Rafael Devers, much like many of his Red Sox teammates, got off to a very slow start in this shortened 2020 season. As the team’s stock immediately dropped through the floor before lodging itself in the Earth’s mantle, Devers’s stock slid as well.
The young third baseman and potential future face of the franchise seemed absolutely lost at the plate during the first few weeks of the campaign. After his first 74 plate appearances (which took us to August 14), Devers was slashing .174/.230/.319 with a .240 wOBA and a wRC+ of 42. He also had a strikeout rate of 32.4 percent and a walk rate of a little more than four percent. That’s not what you’d expect (or want) from a power-hitting corner infielder in a key spot in the lineup.
Slumps are part of the game, but as Devers kept struggling to put the bat on the ball, a little bit of doubt had to creep in for even his most ardent supporters, myself included. After all, even though Devers had an exceptional 2019 campaign, flashes in the pan are not exactly uncommon in baseball. Could it be that the highly-regarded prospect and key piece of the Red Sox’s rebuilding future might not be an annual All-Star contender at the age of 23?
Obviously such doubts never reached a fever pitch of any kind. After all, they were built on a smaller sample size and outright panic at how poorly the Red Sox were playing (and continue to play). In many ways, Devers’s struggles were like adding fuel to a fire. If the Red Sox had been winning, it would have been much easier to brush his tough start aside and assume he’d right the ship. Even with how poorly the Red Sox were playing, that was still the right way to think. However, when everything that can go wrong seems to be headed in that direction, seeing players you expected to be top performers struggle mightily only compounds issues, allowing more of an opening for a sky-is-falling mentality.
Well you can put your DVD copies of Chicken Little away because the sky is still very much where it should be, at least when it comes to Devers.
Since those first 74 plate appearances, Devers has looked like a changed man at the plate. In his past 68 plate appearances dating back to Aug. 15, he is slashing .328/.375/.597 with a wOBA of .408 and a wRC+ of 156. That’s right; when you split the season in two, on one side Devers is 58 percent below average and on the other he is 56 percent above average. As you might expect from someone with his power profile, Devers isn’t just legging out a bunch of singles to boost his batting average either. He’s really driving balls, with nine of his last 22 hits going for extra bases, including four of his six home runs this season.
We only have to travel back a couple days to relive the peak of this blistering run from Devers. On Sunday against the Washington Nationals, he put on an absolute clinic at the dish, banging out four hits — including two home runs — in five plate appearances while driving in three runs and scoring the same. That marked his seventh multi-hit game since August 15 and his ninth of the year overall.
Devers’s improvement has been powered by a return to barreling up pitches. According to Baseball Savant, Devers ranked among the top five percent in the league in average exit velocity in 2019 (92.5 MPH) and in the top seven percent in hard hit rate (48.4 percent). Devers’s hard hit rate has fallen to 38.7 percent so far this year, according to Baseball Savant, but his average exit velocity is at 92 miles per hour, so he isn’t too far off when it comes to making good contact. In fact, if we use FanGraphs’ metrics for hard hit rate, Devers is sitting at 44.2 percent, and that compares with just a 11.6 percent soft hit rate. That explains how, despite some lesser returns in the triple slash categories, Devers is actually producing a higher barrel percentage (9.7 percent) and sweet spot percentage (37.6 percent) than he did a year ago, according to Baseball Savant.
The difference in the last few weeks has been that Devers is seeing more balls in the zone and swinging at those pitches more often. Going hand-in-hand with this approach has been a reduction in the frequency with which Devers has gone after pitches outside the zone, which has been a major culprit in his out-sized strikeout rate in 2020. In total, Devers is swinging at 41.5 percent of pitches outside the zone this year, but that number dips to to 39.3 percent — which would be below where he was in 2019 — when only accounting for plate appearances since Aug. 15.
Devers still has some work to do to get his final year statistics back above average. Even with his recent surge, he is still sitting at a 98 wRC+ and an even 0.0 fWAR through 33 games and 142 plate appearances. Considering how disparate his two halves of the season have gone, it only makes sense that he would wind up in the middle. However, Devers seems to have found his rhythm again and although a regression could come on just as quickly as the improvement he’s shown, its much more likely that we’ll be getting more of what we’ve seen recently than what we saw at the beginning of the season. That goes for the rest of 2020 and beyond.