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One Big Question: Can Rafael Devers avoid a sophomore slump?

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It’s one of the keys for Boston’s lineup.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Rafael Devers.

The Question: Can Rafael Devers avoid a sophomore slump and become a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter in 2018?

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox offense should be a lot better in 2018 than it was in 2017. That’s not a guarantee, but what in life is, ya know? Still, the lineup was a big disappointment a year ago, and while the team still won the division despite that they’ll need a better performance from the group if they want to reach those heights and more in the coming season. There are plenty of reasons to believe that to be the case. J.D. Martinez gives them an established star slugger in the middle of their lineup, something they sorely lacked in 2017. There is also a huge list of players including Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez (Okay, maybe this one is just on my list) who are strong candidates to improve greatly on their previous year’s performance. Perhaps the biggest reason to be excited about this lineup, though, is that they’ll be getting a full season from third baseman Rafael Devers. If he can indeed avoid the infamous sophomore slump, this lineup could be deep and dangerous.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s sort of easy to forget now just how bad third base was for the Red Sox for the first three and a half months of 2017. It was a rotation of awful offense from players like Pablo Sandoval, Tzu-Wei Lin, Marco Hernandez and Deven Marrero. Some of those guys showed some random flashes here and there that we, in hindsight, got too excited about, but overall the production from the hot corner was pitiful. Devers — who admittedly also got some help from fellow addition Eduardo Nuñez — added a legitimate spark to that position and turned things around pretty much instantly. The rookie looked great from the jump, and that has people rightfully psyched for what he could bring to the table in his first full season. Of course, we’ve seen plenty of big first impressions at the highest level that were followed up by disappointment in the second run through the majors.

The idea of a sophomore slump has become this supernatural worry that comes about every year, but the reality is that there are pretty simple explanations for it. It’s not too difficult to figure out why a player would look so good at first only to struggle after getting that experience under his belt. The league simply adjusted to what they saw, and the league is better at adjusting than just about every individual young player. Beyond that major factor, there’s also the season-long grind — particularly with regards to the coast-to-coast travel involved — that a player is experiencing mostly for the first time. Simply put, it’s a natural part of the game and isn’t a red flag if it happens to any player. That said, it’s still good to avoid it if possible. How can we tell if Devers is falling into the sophomore slump trap?

I actually wrote an entire post about what a Devers slump looks like towards the end of last season, and you can read that here. Most of the information I’m going to talk about in the next minute or so (or ten minutes, I guess. I don’t know how fast you read, and I won’t judge you for it.) are discussed in much more detail at that link. The crux of the issues, though, come down to plate discipline and where he’s hitting the ball. When Devers was going bad in 2017, he had trouble laying off bad pitches, particularly those up in the zone and in on his hands. Additionally, he got really pull happy despite showing off a wildly impressive opposite field swing when he was first promoted. It all looked like a player trying to do too much. I would also argue that his defense played a role in these issues and could do so again. It stands to reason that, particularly for a player as young as Devers, building pressure on the defensive end from bad plays would negatively affect things at the plate.

The good news is that there is reason to believe that Devers has what it takes to avoid struggling in his first full season in the majors. The biggest reason, of course, is that the dude is just a good hitter. That’s been confirmed during his entire professional career and is a consensus opinion from every scout who’s seen him hit. On top of that, he didn’t give the impression of being someone who would let pressure get to him in 2017. For the most part, he always looked calm, cool and collected despite being thrust into a pennant race as a 20-year-old. This was best exemplified by his game-tying, ninth inning home run off Aroldis Chapman in Yankee Stadium last year. It should also help that he should be in a better lineup where he should feel less pressure to be a spark plug but rather be a cog in a machine.

Even with all of the reasons for optimism for Devers, we can’t really know how the league is going to adjust to him until the season starts, and we can’t really know how adept he’ll be at counter-adjusting until the season is at least a month old. The Red Sox can survive if Devers goes through some slumps and ends up being fine rather than really good as a 21-year-old in 2018. That said, if he’s able to avoid the sophomore slump then there is real potential for Bosotn to have a deep and potent lineup that can do tons of damage on any given night.