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Rafael Devers needs to lead the charge in reining in the aggression

The Red Sox offense desperately needs a change.

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Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Red Sox offense is in a bad way right now. I’m not breaking any news here, as anyone who is watching the game can tell that immediately with absolutely nothing going right, but to put a number on it they have not scored more than four runs in a game over their last eight contests, and in that span they have a grand total of 18 runs. That’s just not going to cut it for a team that wants to be a contender. There’s been some small sample weirdness mixed in with an inordinate number of hard-hit balls finding gloves and things like that, but mostly it’s been bat at bats, especially with runners on base. If you’re looking for one aspect of this lineup that is really leading to all of these issues, I think you have to start with how aggressive this group has been.

I’m certainly not the first player to point out this fatal flaw for the Red Sox offense. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe has been all over this, writing about it in his overall look at the lineup’s struggles. As he points out, it’s not just being aggressive in general that’s hurting them. We saw in 2018, a year after they were overly selective, that offenses can be extremely successful when they’re aggressive on pitches in the zone. But that “in the zone” but is extremely important. This season, they’ve shown an inability to lay off pitches off the plate, with their 36.1 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone leading baseball. The 1.2 percentage point gap between them and second place is the more than the gap between second place and seventh place. It’s not great!

I want to zoom in on one player in particular whose plate discipline is only becoming more and more frustrating, and that’s Rafael Devers. To be clear, he’s not the only player on this roster who is expanding the zone far too often, as both Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez well above their career norms in this respect. But with Devers, there’s always such a fine line he has to walk between being aggressive and jumping on hittable pitches, and expanding the zone and doing the pitcher’s job for him. Lately, he’s leaning way too far towards the latter end of the spectrum.

Prior to this season, according to FanGraphs, Devers’ career high in O-Swing rate (the rate of swings on pitches out of the zone) was 42 percent in the shortened 2020 season, and next after that was 40.5 percent in 2019. This season that rate is at 48 percent, the fourth highest rate in all of baseball. It’s leading to frustrating contact in big spots, and a huge lack of walks as well. One of the big reasons he took a step forward in 2021 was his willingness to draw more walks, and his walk rate shot up above nine percent. This season, it’s down below three percent, which would be far and away the lowest rate of his career.

Pitchers are taking advantage of this, throwing him pitches in the zone less than 38 percent of the time, which would be the second lowest rate of strikes he’s seen in his career if this were to stand. And frankly, there’s no reason for pitchers to up that rate at all. And the issues has really come first and foremost on pitches down below the zone, as you can see with the two zone plots below comparing this season to 2021.

2022, via Baseball Savant
2021, via Baseball Savant

This matches up with the eye test, too, as Devers has seemingly had some trouble identifying breaking balls out of the pitcher’s hand, and as a result is doing fishing after these pitches in the dirt far too often. And sure enough, via Baseball Savant, he has a 30 percent whiff rate against breaking balls compared to a 22 percent rate a year ago.

We know Devers can still hit even while being this aggressive, and indeed is still above-average on the season despite this wildly over-aggressive approach. But we also know the Red Sox need every bit of help they can get, and that most notably needs to come from their best hitter. There are different kinds of leaders, and Devers doesn’t need to be the “ra-ra” guy in the dugout to get everyone back on track. What he can do, though, is make adjustments and lead the way with his approach.

Last season, the Red Sox were suffering from a similar ailment and the introduction of Kyle Schwarber to the clubhouse changed the tide in the team’s approach. They’re not making that sort of trade any time soon, and even adding someone like Triston Casas — which I’m also not expecting any time soon, but it’s at least more feasible — probably won’t do it. But Devers needs to make the adjustment and rein in his approach, not only to increase his own value and get back to being one of the most feared hitters in the American League, but also to provide a boost to this lineup and a model for how they need to start approaching their trips to the plate.