Welcome to our 2022 Boston Red Sox in Review series. We’re changing things up a bit this year. For this series, we will only be including players on the active roster, per FanGraphs’ RosterResource page, who had at least 50 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched at the MLB level in 2022. That means no pending free agents or players on the 40-man but not on the MLB roster, with a couple exceptions. These will be rolling out over the next few months, so stay tuned. To get things started, we will take a look at Rafael Devers’ 2022 campaign.
2022 in One Sentence
Rafael Devers further cemented himself as one of the best young players in baseball in 2022, although a swoon in the second half kept him from a wire-to-wire classic.
How fitting that we are starting this series with Rafael Devers, as the 26-year-old third baseman seems to be in extension talks with the Red Sox. I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Finally!” After all, as Bryan pointed out yesterday, sometimes baseball can be as simple as paying good players, and Devers is certainly one of those. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he is a great player (my bravery knows no limits), and in 2022, he just added more evidence to that argument.
Devers once again performed at an elite level at the plate this past season, consistently hitting the snot out of the ball. According to Baseball Savant, he ranked in the 90th percentile or higher among MLB hitters in average exit velocity, maximum exit velocity and hard hit rate, while finishing in the 82nd percentile in barrel rate. He actually set a career high in average exit velocity (93.1 miles per hour), landing him the sixth-best mark in the metric in all of baseball. Devers used all that sensational contact to great effect, as he absolutely launched opposing pitches into the stratosphere throughout the year, ultimately leading all qualified Red Sox hitters in home runs (27), isolated power (.225) and slugging percentage (.521).
But Devers wasn’t just the best power hitter on the Red Sox this past season; you could easily argue that he was their best hitter period. Don’t agree? Well then you’ll have to take that up with his wRC+ (140), wOBA (.373) and xwOBA (.361), which all outpaced the rest of the Red Sox’s qualified hitters in 2022.
Now, Devers has always been more than a dingers masher, but a nearly three percent drop in his strikeout rate also helped him put together an wRC+ that rates this past season as his best to date offensively.
But what if I told you Devers could have been even better?
Devers had a torrid first half of the season, earning his second-straight All-Star Game appearance, and when July came to a close, he was slashing .324/.379/.602 with a .415 wOBA and 170 wRC+. While his final numbers were still great, they weren’t at what amounted to MVP-level production in the first half thanks to a really brutal month of August. Across 115 plate appearances in the month, he had just a 30 wRC+. That’s not a typo. Usually a slumping hitter of Devers’ caliber will go through a stretch where they fall to a 90, 80 or maybe even a 70 wRC+, but 30? That’s nearly unbelievable. Thankfully, Devers broke out of the funk, posting a 152 wRC+ after August, and based on his previous production, I think August 2022 will just go down as a strange and difficult month of hitting for Devers rather than a sign of some looming long-term issue.
Speaking of long-term issues, Devers’ defense remained far below average in 2022. He was in roughly the bottom quartile in outs above average this season and posted minus-six defensive runs saved. Devers’ glovework has always been less than ideal, and his performance this season wasn’t egregiously worse than ever, but at some point, the Red Sox may need to consider if third base will be his forever position or if he’ll need to move somewhere like first base or designated hitter. Of course, until such time as there is a better alternative at the hot corner, Devers should have a lock on that part of the infield.
In terms of season-long offensive issues, Devers had very few. In fact, if he had remained on the same pace in August that he set in the first four months of the season, this section would be much shorter. However, there are certainly some minor things to discuss. Firstly, Devers regressed against breaking balls this season, with a .335 wOBA against such offerings (down from .387 last year) compared with a mark of .389 against fastballs. Devers’ walk rate also dipped from 9.3 percent in 2021 to eight percent, which was just a hair below league average, and even with his strikeout rate also going down, he was still near the bottom of the league in whiff rate and chase rate. Developing a bit more patience and discipline at the plate will be the key to Devers finding a new level as a hitter.
Best Game or Moment
Interestingly and possibly fittingly given the final results of the season, some of Devers’ best games came in losses in 2022, like when he hit two home runs and drove in all five of the Red Sox’s runs in a 6-5 loss to the Yankees on July 7. But he also came through in big moments to help win games as well. Perhaps his most clutch example came in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers on Sept. 1. With no outs and the bases loaded and the Red Sox trailing 8-5, Devers drove in two runs with a double to left field before scoring the game-winning run on a single from Rob Refsnyder later in the inning. It was far from the only important hit of the game for Devers, as he nearly missed a home run on an absolute bomb the inning before.
The Big Question
Can Rafael Devers cement his approach to consistently hit the fastball?
The answer here is a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side, Devers had the highest wOBA against fastballs of his career, clocking in at .389, which outpaced his work against offspeed and breaking stuff. As you can see in the graph below, it continued a positive trend.
However, Devers still had a whiff rate greater than 30 percent against heaters, something he did in 2020 and 2021 as well, and although his strikeout rate against fastballs went down compared with the last two seasons, he still struck out more against fastballs than other types of offerings.
Lastly, his swing and miss rate at fastballs in the strike zone more or less plateaued compared with 2021.
All in all, I’d say Devers made some solid improvements when it comes to hitting fastballs in 2022, but he still has room for more growth in that area.
2023 and Beyond
The next month or two is likely going to be exceptionally telling for Devers’ future. If the rumors are true and the Red Sox are really serious about signing him to a long-term extension, Devers could end up being in Boston for quite some time. If those negotiations fall apart, then we can look forward to a 2023 filled with speculation about his future. That didn’t seem to hurt Xander Bogaerts’ performance this past season, but it definitely doesn’t create an optimal environment in which to play baseball at a high level.
Regardless of what happens with Devers’ contract situation, it’s clear that he’ll keep mashing. Even with a complete waste of a month in August in 2022, he was still an incredible offensive force and considering he only just turned 26, he’ll be one for the foreseeable future.