My plan was to wait at least a few more weeks until I did this. Everyone was excited when Rafael Devers was called up to Boston just last week, and obviously I include myself in that group. What’s not to be excited about? One of the very best young hitters in all of professional baseball was coming up to play for the Red Sox and he just so happened to fill the position that has been whatever is worse than a black hole all year long. Still, I didn’t want to get carried away if he got off to a good start, because not only can small samples always be misleading, but they can be particularly misleading for such a young player. I was trying to guard myself, essentially.
But you know what? Screw it. Devers has just been too good to ignore for too much longer. It’s not even that he’s simply been good, either. This offense was in a horrible way when the 20-year-old was called up to the majors. Although it would be ludicrous to give Devers all of the credit for the offensive turnaround, it would be just as ludicrous to dismiss that he (along with Eduardo Nuñez) has been just the spark this team has been searching for. As I was thinking of how to attack this post that is simply about how impressive Devers has been in his first taste of major-league action, I kept going back and forth between what I’ve seen just by watching him and the statistical side of things. What’s so great is that both are positive, and they kind of complement each other. With that in mind, I’d like to focus on his plate discipline and his batted balls, going back and forth between the anecdotal evidence and the statistical.
We’ll start with his plate discipline, which is where it was believed he would struggle the most as he adjusted to major-league pitching. It was a reasonable assumption, of course, not only because of his relatively aggressive style in the minors but also simply because most young players struggle with plate discipline when they first come up. Instead, Devers has been incredible to watch at the plate. The way he has attacked (or, more accurately, not attacked) opposing pitchers at such a young age has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s always been a fastball hitter, and that hasn’t really changed since coming up. His pitch recognition is incredible, though, and he’s done a wonderful job of waiting for his pitch. He also has an understanding of the strike zone well beyond his years, as you don’t see him chasing many bad pitches. To be fair, it does happen sometimes. It’s happened mostly against tough lefties, and if that’s his biggest problem than the Red Sox are going to be pretty thrilled.
The even better news is the statistical side of things backs up pretty much everything we’ve observed above. Through his first 32 plate appearances (again, we’re obviously dealing with a miniscule sample size) Devers has drawn four walks and has struck out only six times, giving him above-average rates for both. Looking a little bit deeper at Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, it’s amazing how patient Devers has been. The rookie has swung just 41 percent of the time to start his career compared to a league-average swing rate of 47 percent. Even more impressive is that, relative to the league-average hitter, the lefty has been most patient on pitches out of the zone. Again, for such a young player, being able to recognize balls and strikes at this level is just so rare. To go with his selectivity on pitches out of the zone, he’s jumped on pitches in the zone and has made contact with them over 90 percent of the time. We’ll see if this combination of patience on bad pitches and aggression on good ones can stick, but if it can the rest of the league is in trouble.
While Devers’ approach at the plate has been amazing to watch and is probably the most encouraging part of his game moving forward, it’s been even more fun to see what happens when he makes contact. The only way to describe his contact style is easy power. Even when it seems like he made decent contact at best, the ball just seems to carry. This isn’t just to the power alley in right field, either. The lefty uses the whole field and has shown off his most impressive power going the other way. In fact, he has two home runs so far in his career, and they have gone to center and left field. Simply put, he seems to square everything up regardless of where in the zone the pitch happens to be.
The numbers bear out everything we’ve seen. He’s hit a ton of line drives, with a rate pushing 30 percent per Fangraphs. He’s also punished the ball a lot with two home runs on seven fly balls for a rate of about 30 percent. That’s not sustainable, but he has the power to stay above the league-average home run to fly ball ratio. He’s also hit the ball hard so often. Fangraphs has his hard-hit rate at over 40 percent compared to a league-average rate of 32 percent. In terms of exit velocity — which isn’t something I try to lean on very often, for what it’s worth — his batted balls have been hit at an average of 92 mph. If he had enough batted balls to qualify for the leaderboard, he’d be tied with Ryan Zimmerman for 12th in all of baseball. Most impressive, though, is still that all-fields approach. He’s hardly been pulling the ball, with about 63 percent of his batted balls either going back up the middle of the other way. This is a huge development for Devers, particularly since when he got in trouble in the minors he had a tendency to get pull-happy.
Eventually, the league is going to make some sort of adjustment against the young Red Sox slugger. Those ebbs and flows of adjustments and counter-adjustments is what baseball is all about. Just taking a quick look at how he’s been attacked, I’d expect to see a flurry of breaking balls in the dirt below the zone and some fastballs in on his hands in the coming games. That might work for a little bit, but nothing that we’ve seen from Devers suggests he’s going to fall apart against any approach. He’s done nothing but impress all year long, and until he gives us a reason to think differently that’s what we should expect moving forward.