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Rafael Devers’ very good month of May

There’s been some turnarounds of late, but don’t sleep on a star taking things to a new level.

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Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The last 10 days for the Red Sox has been far and away their best stretch of the season, winning eight of their 10 games as well as all three of their series, most recently with Franchy Cordero walking things off with a grand slam on Sunday to give Boston a four-game sweep over the Mariners, their first sweep of 2022. Amid this turnaround, there have been a whole host of players who had been struggling that are starting to turn things around, most notably with Trevor Story who is perhaps the hottest hitter in the league, but also guys like Enrique Hernández as well. All of them deserve their shine, but what shouldn’t be lost is one of the team’s stars who was performing well enough early in the season as well but has taken things to an entirely new level. Rafael Devers fits that description the best.

As we say, he certainly was not close to the reason for Boston’s struggles to start the year. Their offense was rough, but Devers, along with Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, was doing his part. In that first month of the season, he hit .293/.309/.467, good for a 119 wRC+. Fans were hoping for a bit of an improvement from there as I think the general expectation is for him to be 25 to 30 percent better than league-average, but nothing was overly worrisome.

Well, he’s still taken his game to a whole new level and has been among the very best hitters in all of baseball since the start of May. This month, Devers is hitting .385/.429/.744 for an absurd 236 wRC+. By that measure, only Paul Goldschmidt and José Altuve have been better this month, while Aaron Judge is tied with Devers by wRC+. He’s gone from being the good hitter we all expect to reminding everyone that he has the kind of talent to be a legitimate MVP candidate.

Part of the reasoning behind how he’s been able to take this step over the last few weeks has been an improved plate discipline. Like most of his teammates over the first portion of the season, Devers was way too aggressive, helping out pitchers by expanding the zone and consistently falling behind. He’s good enough that he was still able to produce despite those issues, but his two percent walk rate in April didn’t seem like a sustainable way to proceed through the season.

In that sense, it’s nice to see his walk rate back up to seven percent this month, still a bit worse than average but in the range we expect from Devers, who by nature is always more aggressive than not. But digging deeper, per FanGraphs data, his swing rate on pitches out of the zone fell from 47 to 43 percent, and he’s actually swung a bit more on pitches in the zone. Part of this comes down to him simply seeing more strikes of late, possibly just small sample noise but also perhaps in part a reaction to the improving offense behind him in the lineup. Whatever the case, the way Devers is approaching plate appearances is certainly lending itself to much better results.

But the real key for Devers in this stretch has been how he hits the ball when he does make contact. He’s long been known as one of the most consistent hard-hit producers in the game, and he’s earned that reputation. In each of 2019, 2021, and this season he has been in the top 10 percent of the game in terms of hard-hit rate, per Baseball Savant. Here though, the big difference has been that he isn’t mishitting anything. His hard-hit rate is still solid this month at 32 percent, per FanGraphs, but that’s actually about six percentage points lower than it was in April. But looking at soft contact, which of course almost always turns into outs, his rate of soft contact is only seven percent this month compared to 16 percent last month.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

And it’s not just that he’s at least hitting the ball decently every time he puts it into play, but it’s also where and how he is hitting it. To the first point, he is taking whatever he is getting from the opposing pitchers and using the entire field. Whereas he only went the other way a shade under 20 percent in April, in May that rate is up to 28 percent, which actually comes in higher than he is pulling the ball. On top of that, he’s hitting the ball up in the air much more with his ground ball rate falling from 48 percent to 35 percent. Not only does that combine with his ability to make good contact to lead to a ton of homers and doubles, but it also makes him much more difficult to defend.

We’ve heard the NESN broadcast talk about it a lot recently, but while defenses are still mostly shifting Devers, the way he’s hitting now it’s just making things extremely easy for him. His .444 batting average on balls in play is not going to be sustained through the rest of the season, of course, but the way he’s hitting and the league only slowly catching up means he should be able to post a high number the rest of the way.

I don’t really have a grand takeaway from all of this. There’s a lot of reasons the Red Sox are good, and most of that should probably be focused on guys like Story who are turning things around in a big way. But Devers is a big part of this story as well. The idea of him being an MVP-caliber player wasn’t a crazy idea before, but it was mostly theoretical. We’re seeing it in action now, and we’re seeing it help drive the best baseball the team has played all season.

Numbers in this post come from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.