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2020 in Review: Rafael Devers

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A look back at an uneven year for the Red Sox third baseman.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Rafael Devers.

2020 in one sentence

Rafael Devers got off to a slow start, which was harder to mask in a shortened season, but finished strong, at least at the plate.

The Positives

After his breakout 2019 campaign in which Devers emerged as one of the top young hitters in the game, he wasn’t able to carry over all of that success into the shortened 2020 campaign. And while we’ll get to some of the shortcomings a bit later, one thing he did indeed carry over was his ability to consistently obliterate the baseball. Not a terrible quality to carry over from year-to-year, if we’re being honest.

Even at such a relatively early point in his career, it seems pretty clear at this point that Devers will be one of those hitters who consistently carries an above-average batting average on balls in play because of how hard he hits the ball. This past year his BABIP finished at .325, and that would appear to be a good benchmark moving forward. He’s able to do so because of how he squares up the ball. In 2020, his average exit velocity of 93 mph was in the top four percent in all of baseball, according to Baseball Savant. On top of that, his hard-hit rate was just outside the top quarter of the league while the rate at which he barreled the baseball (the best kind of contact a batter can make measured with a combination of exit velocity and launch angle) was in the top 20 percent of baseball.

This helped his BABIP, as mentioned, but also played into his power being a big part of his game as well. It should be mentioned that the third baseman saw a bit of a drop off here compared to the previous season, with his .244 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) from 2019 falling to .220 this past year, but remember the overall power around the league dropped this past year as well. Plus, he got off to a slow start which as mentioned was much more difficult to mask since they only played for about two months. A few bad weeks remains prominent in the numbers all year. Even with all that said, he finished the year with 11 homers in 248 plate appearances, a pace for 27 over 600 plate appearances, to go with a pace for 39 doubles.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

In a lot of ways, as we’ll get to in a second, this was a down year for Devers. In fact, it was more of a down year than I had realized before really looking at the numbers. And yet it didn’t feel like it for a lot of the time. Part of that is because he turned it on for the final five or so weeks of the year, but it’s also because of that contact. In a way, it was a little encouraging that he hits the ball so damn well that even in a year where things were going awry he still felt like a threat every time he stepped in the box.

The Negatives

For all of the hard contact, it wasn’t exactly a smooth season for Devers on either side of the ball. And while there were some things we must discuss with respect to his offense, it was the defense that will start this conversation. Over the final four or so months of 2019, the third baseman took real strides with the glove. He looked sharper and was making all of the plays he was supposed to. He was, dare I say, even a bit better than average.

Then, 2020 happened and he took a significant step back. He reverted back to the player he was early in 2019 and for most of 2018, once again bringing up the questions of whether or not he can really stick at the position. Errors aren’t the most sophisticated stat we have, but that Devers led all of baseball with 14 errors in 2020 paints the picture of how bad he was. It wasn’t just that he led baseball, either. He blew the field away. Trevor Story finished second with 10. The advanced metrics weren’t any better, and it was a big wake up call. I’m willing to give players a pass for a lot that happened this past year given how weird it was, but Devers has to come out of the gate strong defensively in 2021. I would guess I’m among the more optimistic regarding his glove, but I certainly understand people who are thinking about moving him off the position already.

More concerning, or at least surprising, to me were some of the struggles he had at the plate. Most specifically was that he regressed in a big way with his strikeouts, being set down 27 percent of the time in 2020, the worst rate of his career. Devers unsurprisingly swung and missed at a career-high rate this year as well, with his 16 percent swinging strike rate (per FanGraphs) coming in higher than all but nine players’ rates this past summer. It’s great that he continued to hit the ball hard all year, but for maximum impact he actually needs to, you know, hit the ball.

Probably the most concerning part of his entire season, defense included, was how poorly he was handled by fastballs. This was an out-of-nowhere occurrence, as he’s been able to punish velocity in the past. This past year, however, Devers struggled mightily. According to Baseball Savant’s numbers, he whiffed 35 percent of the time (10 percentage points higher than 2019), while putting up a wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) of .312 and an expected wOBA (based on plate discipline and contact quality numbers) of .293. Those wOBA marks were 67 and 89 points worse, respectively, than 2019.

The big issue looming over all of this was the start of his year, though. Devers got off to a disastrous start in 2020, hitting just .174/.230/.319 over his first 18 games of the year. This is becoming something of a trend in Devers’s career, too. Even in his breakout 2019 he got off to a poor start when he was simply league-average in the first month of the year, and that was with a hot finish to April. As I’ve already stated multiple times, when the season is only 60 games it’s hard to recover from a bad first quarter or third of the schedule. But we’ve seen so many times how a bad start can bury a team, and Devers needs to be a carrying force to get seasons off on the right foot.

The Big Question

Can Rafael Devers reach another level against lefties?

This was another big issue for Devers this summer In 2019, he had an 89 wRC+ against lefties, which isn’t great but it’s a mark you can live with when he’s crushing righties like he was able to. In 2020, he continued to hit righties well but finished with a 66 wRC+ against lefties. That won’t work under any scenario. It needs to be mentioned that this came over only 81 plate appearances, so choose the size of your grain of salt, but there were underlying issues as well. While he still made hard contact at the same right as he did against righties, he also produced a lot more soft contact, hit the ball into the ground much more often and struck out a bit more as well.

Looking Ahead to 2021

This is somewhat sneakily a big year for Devers. I’m not particularly concerned about the offense and still am of the belief that he will continue to be one of the better hitters in the game for a long time. The contact is too good and I’m not going to overreact to the strikeout numbers from this weird season. That said, there’s a difference between really good and elite, and that is what is at stake in the near future for Devers. And, of course, he needs to show he is actually a third baseman.

He’ll get every chance to do so in 2021, though. Barring something truly shocking, he will be right in the middle of the lineup and starting every day at third base in 2021.