awards season. He already won the NL Reliever of the Year Award after Brewers teammate Josh Hader took that honor in 2018 and ’19.

“It shows how good of a ‘pen we have if I can win both of these awards and I'm not even good enough to be our closer,” Williams said.

For Hader, the admiration has always been mutual.

“It’s amazing to watch the way Devin goes about his business, the way he can just command that changeup over and over again and complement that with a 97 [mph] fastball,” Hader said. “It’s history we’re watching. It’s not as talked about as it should be. But what he’s doing, it’s fun to watch.”

If Williams wasn’t talked about enough for Hader’s liking during the regular season, he’s being talked about now. Williams’ numbers are the stuff of video games. One earned run allowed in 27 innings, including 24 2/3 scoreless innings over 20 appearances from July 29 through the end of the year. Williams surrendered only eight hits all season while striking out 53 of the 100 hitters who stepped to the plate against him, an all-time single-season record rate for a pitcher who worked more than six innings.

Forty-one of those strikeouts came on changeups, a pitch so special it got its own name from pitching enthusiast Rob Friedman, also known as @PitchingNinja on Twitter. He dubbed Williams’ change “The Airbender” for the way it spun out of Williams’ right hand in a physics-defying way, acting more like a breaking ball from a left-hander than a changeup from a right-hander.

“I remember in Spring Training having to see it and it was unlike any pitch I’ve ever seen before,” said veteran infielder Eric Sogard.

“I can tell you everyone has asked him how he throws it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Probably half the league is trying to ask him how he throws it.”

Williams learned to throw it as a kid growing up in St. Louis. Williams discovered he could pronate his wrist in such a way as to produce spin and movement so unique that a friend on the other end of a catch would sometimes miss the ball. Williams thought that was funny, so he kept tinkering with it.

“That’s what turned into my changeup,” he said. “I’ve had that since I was maybe 10 years old.”

Williams was the Brewers’ top Draft pick in 2013 -- he went in the second round; the Brewers didn’t have a first-round selection that year -- and was considered a top prospect until he missed all of '17 following Tommy John surgery.

When Williams returned to pitch in 2018, he logged a 5.82 ERA and walked 22 batters in 34 innings at advanced Class A Carolina. It wasn’t until 2019 that he regained confidence, leading to an invitation to the All-Star Futures Game and, later that year, a September callup to Milwaukee.

“I read an article not too long ago and they described what he has in great detail, and it’s a unicorn, right?” Brewers bullpen coach Steve Karsay said. “He has something that a lot of guys wish they had.”

Karsay and the Brewers believe there remains room for improvement. With much uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, Williams and Hader provide some certainty at the back end of a pitching staff stocked with relatively young power arms.

“He says he threw it in his neighborhood to make the kids look silly, to try to get them to miss the ball, and it’s developed into something that he has today,” Karsay said. “He’s just doing it now with grown men instead of 10-year-olds.”