It isn’t unprecedented for a reliever to be named Rookie of the Year. It is, however, highly uncommon, often requiring a historic performance to merit an honor that is typically reserved for those who play every day.
Behold Devin Williams.
The Phillies didn’t play the Milwaukee Brewers -- or any team outside the East divisions of both leagues -- this season, so they didn’t get an up-close look at the eventual Rookie of the Year or his gravity-defying changeup. But while digging in on the best rookies in the National League before casting my ballot on the final day of the regular season, I asked a few scouts about Williams. They all said I needed to see the 26-year-old right-hander to believe the raw numbers that looked like nothing I had seen outside of a video game.
It only seemed fair. After all, I watched almost every inning that Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm played after getting called up Aug. 13. Bohm was easily the best thing that happened to the Phillies this year, batting .338 with a .400 on-base percentage and an .881 OPS, while proving once and for all that he could handle playing third base.
Pressure? Bring it on. Bohm hit .452 with runners in scoring position. Even as a wild-card spot spiraled away in the final week of the season, he was the Phillies' most dangerous hitter.
For a story in August, I spoke with Bohm’s coach at Wichita State and the two scouts who were most instrumental in getting the Phillies to draft him with the third overall pick in 2018. They weren’t surprised by his success. There’s no doubt that it was Rookie of the Year-worthy.
But before rubber-stamping Bohm with my first-place vote, I wanted to check out Williams. Was he as dominant as the numbers suggested? Was he as dominant as Craig Kimbrel in 2011, the last time a reliever was named Rookie of the Year?
I watched clips of a few late-season games and saw Williams whiff Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield on a changeup, one of four strikeouts that he racked up in two innings on Sept. 19. A few days later, he flung fastballs and changeups past the middle of Cincinnati’s batting order -- Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Mike Moustakas -- striking out the side on 12 pitches in the eighth inning of a one-run game.
And then, I had a better understanding of how a pitcher could possibly face 100 batters and strike out 53 of them, a 53% rate that stands as an absurd record in a season of any duration. Williams gave up only eight hits in 27 innings. He allowed one earned run on July 27 and one unearned run in 24 2/3 innings over the balance of the season.
He was historic.
It speaks to the depth of the NL’s rookie class that four players -- Williams, Bohm, San Diego Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth, and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tony Gonsolin -- earned at least one first-place vote. Not since 2012 have that many NL rookies received such strong Rookie of the Year consideration.
Williams got 14 of the 30 first-place votes. Bohm received nine, including both voters in Milwaukee, and deserved every last one of them.
But a reliever has been Rookie of the Year before, and I’m not sure we ever saw one as dominant as this.