Craftier Williams enters '23 with closer role his alone

January 30th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- Barring a shakeup in the coming weeks, Devin Williams will be the last line of defense for a Brewers club being built around the concept of run prevention. 

Williams went into the last handful of years as the sensational setup man to closer Josh Hader before sliding into the closer's role himself when the Brewers traded Hader to the Padres. This would be his first chance to rack up saves over a full year.

"I think you guys make more of a big deal about it, in my opinion, than I did, to be honest," Williams said on the final day of last season. "I always viewed the eighth inning as the same as the ninth, because if I don't do my job there, it's the same thing. It's just when [you're closing] you get to shake the catcher's hand."

Transitioning to the ninth inning, Williams said, "was never a hurdle I had to get over." But in other ways, 2022 was a successful test of the 28-year-old former NL Rookie of the Year. He made the All-Star Game for the first time. He pitched in a career-high 65 games. He worked three straight days on three occasions -- once when Hader was away while his wife was having pregnancy complications, once when Hader was struggling in July and again in the first week after Hader was traded.

Pitching three days in a row may seem minor, but it was significant to Williams, who underwent Tommy John surgery as a Minor Leaguer in the Brewers' system. 

"That was kind of a challenge to myself, to be ready every day and take the ball as many times as I can," Williams said. "I'm proud of that." 

Williams said he was equally proud of the adjustments he made to counter the league's growing familiarity with his signature pitch, a changeup so elite it has his own nickname, the Airbender. Williams focused last season on his fastball, which performed better than ever despite a slight dip in velocity.

That was by design, it turns out.

"I tweaked my delivery," Williams said, referring to the point at which he releases the baseball. "I'm top of the league, extension-wise, and 93-95 [mph] with 7.5-7.6 [foot] extension played better than 6.5 [foot] extension with 98 [mph]."

Williams' 7.6-foot average extension on fastballs was second highest in the Majors last season to veteran reliever Steve Cishek's 7.7 -- four inches beyond Williams' average in 2021, and five inches beyond his average in 2020, when he was NL Rookie of the Year. It meant Williams' average perceived velocity on four-seam fastballs was 96 mph in 2022, compared to his actual average velo of 93.9 mph.

In other words, by adjusting his mechanics to release the baseball closer to the hitter, he was able to get his fastball to play up without throwing as hard, making it possible to pitch more often. It also meant more strikeouts on fastballs. Williams got 46 percent of his strikeouts on four-seam fastballs last season compared to 21 percent from 2020-21.

“It’s hard to beat a guy with the same thing,” Williams said. “I had to use my fastball more, and then I can use my changeup. But when it’s expected to be one pitch, you’re not going to be able to do that.”

As the roster is currently constructed, the Brewers are invested in Williams remaining a sure thing. Hader’s departure was followed by the exit of steady veteran Brad Boxberger, who signed as a free agent with the Cubs. The Brewers also let Taylor Rogers go after he struggled down the stretch.

As a result, Williams is the only reliever on the roster with experience as a closer. Right-hander Matt Bush will get high-leverage work along with returning arms like righty Peter Strzelecki and lefty Hoby Milner, as well as a slew of offseason acquisitions, including Javy Guerra from the Padres, Joel Payamps from the A’s and others.

“We’re not as experienced in that area right now,” manager Craig Counsell said. “But we feel like there’s enough talent that some of those guys can step up. That’s often what you see in bullpens, is players step up. Maybe it’s not a name you’re completely familiar with, but he gets an opportunity and steps up and becomes a really important guy.”

The ninth inning appears spoken for, however.

"I think I have what it takes to do that job,” Williams said. “I think I had a pretty good showing in the opportunities I was given. So, yeah, I would like to continue to do that."