Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Rafael Devers’ 2021 campaign.
2021 in one sentence
Rafael Devers showed fans and the league as a whole that he has what it takes to be one of the best pure hitters in the game.
Rafael Devers has the looks of a generational talent at the plate. While Devers’ 2021 season was not quite as spectacular as his 2019 campaign, when he lead the AL in doubles and all of baseball in total bases, he still had one of the best offensive seasons for anyone in the AL in 2021. Per Baseball Savant, Devers finished in the 93rd percentile in average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and xwOBA. He was in the 91st percentile in xBA, 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage, 94th percentile in xSLG, and 89th percentile in barrel percentage. Simply put, he was elite in terms of the quality of contact he was making.
Devers’ power numbers also jumped a bit in 2021. In 664 plate appearances, he mashed 38 home runs, drove in 133 runs, scored 101 runs, and hit 37 doubles. He also slashed .279/.352/.538, with an OPS of .890, a wRC+ of 134, and an fWAR of 4.7. If the 25-year-old keeps at this pace offensively, he is simply one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Priority number one for Chaim Bloom this offseason should be locking Rafael Devers into a long-term contract with the Boston Red Sox.
The red flag that will continue to separate Rafael Devers from being considered one of the best all-around players in baseball rather than one of the best hitters is defense. This past year, he posted a -13 OAA, and a -3.6 dWAR in 2021, also committing a league-leading (among third basemen) 22 errors. A major question has always been whether or not Devers can figure out how to field his position, and he still has not made that major stride over a full season that would instill confidence that he will suddenly turn a corner. With Rafael Devers, defensively, what you see might just be what you get, and if that is indeed the case then the Red Sox may need to start entertaining a position change, if not for 2022 then not too long after.
Offensively there was not too much wrong with Devers. If you want to pick nits, the two faults would be strikeouts and a less than stellar walk rate. No matter how you slice it, a 57th percentile walk percentage is above average, but only slightly. Rafael Devers possesses a lot of qualities one would attribute to Juan Soto, arguably the best hitter in baseball, but what separates someone like Soto from Devers is that Soto draws walks at a higher rate than anyone else. Juan Soto does not chase bad pitches and he gets on base at a much higher rate than Devers. The latter was in the 16th percentile of chase rate and 29th percentile in whiff percentage, walking 62 times on the season, compared to striking out 143 times. If Rafael Devers is to reach Juan Soto heights, which, quite frankly he can, he needs to become a more patient hitter, which leads directly into our, “Big Question.”
The Big Question
Rafael Devers can be a more patient hitter because he already is a more patient hitter. He’s not Juan Soto, because a walk percentage in the 100th percentile and a .465 OBP is almost incomprehensible. But that doesn’t mean that Devers cannot improve his on-base percentage and walk rate in 2022. In 2019, arguably Devers’ best season to date, he ranked in the 27th percentile in walk percentage, and in 2021, he was in the 57th percentile, proving that he was, in fact, more patient at the plate. Devers also improved his chase rate from the 9th percentile to the 16th percentile.
On the other hand, he did have a better whiff percentage and strikeout percentage in 2019 than he did in 2021, meaning that while he was being more selective, and not chasing as much, the fastball did prove to be mystifying at times. There was an entire series against the Astros in 2021 where Devers, for some reason, could not catch up to the high gas, and Astros pitchers exposed this flaw. Like any great hitter, he adjusted and began to hit the fastball with more consistency. But all in all, he did improve his patience, even if there’s still some room to grow.
2022 and Beyond
Devers is under Red Sox team control through the 2023 season, and as stated previously, a contract extension should be one of Chaim Bloom’s biggest priorities this offseason. There should never be a doubt that Devers is one of the best young hitters in baseball, and to believe he will somehow fall off in 2022 would just be silly talk. Devers might just be the best hitter the Red Sox have, and to allow someone of that caliber to walk away, especially without a clear-cut replacement after 2023, can’t happen. Devers will produce offensively at an elite level in 2022, and with just some small improvements at the plate and more consistent defense he can very well be in the MVP discussion.