Rafael Devers was an extremely popular breakout pick coming into 2019. There were reports he had worked with J.D. Martinez on his swing throughout the offseason, and hope that he had figured out some of the solution to some of the issues he had shown in his first season and a half. Now, 70+ games in and nearing the All-Star break, Devers has arguably been the most valuable player on this year’s Red Sox team. Even if he’s not the team MVP, he’s not far behind.
Frequently when a player is breaking out, you tend to see rate of contact, exit velocity, barrel rate, etc. improving. However, in Devers’ case he’s always been able to crush the ball. He’s barreling balls at a similar rate to previous years, and while his rate of contact has increased slightly, it’s been his plate discipline and pitch selection that have been the main factor in his breakout.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Devers’ Z-Swing% (swings at pitches in the strike zone) has improved to 75.7 percent, an increase of over 4 percentage points from last year and 11 percentage points from his rookie year. Also, Statcast has a metric called ‘Meatball Swing %’ which measures the rate at which a player swings when a ball is thrown directly down the middle. Devers’ meatball swing % is a whopping 89.5 percent, way up from 76.6 percent in 2018. He’s picking better pitches to swing at, and is finally taking advantage when pitchers make mistakes, which has resulted in his contact rate increasing and his strikeout rate decreasing significantly.
Also, just by watching Rafael at the plate, you can see he’s locked in. It seems as if he’s adopted J.D. Martinez’ breathing relaxation technique before every pitch, which perhaps could be a factor in his focus.
Another big improvement Rafael Devers has made is on the defensive side of the field. For the past two years, he had been a defensive liability, and would inexplicably make overthrows on routine plays. In 2018, he finished the year with -13 defensive runs saved, leaving him in the bottom half of the league’s third basemen. However, this year he’s improved significantly, saving 1 defensive run and making plays on 116 of the 160 balls that have been hit in his designated zone. Both of those numbers are top 10 in the MLB.
To conclude, Rafael has been nothing short of spectacular this year, and has made significant strides since 2017. When you factor in that this is his age-22 season, we may have yet to see his peak form.