Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Rafael Devers.
The Question: Can Rafael Devers be a more patient hitter?
When Rafael Devers makes contact with a baseball, it can lead to some tremendous results. Devers creates some of the hardest contact in baseball and as we all know, better contact usually equates to more hits and more power. The 24-year-old third baseman ranked in the 96th percentile in exit velocity among MLB batters in 2020, smashing balls at an average of 93 mph. That mark was a career-high for someone who has always excelled at crushing baseballs. Devers has a career exit velocity of 91.8 mph, which is more than three mph greater than the league-average mark a season ago.
With that kind of power just waiting to be unleashed each time he walks to the plate, it makes all the sense in the world that Devers goes up hacking. When you have a strength, you should lean into it, and Devers has done just that, taking a very aggressive approach at the plate. For the most part, that has yielded strong results, especially in 2019 when he led all of baseball in total bases while posting a 133 wRC+ and nearly six wins above replacement by FanGraphs’ measure.
However, for as great as Devers has been during his first few years at the MLB level, he still has some improving to do at the plate, and one major area of focus has to be his ability to draw walks. Or, more simply put, to be more patient. Devers set a career-low in walk rate last season (5.2 percent) while ranking in the bottom 12th percentile in the statistic, according to Baseball Savant. For context, the league average walk rate was 9.2 percent. Last year wasn’t an anomaly either, as Devers has never posted a walk rate above 7.8 percent. In 2019, he overcame those shortcomings by putting a ton of balls in play, as he matched a relatively low walk rate with a far better than average strikeout rate (17 percent).
Unfortunately, Devers’s aggressive approach makes such success at avoiding swings and misses pretty untenable, as evidenced by his 27 percent strikeout rate in 2020. That rise in strikeout rate was fueled by swings and misses rather than inaction at the plate. Devers’s whiff rate of 31.8 percent in 2020 was a career-worst mark and a more than a seven percentage point jump compared to league average. Interestingly enough, Devers missed mostly on fastballs (35.5 percent whiff rate) and breaking pitches (31 percent whiff rate) while yielding fewer empty swings on offspeed stuff (19.8 percent whiff rate).
Now, if Devers had produced in 2020 like he did in 2019, it would be difficult to really point to these things as anything more than occupational hazards. However, since Devers’s overall production declined pretty sharply last year (partially due to a slow start, a shorter season and a global pandemic), there is more urgency for him to make some adjustments to his approach.
So how can Devers infuse a bit more patience into his at bats? There are a few solutions that are readily apparent. The first is his tendency to swing early in counts. Devers has always attacked right from the start of a plate appearance, swinging at 36.6 percent of the first pitches he’s seen in his career. That is well above league average (28.3 percent) and when combined with an increased tendency to swing and miss (especially last year), it creates too many instances in which Devers is behind in the count early on. Plenty of great hitters like to swing at the first pitch, but Devers could be well served by laying off a few more than he usually does.
But it’s not just swinging less often at the first pitch. Devers could stand to swing a bit less often overall. That may seem counterintuitive, but Devers has swung at more than 50 percent of the pitches he has seen in every season of his career, outpacing the league average by a hefty amount. Being league average in any statistic isn’t a cure-all, but if you’re swinging a lot and missing a lot, it stands to reason that doing the former less often will help with the latter.
Now, Devers can’t just take every pitch he sees and hope to improve as a batter. It is obviously imperative that he picks the right pitches to pass him by. To determine which ones, we should look at what parts of the zone give him the most trouble. As the chart below illustrates, when pitches stay in the zone, Devers usually struggles to make contact high and away while producing more regular contact lower in the zone.
As luck would have it, Devers does hit the ball hard when he does manage to connect on pitches up and away, but constantly chasing those offerings makes such contact rare, leading to a risk that outweighs the reward.
Even without theses fixes, Devers is still one of the best young hitters in baseball and certainly a cornerstone of the Red Sox’s lineup. However, any doubts about how “real” 2019 was versus 2020 could be cleared up if Devers can become a better all around hitter. He should by no means become a hesitant or overly patient hitter and look to draw walks at the expense of ripping the cover off the ball. However, if he can be a bit more choosy with what pitches he goes after, he can better utilize the power he has at his disposal.