Earlier this morning, after acknowledging that the Red Sox were indeed a good baseball team (hot take, I know), I wrote about Rick Porcello going in the wrong direction. It always feels a bit dirty to write about negative trends when the team is playing so well, so I figured to cancel things out I’d write about one player trending in the right direction. There are plenty of players to choose from right now, which is a very good thing, but the most interesting one to me is definitely Rafael Devers.
It was always fair to assume this was going to be something of a rollercoaster season for the young third baseman. It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think he could be a stud for the entire season. He looked impressive and completely unfazed by the moment last season for his first taste of major-league ball, and we’ve seen plenty of other young players succeed at surprising ages and points of development in recent seasons. Still, given Devers’ youth and generally aggressive approach it was more likely than not that there were going to be peaks and valleys this season. Such is life for a 21-year-old playing baseball at the highest level.
Not too long ago, I wrote on these very pages that Devers was showing his age on both sides of the ball. Again, it wasn’t very surprising. He’s super young! The key for players this young is being able to make adjustments and turn things around without falling into a deep hole from which they can’t escape. His overall numbers still aren’t great — he’s posting an 88 wRC+ that puts him well below-average on the season — but things are looking up of late. His .226 batting average over his last nine games doesn’t look great, but he’s paired that with a ton of walks and big-time power to put up an .835 OPS.
There are two keys to how Devers has been able to look so much better at the plate over the last couple of weeks: Patience and discipline at the plate and an opposite-field-minded approach. Obviously, I’m not breaking any news with these two developments for Devers. By now, most of us know the deal the young third baseman has going with his manager. If you’re unaware, Alex Cora is trying to kickstart Devers’ season by giving him a $50 Chipotle gift card every time he draws a walk, and a $100 gift card for every opposite field home run. Maybe it’s all a coincidence, but Devers has certainly been looking better in both of these areas ever since this story came to light.
We’ll start with the newfound plate discipline. Devers has been an extremely aggressive hitter for his entire professional career, and it doesn’t seem likely that this will ever change. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing, as long as he’s being aggressive on good pitches to hit. The issues start to arise when he can’t lay off breaking balls off the zone and gives pitchers a break for missing the zone. Well, that’s changing. Below, you can see a rolling graph of every five-game stretch of the season with a look at how often Devers is walking and swinging at pitches out of the zone. The trends are good.
I’m more impressed by the patience and think it will have a bigger effect on his performance moving forward, but the opposite-field approach is incredible as well. We’ve seen enough of Devers at this point to know that when he is at his best he is using the entire field. On the other hand, when he’s slumping, he often starts to get pull-happy. It leads to a lot of swings and misses and balls being rolled over to the right side of the infield. So, it’s not hard to see why Cora is pushing for those opposite field home runs, and it’s not only because it’s easier to hit home runs at Fenway if you’re a lefty going the other way than if you’re one pulling the ball. Below, we have the same five-game rolling graph from above, instead this time we’re looking at how often he’s gone the other way. It hasn’t been as consistently up hill and there’s a recent downward turn, but in all he’s seen a recent spike and it’s shown with his overall performance of late.
Devers is quietly one of the most important hitters in the lineup and the kind of wildcard that can take the Red Sox offense from good to great in any given game. We know the top of their lineup is going to produce, but the young third baseman has acted as something of a bridge between the top and bottom halves of the lineup. If he can get going, the lineup deepens considerably and can put up crooked innings on a consistent basis. There are going to be more slumps in Devers’ future, as that’s just part of the game for someone of his age. Still, as long as he’s laying off bad pitches and using the entire field, we’re going to see his talent shine through. And if Alex Cora keeping Chipotle afloat is what it takes for that to happen, well, I think I can live with that.