By Tom Haudricourt Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Devin Williams became the third player in club history to win rookie of the year honors, claiming the 2020 Jackie Robinson award in the National League by a large margin Monday.
Williams received 14 of 30 first-place ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America and finished with 95 points. Philadelphia infielder Alec Bohm was second with nine first-place votes and 74 points, with San Diego infielder Jake Cronenworth getting six first-place votes to also total 74 points.
Los Angeles pitcher Tony Gonsolin, who was not among the three “finalists,” received the other first-place vote.
Balloting was done by two members of the BBWAA in each NL city, with three names listed in order of preference. Points were awarded on a 5-3-1 basis to determine the winner.
Williams was named on 27 of the 30 ballots, with six second-place votes and seven third-place votes. In the Milwaukee BBWAA chapter, he received a second-place vote from Andrew Wagner, representing the Wisconsin State Journal, and a third-place vote from Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel.
“To be honest, it still really hasn’t set in,” Williams said in an evening call with reporters. “I’ve always been the kind of person who keeps his head down and keeps going. I think that’s why I was able to have the success I did.
“I didn’t look up halfway through and think, ‘Look how good I’ve been.’ It’s more like, ‘I did good today and I want to do good tomorrow. How can I get ready to be at my best tomorrow?'”
Williams learned he had won the award while vacationing in Jamaica, a trip he said he scheduled long before becoming a rookie of the year candidate.
“It had been planned way before it was announced that I was one of the finalists,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting it.”
As for the challenging journey to the majors after being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft out of high school and later undergoing Tommy John surgery, Williams gave tribute to his mother, Angela.
“She’s been my rock ever since I was a little baby boy,” he said. “She raised me as a single parent my entire life.
“It’s never necessarily been easy, for her, me and my two sisters. Just seeing the way she handled adversity, that really just kind of set the tone for the way I live my life.”
Despite his dominance, Williams had two factors to overcome in the balloting: being a relief pitcher, and one not used to close games. No reliever had won a rookie of the year award since Craig Kimbrel for Atlanta in 2011, and no reliever had won in either league without recording a save.
Seattle outfielder Kyle Lewis won rookie of the year honors in the American League in unanimous fashion, claiming all 30 first-place votes. Chicago outfielder Luis Robert was a distant second with 83 points, followed by Houston pitcher Cristian Javier with 11.
Williams and Lewis are African-Americans, and the Brewers’ reliever said it was meaningful to win an award named after pioneering Jackie Robinson in a year when social unrest came to the forefront in the United States. Williams was one of the players who spoke in the clubhouse on Aug. 26 when the Brewers chose not to play a game that night against Cincinnati at Miller Park, supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
“One of the No. 1 things that I’ve always said is you need someone who looks like you to show you that it’s possible,” Williams said. “Growing up, I had Derek Jeter and other bi-racial 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 its attainable in a way.”
Williams, 26, was brilliant in every sense of the word in evolving as the primary setup man for closer Josh Hader after a 13-appearance audition in 2019. Using a devastating mix of a high 90s (mph) fastball and knee-buckling changeup, he went 4-1 with a 0.33 earned run average in 22 appearances, allowing only one earned run – a home run by Pittsburgh’s Colin Moran in the fourth game of the season.
Williams began accumulating strikeouts at a dizzying pace, finishing with 53 in 27 innings for a historic ratio of 17.6 per nine innings. Beyond his ERA, he led all major-league relievers with a 0.63 WHIP and .090 opponents batting average.
Asked if it was just as meaningful to win after a 60-game, pandemic-shortened season, as opposed to the normal 162-game gauntlet, Williams said, “To me, it holds the same weight. There are analysts who may argue with that. 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.”
Many considered Williams’ changeup, which was given the nickname “Airbender,” the most dominant pitch in the majors – a high-spin rate, tumbling offering that moved in similar fashion to a breaking ball from a left-handed pitcher. Hitters went 2 for 62 (.032) against it with 41 strikeouts.
Unfortunately for Williams and the Brewers, he developed shoulder soreness after his last appearance of the season in St. Louis – his third consecutive two-inning outing – and was unavailable to pitch in the wild-card series in Los Angeles, won by the eventual champion Dodgers in two games.
Williams said he was still doing “a little bit of rehab” on the shoulder but otherwise was feeling good physically.
Williams’ dominance earned him NL reliever of the year honors, succeeding Hader, who had won it the previous two seasons. He became the third rookie of the year in Brewers history, as selected by the BBWAA, with shortstop Pat Listach winning in the American League in 1992 and third baseman Ryan Braun (who later moved to the outfield) in the NL in 2007.
“It also 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. “We have another great guy right behind me. That’s probably the biggest thing. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. It’s a role I’m comfortable in.
“I don’t think saves are the be-all end-all. If I come up in the seventh inning and I go through one through five (in the lineup), I think that can be pretty valuable as well.”
Bohm, 24, who didn’t come to the majors until a couple of weeks into the season, batted .338 in 44 games with a .400 on-base percentage, four home runs, 23 runs batted in and .881 OPS. He drew 16 walks, struck out only 36 times and was a clutch performer for the Phillies, batting .452 with runners in scoring position.
Cronenworth, 26, who started 37 games at second base, where he was a Gold Glove finalist, nine at first base and three at shortstop, batted .285 with four home runs, 20 RBI and .831 OPS. He got off to a blazing start in August, compiling a 1.021 OPS, before falling off badly in September (.543, including a .183 batting average).