Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Rafael Devers.
The Question: Can Rafael Devers become a more disciplined hitter?
The Red Sox, for as great as they were at the plate in 2018, are probably looking at a little bit of regression in the lineup in the coming season. That’s not to say they can’t or won’t still be great, because the talent is certainly still there, but it seemed like some key hitters were as good as they could possibly be. Players like Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and even Steve Pearce were at their peak performance and each have a good chance of taking a small step back. If that sounds overly pessimistic, I’m sorry and offer you this olive branch: They should be able to make it up elsewhere. The catchers’ offensive stats essentially cannot get any worse. Second base is almost as bad, and if Pedroia is somewhere close to his old self (big if) there’s a lot of room to grow. Third base, however, is the place to be most excited about potential improvement.
Of everyone in the Red Sox lineup, Devers is the player I’m most looking forward to watching this year. That seems a little crazy, and probably is, to say about a team with Betts, but Devers is just so much fun. The baby-faced former top prospect has shown us in flashes why he was seen as such an elite prospect and why so many thought he’d be among the better hitters in the game in his prime. What we haven’t seen, however, are the consistent periods of production. Coming off his age-21 season, he’s still very raw as a player and has some edges in is game that need to be rounded off.
This description doesn’t just apply to his offense, to be fair. Devers’ defense is perhaps the largest topic of conversation around him on any given summer day. It’s the performance at the plate I’d rather talk about today, but it’s probably worth at least mentioning his defense. Coming up through the minors, his defense at third base was never seen as a major asset, and some eventually saw him moving across the diamond. I think there are still some who believe that will happen, and he was undeniably rough in the field in 2018. However, and this has been said by myself and others many times, Devers’ issues defensively aren’t those of someone who has to move off the position. Physical skills aren’t lacking in this case. Instead, Devers has been making some mental errors typical of someone in his early-20s. He can and should learn from those mistakes and use his physical tools to become and average-ish third baseman.
Anyway, again, that’s not the topic at hand. The topic at hand is his offense, and specifically his discipline at the plate. This is what it all comes down to when projecting Devers’ offense going forward, particularly in the near-future. Once the young third baseman puts the ball in play, good things generally happen. He only had a .282 batting average on balls in play, but he has the profile for that to get better. In a smaller sample in 2017, he had a .342 BABIP. Devers hits the ball hard at a well above-average rate and had one of the highest average exit velocities in 2018. Those numbers aren’t perfect, of course, but they give a rough outline of how he hits. He also uses the whole field, falling into some pull-happy slumps but largely going the other way and having success doing it.
The issue is getting to the point when he does put the ball in play. Right now, to simplify the issue a bit, Devers is simply too easy to pitch against. He is a wildly aggressive hitter, and pitchers do not have much trouble tempting him with pitches out of the zone. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, the Red Sox third baseman swung at just under 37 percent of pitches he saw out of the strike zone, putting him in the bottom 13 percent of the league. He was in the same range on swing rate on pitches in the zone as well as overall swing rate. Obviously, you aren’t going to be too mad at a hitter swinging at a lot of pitches in the zone, even if all strikes aren’t created equal. That being said, Devers ranking so highly in swing rate doesn’t quite work so well when only 16 of the 222 hitters who saw at least 1500 pitches in 2018 saw fewer balls in the zone. Basically, pitchers knew he was going to swing so they threw him junk, and it worked.
If you watched him on a consistent basis in 2018, none of this is going to come as too much of a surprise. There were times this year when Devers looked like he had made up his mind on whether or not he was swinging before the pitcher even started his delivery, and clearly that’s not going to work at the highest level. Looking at Brooks Baseball, breaking balls are the biggest issue for Devers. Although most of those pitches end up out of the zone by design, he still swung at over 50 percent of both sliders and curveballs last year. Somewhat surprisingly he still saw fastballs over 57 percent of the time. Below, you can see his swing rate by different locations relative to the strike zone.
As you can see, of the 12 zones directly outside the strike zone (in other words, excluding the four corners), Devers swung at more than 40 percent of those pitches in ten of them. The median O-Swing rate, for what it’s worth, was a little over 30 percent in 2018. At the top of the zone, he swung at more than half of the pitches he saw. That helps explain why he still saw so many fastballs, because he struggles to lay off the high heat.
Ultimately, this isn’t affecting him tremendously in terms of strikeout and walk numbers. Granted, he can still get better and is still a bit below-average in both areas, but he doesn’t have a drastic issue in each. Last year he walked just under eight percent of the time and struck out just under 25 percent of the time. Getting to, like, nine percent walks and 20 percent strikeouts would great, but an even better side effect would be more balls being put in play on better pitches to hit. Devers already makes hard contact, and that’s while swinging at junk.
It’s easy to assume that just because Devers is only entering his age-22 season he is automatically going to keep getting better every year. That’s a solid bet and certainly wouldn’t be surprising, but development isn’t reliably linear in that way. Even at his current level, a little BABIP regression back to or above .300 would make Devers a solid contributor in the bottom half of the lineup. If he starts to become even a little more selective, though? Sky’s the limit for our baby-faced friend.