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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Rafael Devers.
The Question: Can Rafael Devers effectively change his approach to the fastball?
Rafael Devers had a breakout year in 2019 following a Red Sox World Series win, leading up to which Devers had posted more or less average numbers in his first two seasons in the majors. Since then, he’s been one of the top producers in Boston’s lineup, and really in baseball, and has attempted to improve his defensive abilities as well, so as to help the team in that aspect of the game too. Whether or not that has really gone well is a discussion for another day.
All Sox fans, players, and executives know that Devers is a great hitter. He has accumulated the second-most fWAR by a Red Sox player since 2019, trailing only Xander Bogaerts, and has proven to be a valuable young leader on the team as he has been trusted to bat in the second, third, and cleanup spot in the lineup. He posted an elite line of .311/.361/.555 in 2019 as his young power finally developed and proved to be a bright spot in the Sox’s gameplay.
But in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, one of his greatest weaknesses began to appear in full force, and Devers struggled immensely to hit the fastball. During his best season to date, 2019, Devers was able to stay behind the fastball and hit well off of it, but this changed drastically the following year. From 2019 to 2020, Devers’ batting average on fastballs dropped drastically, from .308 to a measly .239. Along with that, Devers’s wOBA also dropped from .380 to .330, and his strikeout rate rose over 14 percent between the seasons. These changes were the first sign of his struggles to come.
These graphs visually represent the step back that Devers took offensively regarding his fastball numbers. In mid-2021, as the Red Sox visited the Houston Astros, Devers saw 35 pitches in the first two games of the series, and all 35 of them were fastballs. In these plate appearances, Devers was 0 for 7 with five strikeouts. His weakness had been breached.
During this rough month, the third baseman seemed to be ahead of every fastball thrown to him. He knew what was coming, but couldn’t slow himself down enough to successfully demolish the fastball as he had routinely done since his 2017 rookie season. These struggles were very much shown by Devers’ Chase and Miss rate by month in 2021. His worst month was June, the month of the Astros series where everything fell apart. This reinforces the change in his swing, as Devers was too excited waiting for fastballs, and did not get the chance to sit back and destroy them.
Luckily for him, Devers worked with now-former hitting coach Tim Hyers and managed to get his fastball numbers up by the end of the season— an encouraging sign for Sox fans. As shown in the graph above, Devers became much more patient in July and August, and even with a high Chase and Miss rate in September, his hitting still leveled out to an average level when facing the fastball.
For a hitter of Devers’ caliber, it is essential that he is able to hit the fastball, as it is by far the pitch that he sees with the highest frequency. Along with this, Devers is the heart of an offense that hopes to contend on a regular basis. His struggles impact the team, and his regression back to his fastball hitting form in May through June of 2021 would prove troublesome.
All in all, Devers’ ability to struggle and then later adapt to the challenges he faces when given the opportunity to do so is impressive, and a good sign for his future. He seemed to have regained his normal approach later in the season, and he will definitely be spending this extended offseason focusing on how to consistently hit the fastball, even in high-pressure situations as he often faced last year. There is reason to be confident in Devers’ future, just like there is reason to trust in his ability to adapt when experiencing difficulties within the game.