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2018 in Review: Rafael Devers

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A look at the first full season for Rafael Devers

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers
Is this picture an accurate depiction of Rafael Devers’ 2018? Not really, no. Is this picture rad? Yes. Yes it is.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Rafael Devers.

The Season in a Sentence

Rafael Devers had a very uneven first full season in the majors in which he flashed his potential at times but mostly showed that there is still plenty of growth to be had.

The Positives

Before we can even really start getting into the positives for Devers, we have to determine the definition of the term. For most players, it’s pretty straight-forward, but I think it’s pretty interesting with someone like Devers. We all know his story at this point as an ultra-hyped prospect who came up in 2017 and played a couple of months at a high level, helping spark a run that led to a division title. That understandably led to some hefty expectations for the Red Sox third baseman. So do we judge his performance based on those expectations? Or do we judge it with consideration that we’re talking about a kid who spent the entire 2018 season as a 21-year-old with a couple months of major-league ball under his belt? I’m honestly not sure what the answer is. I’m really asking. Ultimately, he finished the year with a .240/.298/.433 line for a 90 wRC+. That’s certainly not great but’s not terrible? Again, your view of his performance all depends on your expectations heading into the year.

Anyway, if you want to talk about specific portions of his game, I’m finding it more difficult than I expected to find clear positives. Perhaps my expectations were too high? To start, though, I’m going to look at his power. Now, in this era of growing home run rates around the league, Devers’ 21 homers and .193 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) aren’t that great. They’re better than average, granted, but it’s not like it stands out. Still, I feel the need to repeat we’re talking about a 21-year-old who probably reached the majors prematurely. As underwhelming as Devers’ overall performance at the plate may have been, he hit for enough power that you always felt good about his chance to do real damage with each swing. He maintained a 16.5 percent home-run-to-flyball ratio, which shows that the power he showed off in that two-month audition in 2017 was no joke. Devers could have done more in the power department in 2018 for sure, but that wasn’t related to his power, if that makes sense. It had to do with the rest of his game, which we’ll get to in a minute.

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In addition to the power, Devers showed that something else he displayed in 2017 was no fluke either: His opposite-field acumen. It’s rare to have such a young and special hitter who has such a natural opposite-field stroke, but Devers is not a typical young hitter. He’s not quite J.D. Martinez (who is?), but the Red Sox third baseman has easy power to the opposite field. He’s certainly capable of depositing dingers into the bullpens at Fenway, but he’s just as capable of pounding doubles off the Monster. He was an above-average hitter to all three fields in 2018, though one could certainly argue he should be more willing to go the other way.

Finally, Devers gets some points for his performance in the postseason. Now, his October performance was a lot like it was in the regular season in that it was plenty uneven, but he breathed some life into the offense. Alex Cora figured out when the matchup looked best for his young third baseman, and it worked. It especially worked in the ALCS when he put up a 1.082 OPS. Devers also looked a lot more confident in the field during the postseason, which as you’ll find out in a second is a very big deal.

The Negatives

So, yeah, the defense. We have to start with the defense when we talk about the negatives for Devers’ 2018. There are the same caveats with the glove as there are with the bat — he’s young! — but it didn’t make it any easier to watch. Devers’ throws were out of control and he led all of baseball in errors. It wasn’t just the throws — he made some technically unsound plays fielding the ball as well — but his arm is of the utmost concern. What was both more frustrating but also comforting was that none of his poor defense (and there was a lot!) struck me as something that will cause him to move off the position. He may still do it eventually — if Bobby Dalbec hits his ceiling, for example, he’d move Devers across the diamond — but he has the skills to pass at third. To me, an admittedly untrained eye as far as scouting goes, his issues seemed to come down to youthful mistakes more than a lack of athleticism or unfixable mechanics. He rushed throws he didn’t have to, was overly aggressive on grounders and just generally a little jumpy. That should be fixed over time, and if it is he’ll look a lot more like he did in October.

It certainly wasn’t just the defense that was bad either. The offense, while it showed flashes, had plenty of issues as well. Most notably among those issues was with his plate discipline. At the end of the year, Devers’ strikeout and walk rates don’t look like anything disastrous.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

walk rate finished at 7.8 percent and his strikeout rate at 24.7 percent, both of which are a bit worse than you’d like but not hit-the-panic-button bad. That being said, they also don’t accurately tell the story. Devers had good stretches that helped those numbers, but also had too many stretches where he really was hit-the-panic-button bad. Again, youth and all that, but he was totally lost at times. Pitchers could throw anything anywhere, and it seemed like Devers made up his mind on whether or not he was swinging before the pitcher started his windup. This led to a ton of bad whiffs, but also a lot of weak contact that helped bring his batting average on balls in play down to .281. I’m not overly concerned now, but if we’re still having this conversation at this point next year it’ll be a different story.

The Big Question

Can Rafael Devers avoid a sophomore slump?

Not really, no. Again, there was plenty of good here, but Devers looked a lot like a rookie this year even if he technically exhausted his rookie status in 2017. Given that he only played two months that year it may be unfair to call this a sophomore slump, but whatever you want to call it it sure looked like the league made some adjustments to slow him down. Baseball is a game of adjustments, as they say. Now it’s Devers’ turn.

The Year Ahead

I’m certainly not at the point of projecting performances for next year just yet, but my initial thought is that Devers is going to have that full-season breakout this year. Obviously, we know the talent is there, and now the experience is too. Going through a full postseason run should help with that as well. Defense is going to be interesting to watch, but I’d expect that to be better too. It’s also possible that I’m being swept up by Andrew Benintendi, because that’s basically the trajectory I’m expecting. That may be unfair, particularly considering how different they are stylistically, but why not be optimistic in November?