The Red Sox finally got off the schneid on Monday, grabbing their first win of the season by a score of 11-2, bringing their overall record on the year to a whopping 1-3. It was a really good game all-around for Boston, which is exactly what they needed after the disastrous series against the Orioles. Most important to me was that their offense woke up in a big way. J.D. Martinez and Christian Vázquez, two rare bright spots in the lineup against Baltimore, continued to hit, as did a handful of players who had nothing going on in those first three games.
After those first three games, despite the poor play I decided to go a little bit more positive and focus on one of the players who hit well in J.D. Martinez. So, it only makes sense that we keep up with the zigging and zagging, focusing on one of the only players to struggle on Monday after a win. That would be Rafael Devers, who was hitless in the blowout win and is hitless on the entire season through three games played. Despite the poor performance early in the year, I’m certainly not worried about his offense.
As I said, Devers is still looking for his first hit of the season. He does have a day off mixed in there as he did not get into the lineup for Sunday’s blowout loss to the Orioles, but in three games he is now a combined 0-12 on the season, drawing one walk and striking out three times. The biggest and most obvious reason not to worry is that we’re talking about 13 plate appearances.
I’m not going to sit here and say we wouldn’t notice an 0-fer performance from Devers over a three-game stretch over the season, but it would be more mild annoyance than panic mode. It’s natural to be more acutely aware of it and panicked about it when it’s the only data point we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s prudent. It’s never prudent to make much over 13 plate appearances, good or bad.
It’s also not as if Devers just doesn’t look like himself and is hitting a bunch of weak balls and rolling everything over. There has certainly been some of that, and he isn’t scorching everything. On Monday he kind of was, though. He put three balls into play in the win over the Rays, and while none of them fell for hits they were hit 94, 100, and 104 mph. Exit velocity certainly is not everything, but one would imagine that at least one of these balls would have found a hole to fall in for a hit. In fact, the 100 mph ball had a .660 expected batting average, per Baseball Savant.
The biggest thing to keep in mind for me, though, is that this is sort of just how it always goes with Devers. He hasn’t been in the league for so long that we can necessarily say he’s always going to follow the same trends, but at the same time he has to this point. And in this case, the trend is really slow starts. Last season he was worse than Andrew Benintendi over the first couple of weeks of the season and had a 77 wRC+ (23 percent worse than league-average in terms of overall offense) over the first half of the season. Through 18 games in 2019 he was hitting just .246/.343/.295. In 2018, he had a middling .708 OPS all the way through May.
The good news is he has basically always turned it around. His final numbers look pretty underwhelming from last season as he was just a bit above average, but that’s largely because he just didn’t have time to bounce back fully from the slow start given the condensed schedule. In 2019 he had his big breakout despite the slow start. And in 2018 his summer months were electric. There is certainly a conversation to be had about these slow starts, and maybe there’s something different to be done over the winter and/or at camp to come out of the gates with more authority. But that’s a conversation for next year. As far as this year, right now he’s just following a general trajectory from which he typically bounces out of sooner than later.
I’d also be remiss not to at least mention the defense in this space, which has really been the issue for Devers in the early going of 2021. The offense has been frustrating. The defense has cost games. This is not a new issue, and also one that has always gone away, though it has in some seasons. It’s a subject that deserves more thought than a throwaway paragraph at the back end of a post about his offense, but I’ll say what I said coming into the season: This season needs to be the make-or-break point with him at third.
If we’re having this conversation after the season, some sort of switch needs to be made. But for now, making that switch in the middle of the season just doesn’t seem to be wise. That said, if he continues to cost games there may be no other choice. I’m not there on April 6, but I’m not blind to why people would be.
The defense is a more complicated issue, but at the plate I fully expect Devers to be Devers at some point relatively soon. We saw him trending that way on Monday with a whole lot of hard contact that just didn’t fall in. That’s baseball. But while the slow starts are frustrating, and should probably be figured out given the plan is for him to be a mainstay in the middle of this lineup, in the context of this season it’s a reminder that just because he’s not hitting early doesn’t mean he won’t hit all this season.