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Inside a Rafael Devers slump

What makes the young third baseman go into downturns?

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This post was written before Monday’s game in Baltimore. If/when Devers goes 4-4 with 4 home runs, you can thank me.

By any measure, Rafael Devers has been a success story this year and has exceeded all expectations. At least, he’s exceeded my expectations as someone who didn’t really expect the top prospect to come in and contribute anything significant in 2017. Instead, he was called up to the majors and immediately made a major impact on the lineup. Along with Eduardo Nuñez, another newcomer who joined the roster around the same time, the two provided an undeniable spark and unquestionably turned around the season for this Red Sox team. Despite being just 20 years old, Devers has held his own against the best pitchers in the world and has been able to survive various adjustments being made by opponents. It’s worth saying again: This season has been an unmitigated success for the young third baseman and the fan base has a reason to be excited about the future at the hot corner for the first time in a long time. All that being said, though, things haven’t been 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time.

It’s hard to put a word on what Devers has been doing at the plate lately. I think it’s fair to call it a slump, though it’s entirely possible that’s too harsh. The young lefty hasn’t really been bad of late, though he clearly hasn’t lived up the expectations that were set by his hot start. Of course, those expectations were probably never all that realistic to begin with. Either way, the last month or so has been a serious downturn. If you go back to August 20 (ARBITRARY ENDPOINTS ALERT) he is hitting just .224/.283/.286 for a .569 OPS. Prior to that point he had posted a 1.151 OPS. There have been some strong moments within this subpar run, and he hasn’t really gone through major periods of being completely absent from the lineup. This is a small sample — he’s accrued 106 plate appearances during this stretch — but it’s worth looking at what’s going on and more generally what happens with Devers when he starts to struggle at the plate in his early career.

There were two things that jumped out at me to show what a Devers slump looks like. The first is with his plate discipline. When the young third baseman was first called up, arguably the most impressive part of his game was his ability to lay off tough pitches to hit. It’s something some of us may take for granted in watching this game day after day, but it’s wildly difficult to do against major-league pitching. That goes doubly for someone who is just 20 years old. That ability has faded a bit of late. Below, you’ll see a graph that shows every five-game stretch of his rookie season. The blue line shows his wOBA (an all-encompassing offensive stat via Fangraphs) during these stretches. The red line shows his swing rate. The correlation isn’t perfect here, but generally speaking he’s been better when he’s been swinging less.

To further this point, here is a side-by-side comparison at where in the zone he is swinging, via Brooks Baseball. The snapshot above is from the first portion of his season through August 19. The one below is from after.

The thing that stands out to me here is how much more often Devers is swinging at pitches up in the zone and in on his hands. I’ll get to my theories on this in a minute, but just keep this in mind.

Before I do that, though, let’s look at the other part of his game that has told the tales of his struggles. I said above that arguably the most impressive part of Devers’ game at such a young age was his plate discipline. I say arguably because there is also a case to be made that his ability to go the other way is more impressive. I certainly wouldn’t argue with that assertion. As it turns out, this talent has also correlated with his success. Below, you’ll see another graph with the same five-game stretches as well as the same wOBA curve. This time, though, it is accompanied by the rate at which he’s hit balls the other way. As you’ll see, there is a pretty clear correlation between success at the plate and Devers using the entire field.

So, what do we do with this information? One thing I would say is that we certainly shouldn’t overreact. With Devers, we are obviously talking about a very young player with a lot of time to grow. There is little doubt in my mind that he is going to be a great hitter for a long time. That being said, these things could be a short-term concern. Both of them also indicate to me a hitter who is possibly trying to do too much. Devers has been thrust into the middle of a postseason chase in an offense that has a tendency to fall asleep at times. It’s perfectly reasonable that he feels pressure to put big swings on the ball too often. His ability to look calm, cool and collected in big spots made fans fall in love with him immediately. Now he just needs to get back in that rhythm and get back to being a steady bat in the middle of the lineup. The rest of the lineup stepping up around him certainly wouldn’t hurt.