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2019 in Review: Rafael Devers

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It was a decent year for the third baseman.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Rafael Devers.

2019 in one sentence

In five or ten years, when we look back at the 2019 Red Sox season, there’s a chance we look back at it primarily as the year Rafael Devers became Rafael Devers.

The Positives

I mean, where do we even start here? Rafael Devers was a revelation in 2019, and at least in this writer’s opinion was the most fun part of this mostly un-fun season. He was, to put it simply, an absolute monster at the plate. Over the course of 702 plate appearances and 156 games, the 22-year-old slashed .311/.361/.555 for a 132 wRC+ with improved defense on top of that. He was 30th in baseball among all qualified hitters in wRC+. He was tied with Nolan Arenado for twelfth in all of baseball in fWAR. He was named one of the three finalists (along with Mike Trout and Alex Bregman) for the MLBPA’s American League Most Outstanding Player of the Year award. It was a good year all-around, is what I’m trying to say.

If you want to get more specific than that, there’s no better place to start than with how consistently hard he hit the ball in 2019. It was said on seemingly every broadcast this year, but for good reason. Devers was a hard hit machine. According to Statcast data, he made solid or better contact 18 percent of the time while making weak contact under two percent. He led all of baseball with 252 hits of 95 mph or more. He was in the 94th percentile in all of baseball in average exit velocity, the 91st percentile in hard-hit rate, the 93rd percentile in expected batting average, the 86th percentile in expected slugging and the 80th percentile in expected wOBA.

This wasn’t just a matter of feasting on one specific pitch type or zone, either. He had an average exit velocity of 92 mph against all three types of pitches (fastball, breaking ball and offspeed) while also maintaining that EV in eight of the nine sections of the strike zone. Up and in was the only part of the zone in which he did not meet that threshold. Devers crushed the ball on a regular basis. All of that hard contact obviously helped lead to actual production, too, with a .339 batting average on balls in play and a .244 Isolated Power.

All of that is impressive enough on its own, but the fact that Devers was able to do all of that at the plate while also cutting way down on his strikeouts was what really made this season special. We saw how overmatched he looked at times in his first full season in the majors, with pitchers consistently making him look silly with pitches out of the zone. This year, the young third baseman cut his strikeout rate down from nearly 25 percent in 2018 to 17 percent this year. For reference, the league average rate in 2019 was 23 percent. This wasn’t a matter of him being less aggressive, either, as Baseball Prospectus had him with a fairly significant uptick in swing rate on pitches both in and out of the zone. Instead, he was just a lot better at getting his bat to the ball wherever it was located. This probably led to his step back in walk rate, but clearly the quality of contact he was making on these pitches more than made up for that.

Devers was also a total machine against right-handed pitching. He struck out less against them, walked more, put the ball in the air, hit the ball hard and hit for monstrous power. All told, his slash line against righties came in at .330/.388/.608 for a 153 wRC+. Among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances against righties (Devers had 439), only nine finished the year with a better wRC+. For an idea of the kind of company he was keeping in this regard, he ended the year tied for tenth with Anthony Rendon and Nelson Cruz. If you’re in the same neighborhood as those guys on any offensive leaderboard you know you’re doing something right.

Then, there is the one quality that has been evident in Devers’ game since the moment we first saw him on a major-league diamond: That ability to hit the other way with authority. Although he ended up pulling the ball more than ever before this season, he still went the other way when he had to and often with great success. According to Fangraphs’ data, Devers had a 211 wRC+ and a .389 ISO when going the other way. Among the 82 players to hit to the opposite field at least 100 times, he ranked fourth in both of those categories.

Finally, we have to talk about his defense. I’ve made it pretty clear over the years that I’m not wild about defensive metrics, particularly for just a single season, but you don’t need the metrics to know that Devers was markedly improved in 2019. I’d probably argue some have overstated his potential a bit, but he at the very least showed he’s a guy you can put at the hot corner without worrying too much about it. That was very much in question after 2018. About six weeks into the year we saw a whole new Devers in the field, as he stopped making rookie mistakes, for lack of a better term. It seemed from the outside at least that the game had slowed down a bit for him out there, and he was much more calm and confident when the ball went his way.

The Negatives

For as great as Devers’ season was on the whole, it was not a perfect year. In fact, the very beginning and very ends of his season were both mediocre at best. It’s really easy to forget now, but Devers was a mess at the start of this year to the point where some were wondering if he was in danger of getting sent back down for a spell if the struggles continued. As late as April 24, 25 games into the year, he was hitting just .265/.365/.325. The end of his season wasn’t quite that bad, but he still slashed just .262/.315/.437 in September for a 91 wRC+. It was his only month in which he finished below average at the plate.

He was also not very good against lefties, which is something that I personally am not sure I even really noticed as it was happening. Obviously he’s going to face righties a lot more often than lefties, but he was really shut down by the lefties to the tune of a .269/.301/.442 line, which comes out to an 89 wRC+. Most notable herewas that Devers’ walk rate plummeted to below three percent while his hard-hit rate (per Fangraphs) fell from 43 percent against righties to 26 percent against lefties. There were 237 batters who received at least 100 plate appearances against lefties in 2019, and only ten hit the ball hard at a lower rate than Devers. Not ideal!

The Big Question

Can Rafael Devers become a more disciplined hitter?

My first instinct was to just write “yes” here and move on. I mean, he was so much better that he kind of had to be more disciplined, right? Except, as I said above he actually walked less and was swinging at more pitches out of the zone than ever before. He just did a better job of getting the bat on the ball. So, I guess I’m not really sure if he got more disciplined in 2019, but I am sure that it didn’t really matter either way.

2020 Vision

There’s no suspense here. Devers is one of the few players for whom there is absolutely no chance they are on a different roster in 2020. He will be at third base everyday and hitting high in the lineup yet again.

Quick Note: I will be on vacation next week so this series will be on hiatus until October 28.