In major-league history, there have been 6,179 qualified player-seasons by relief pitchers. Only six of them have seen a pitcher average a Leverage Index of at least 2.50. (Leverage Index (LI) is a measure of the importance of a given plate appearance to the outcome of that game, using mathematical modeling. An LI of 1.0 is average, and an LI of 2.5 is two and a half times as important.) If the season ended today, though, that number would rise to seven, and Devin Williams's 2.69 average LI would become the highest ever.
Williams is currently pitching in tougher, more crucial situations (on average) than anyone else ever has over a full season. He owns a decent-sized advantage, too.
Highest Leverage Index, Single Season, s. 1871
This is one of the most aggressive, interesting, and deft uses of a relief ace in baseball history. Since mid-May, Craig Counsell has not asked his closer to lift a finger when it doesn't matter. Williams has only made 12 appearances with an average LI under 1.0 this year, and half of them (including the four lowest-leverage) came in April and May. For the year, his 14 appearances in low and medium leverage are tied for the fewest by any pitcher with at least 35 total appearances--and he's pitched 14 more times than Andres Munoz, the Mariners reliever with whom he's tied.
After easing him into the season and getting him work at times just for its own sake to keep him on schedule, Counsell has pivoted to a narrowly defined but demanding role for his closer. Williams had three saves of four outs or more in May; pitched four times in five days in late June; and saved all three games of the Crew's sweep of the Reds coming out of the All-Star break. Then, he pitched four times in five days again earlier this month, and had to come in mid-inning to bail out struggling lesser relievers to lock up two of the team's three wins in Texas last weekend.
It's clear that, keeping in mind the workload Williams bore as the closer for Team USA during the World Baseball Classic, Counsell is trying to make him comfortable and get him into games only when actually needed. However, Counsell is also a brilliantly ruthless bullpen manager. He never chases wins by putting in his best relievers when the team trails by a single run, and he never lets relievers in whom his trust is imperfect or incomplete try to close out close wins. Williams can reliably predict when he'll need to be ready, based on game context, but he can never be certain of a night off.
That Williams hasn't made multiple-inning appearances since May should help him stay fresh down the stretch. He's also only made two appearances since the start of July in which he had to throw more than 21 pitches: his rough blown save against the Cubs on July 5, and a gravel-in-the-gut save against Atlanta on July 22. Counsell has calibrated this nicely. As Joel Payamps seems to be hitting a bit of a wall, Abner Uribe and Trevor Megill are emerging as fine complements to him as set-up options. Williams doesn't have to bear a heavy sheer innings load for this team. He just has to have his spikes on by the seventh inning every night, just in case. He can and should manage that, and if Counsell keeps managing him the way he has, the result should be both an NL Central championship and a small slice of history.
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