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Pitch selection has been the key to Rafael Devers’s hot start

He’s been swing-happy, but he’s swinging at the right pitches.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Since his debut at just 20 years old in 2017, Rafael Devers has become one of the most beloved Boston athletes. He’s also been one of the most widely discussed players on the Red Sox roster, with frequent questions about his defense and plate approach. Despite these questions, he’s consistently been one of the best hitters on the team, and at times in the majors, and that’s been on display again to start the 2021 season.

Prior to the start of the season, our One Big Question for Rafael Devers was whether he could be a more patient hitter. There’s no doubt that the ball goes far when he makes contact, but could he lay off more pitches and draw more walks? Well, that still remains to be seen. In this season’s small sample size, his walk rate has improved to 10.2 percent — that would be the highest of career — but he’s still chasing pitches in line with his career average and swinging at the first pitch over half the time. If he hasn’t improved his patience at the plate, what has fueled Devers’ blistering hot start?

Instead of being a more patient hitter, Raffy has been a more selective hitter. He’s swinging more often than he ever has, 60.5 percent of the time, but the key is that he’s swinging at the right pitches. Devers has swung at 83.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone and 95 percent of meatballs, or pitches thrown right down the middle. Both of those numbers are at least 10 percentage points above the major league average and show just how well Devers is seeing the ball. As evidenced in the chart below, he’s really been able to take advantage of pitches middle-middle, with 1/3 of his hits coming from that part of the strike zone.

Baseball Savant

Devers’ exceptional pitch selection has clearly paid dividends for him. He’s been absolutely raking to start the year, with a hard-hit rate of 59.4% and an average exit velocity of 95.4 mph. Somehow, he also has an xBA (expected batting average) of .349 and an xSLG (expected slugging percentage) of .821. These are just ridiculous numbers that have contributed in a big way to the Sox’s early success.

On the flip side, I’m not so sure if swinging this often is a great long-term approach for Devers, nor am I a huge fan of him going after the first pitch so frequently. But the results have been there thus far, and as long as Devers is locked in and swinging at pitches he can handle, he’ll continue to produce in a big way.