There is plenty of blame to be tossed around for the way the Red Sox are playing right now, and we’ve certainly done our share of doling here at OTM. We’ve talked about the front office’s complicity with their lack of activity when the team was in first place. We’ve talked about ownership’s presumed decision to stay under the luxury tax. And we’ve talked about some moves Alex Cora has made to contribute to this stretch. And I do stand by all of those assertions as reasons why this team is not playing well right now.
That being said, it should be made clear as often as possible that, at the end of the day, it is the players who are most at fault right now. Assigning blame and figuring out specifically how much everyone deserves is a waste of time, of course, but if we were to paint a broad brush, the players are most at fault. And while the offense hasn’t been the issue for this entire stretch, lately it’s been a source of great frustration. Looking at that lineup, the guy who has been arguably the biggest contributor for most of the season, Rafael Devers, is just not giving them team what they need from him right now.
This month in particular has been a tough one for Rafael Devers, who has a wRC+ of just 80. To put it another way, he’s been 20 percent worse than league-average this month. In the interest of fairness, it hasn’t put too much of a dent on the rest of his season. Prior to August, he’d been at least 30 percent better than average in every other individual month, and his 137 wRC+ for the season would still represent a career-best mark. But Devers is a player whose next step is to be a legitimate MVP-type bat, and part of that process is hitting consistently and hitting when your team needs it. The Red Sox need it right now, and they’re not getting it.
Now, considering what we know about Devers as a player, my first thought in just seeing his overall numbers is that his plate discipline is crashing. When he goes bad, often he expands the zone and makes things too easy for pitchers. That’s not the case, however. His swing rates haven’t really correlated to this bad stretch, and his strikeout and walk numbers are actually fantastic. Both his strikeout and walk rates sit at 11.5 percent for the month of August.
Instead, it’s actually been his quality of contact that is taking a steep step back this month. It’s obviously small sample, with the month only 23 days in, but Devers always hits the ball hard. In this month, however, his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) is just .145, 83 points lower than his second-lowest ISO, while his batting average on balls in play is .224, weirdly also 83 points lower than his second-lowest mark. Some of this is almost certainly small sample size noise, but he’s also hitting the ball hard less than he has all season, with just a third of his batted-balls coming in with at least 95 mph in exit velocity, per FanGraphs. He’s also popping the ball up more than he has in any other month while seeing a dramatically lowered rate of turning fly balls into home runs.
And if we dig a little bit deeper, it seems that Devers is once again having issues with the fastball. If you’ll recall, earlier in the season he was having so many issues with velocity that the Astros threw him more than 50 straight fastballs in a series. He was having these issues in May prior to the Astros series, but he had turned things around in a big way production-wise against the pitches the next two months. But per Baseball Savant, his average against fastballs is back down below .100 after coming in over .300 in both June and July, and his wOBA is sub-.300 after coming in at at least .400 in the last couple of months.
It’s really not hard to figure out where the issues are coming, either. As a whole, his exit velocity against fastballs hasn’t really decreased too much, but in one specific and important area it has. You can see below a visual representation of his trouble squaring up pitches in the upper portion of the strike zone in August compared to how we has hitting those pitches in June and July.
It’s great that he’s still hitting balls low in the zone hard, and even harder than he did for the bulk of the summer. But those are harder pitches to turn into extra-base hits, and in turn to drive in runs. A good portion of those will be hit on the ground, and even when they’re hit hard they’ll almost always be an out or a single at best. It’s the pitches up in the zone with which he should be doing his damage, and he just isn’t right now.
Given everything Devers has shown in his career, there is little reason to worry that this is a long-term issue. He’s too good of a hitter for the expectation to be anything other than him adjusting and becoming an elite bat in the box once again. Unfortunately, the Red Sox don’t have a ton of time to wait here. They need Devers to be at his best if they’re going to go on the kind of run they need to go on, and for Devers to be at his best he needs to handle fastballs up in the zone. When the Astros started peppering the third baseman with fastballs early in the season, he was able to quickly make the adjustment. The Red Sox desperately need that to happen again here.