HOUSTON – Most baseball fans in this city can recall when three years ago Sports Illustrated put George Springer on its cover and hailed “Your 2017 World Champs.”
It seemed far-fetched, which is why we remember it. The Astros were residing for the fourth consecutive year in the cellar of the American League West.
It does not look so far-fetched now, with the Astros off to a 9-4 start and a 3-game lead in their geographically challenged division.
Of course there’s an element of flukiness about this. Jake Marisnick will not keep hitting .300. Charlie Morton will not have a 2.81 ERA at the All-Star break.
Baseball has other seasons very different from spring. Bluebonnets that are so spectacular right now will wilt in June.
As will some ballclubs.
But I do think Chris Devenski is no spring delusion. He is real. He is solid, a graduate of the baseball factory of Cal-State Fullerton. He is, at 26, the greatest unknown pitcher in baseball. Soon the world will know he’s another Andrew Miller, who can pitch two shutdown innings whenever needed.
He doesn’t do it the way Miller does, with power. Devenski’s fastball maxes out at 93, but his changeup bottoms out like no other. “Circle of Death,” it’s been called.
In 2016, his rookie season, Devenski had the most relief innings in the majors – 98, while also making some spot starts. He was a Sabermetrics dream, with a ratio of 5.2 strikeouts to walks, which was top-4 in the bigs, as was his WHIP.
His manager, A.J. Hinch, said, “He had one of the most remarkable relief seasons that I can remember a rookie having.”
He’s even better as a sophomore, allowing four hits, one walk and one run in his first 11 innings and striking out 21.
But is he too good to be a middle reliever?
The Astros’ management for the past year has been debating whether the 6-3, 210-pound righthander should be a starter, as he wants to be.
And by the way, there’s nothing the Astros need more than a No. 4 or 5 starting pitcher.
Sports Illustrated’s Nostradamus of the diamond, Tom Verducci, still believes the Astros can win the 2017 World Series, “but not with the starting pitching they have now.”
Actually, Houston’s starting pitching is as good as the front office hoped it would be.
Dallas Keuchel, hampered throughout last season by a sore shoulder, is back to his Cy Young form of 2015.
Lance McCullers is a splendid No. 2, pairing a 97 mph fastball with a 93 mph curve that’s as uniquely befuddling to batters as Devenski’s 80 mph changeup. The question is how long McCullers can stay off the disabled list. At 23 he should be more durable than he seems to be.
The Astros’ management is confident in their No. 3 starter, Joe Musgrove, 6-foot-5 righthander who’s 24 years old. He had an encouraging minor-league tab (10/1 strikeouts to walks) before his promotion last summer. He’s 5-4 as a starter with Houston.
But after that the rotation tilts.
It was a seller’s market in free-agent pitching when the Astros were shopping in the off-season. General manager Jeff Luhnow saw no value in the top end of it, so he went decidedly middle class with Morton: two years at $14 million. So far, Morton is looking like a wise investment, a decent No. 4.
Meanwhile, Mike Fiers struggles, like most No. 5s, to stay in the rotation.
But even given its shortcomings, the Astros’ rotation is better with Devenski in the bullpen, bailing the starters out of their troubles.
He’s effective against lefties because his changeup darts away from them. So there’s no lineup he cannot conquer.
For one turn through it.
He throws 44 percent changeups. At his first look at them the hitter is hopelessly bewildered by the late drop, but responds better the second time he faces it.
One Astros scout said, “We don’t want Devenski to be a starter until he can give the batter something else to think about. He has to develop his slider, which is hard to do in the role he’s in now.”
Indeed, nobody wants to get beat with his No. 3 pitch, so Devenski is reluctant to throw it. He will have to develop it in the bullpen, tutored by one of the game’s underrated pitching coaches, Brent Strom.
It’s this very lack of an above-average third pitch that holds back other talented middle relievers from becoming starters.
But it doesn’t mean they can’t be as valuable as a starter. Devenski if used judiciously will have more impact than any No. 4 starting pitcher in the league. He could pitch 50 games, 110 innings, and they would all be important innings, the win on the line. Who’s more valuable than that?
Devenski will not take his good fortune for granted. He was a 25th-round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox who was traded to Houston. In the minors he acquired the nickname Dragon, and he carries a toy dragon in his traveling bag as inspiration. “All I know about dragons,” he says, “is they breathe fire.”
Nobody is questioning if the Astros have enough bats and gloves to play with anybody, or, for that matter, enough fire. But as Verducci, their greatest advocate, points out, they may need a trade to strengthen a rotation that won’t get better than it is now. Still, the answer to the problem is not moving Devenski.
Alan Truex formerly covered Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Houston Chronicle.