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Rafael Devers Is The Reason We Care

For today, at least, don’t talk about the contract terms. Talk about Rafael Devers

The rest of the country got sick of seeing the Red Sox and Yankees play on Sunday night a long time ago (hell, at certain times, even the fans of the respective teams have had reason to think that the hype surrounding the rivalry was a little much.) I sympathize with them, I really do. My favorite college basketball team is an A10 school that is frequently referred to by the wrong name on national broadcasts; my favorite soccer club is about to hire its fourth manager in four years. I know what it’s like to be a fan of a forgotten team.

But the fact is that Red Sox-Yankees games on Sunday night are different. They have their own heartbeat. They breathe. They hum like an overheated power line for six or seven innings, before finally exploding in a hailstorm of sparks. And there are plenty of explosions to look back on.

Carl Everett breaking up Mike Mussina’s bid for a perfect game:

The back-to-back-to-back-to-back homers:

Jacoby Ellsbury (possible deer-catcher) stealing home:

These games flow differently than Tuesday night tilts against the Guardians, is what I’m saying. Not of all of them are great games (most of them aren’t, in fact.) But they’re great enough, frequently enough, that tuning into one always gives you a little buzz of expectation.

August 13, 2017 was a Sunday. But when the Red Sox and Yankees took the field at Yankee Stadium that night, Boston’s 20-year-old rookie phenom wasn’t in the lineup. A mere 14 games into his career, Rafael Devers was hitting .327/.393/.545 with 3 home runs. But lefty Jordan Montgomery was on the mound for New York, and every big league manager seems to suffer from a condition that causes them to break out in hives if they let a left-handed rookie face a left-handed pitcher in a big game.

Devers watched from the dugout as Montgomery and Chris Sale dueled each other pitch-for-pitch over the first five innings. A walk, a wild pitch, and a Jackie Bradley Jr. single gave the Sox a 1-0 lead in the top of the fifth. An extremely rare misplay by Mookie Betts on a ball at the right field wall tied the game back up in the bottom half of the inning. Montgomery started the sixth inning having thrown just 80 pitches, but it was a tight game in a waning season between two teams separated by just 4 games in the loss column, and so Joe Giardi gave him the hook after he walked Andrew Benintendi. Two batters later, with David Robertson now on the mound, John Farrell would call an aging Chris Young back to the dugout and send up Rafael Devers.

Devers would strike out out on five pitches, swinging at back-to-back breaking balls that were out of the zone.

To be fair to 20-year-old Rafael Devers, David Robertson was one of the single best relievers in baseball that year. And furthermore, despite his outstanding start, Devers really wasn’t even supposed to be in the big leagues at that point — he’d begun the year in Portland and had played all of 9 games at AAA before getting the call. But third base was a disaster zone for the Red Sox in early 2017. This was the year that Pablo Sandoval would finally, mercifully flame-out. They tried Brock Holt there. They tried Eduardo Nunez. Marco Hernandez, Tzu-Wei Lin, Josh Rutledge, and Deven Marrero would all see significant time at third in 2017. Devers wasn’t quite a Hail Mary, but he also wasn’t plan A, B, or C.

The Yankee bullpen didn’t allow a single baserunner for the next two innings. Matt Barnes, on the other hand, relieved Chris Sale in the 8th, promptly loaded the bases, and was lucky to escape having allowed just one run.

With a 2-1 lead heading into the ninth and Hanley Ramirez, Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts due up, the Yankees would, of course, turn to Aroldis Chapman. While David Robertson was one of the single best relievers of the year, Chapman had already established himself as one of the single best relievers of the decade. He threw harder than anyone in baseball; he hadn’t given up a single home run all season; and he was a lefty.

Chapman struck out Hanley on three straight fastballs at the top of the zone to begin the ninth. Then he started Devers off with a 103-MPH fastball on the inside corner. Looking at the replay now, it’s not clear that Devers even saw the pitch. He stepped out of the box, stared out at the mound for a moment, shook his head, and then stepped back in — just in time to watch another 103-MPH fastball barely miss outside. This was something he’d never seen before, and it’s why, typically, players with only 9 AAA games under their belt aren’t called upon to face All-Star closers in the middle of a pennant race.

Devers finally took the bat off his shoulder on the third pitch, a 102-MPH fastball up and out of the zone, but he didn’t come close to making contact. “You can tell he’s feeling good tonight,” Chapman’s future manager Aaron Boone said about the pitcher on the ESPN broadcast — a statement that really didn’t need to be made. Chapman was in complete control, primed to close out the game and put the heat on the division-leading Sox down the stretch. With an unproven rookie standing 60 feet, 6 inches away, Chapman didn’t mess around, going back to a 103-MPH heater up in the zone.

That’s when 20-year-old Rafael Devers added to the lineage of great Sox-Yankees Sunday night moments — sparking his own explosion— by doing this:

It was the first home run Chapman had given up all year, the first he’d given up to a left-handed hitter in over six years, and it was the single fastest pitch ever hit for a home run in the StatCast era up to that point. It was a genuine moment of human athletic wonder that reminds us why we watch baseball in the first place, which is why I actually prefer this video to the broadcast:

In the hours since Rafael Devers signed an 11-year, $331 million contract extension with the Boston Red Sox, there has been a lot of talk about the luxury tax, about the Mookie Betts trade, and about the decision to let Xander Bogaerts walk. There has been debate about whether it’s an overpay, whether it was a PR move, whether it signals a shift in Red Sox front office strategy, and whether it only arose because of bullying from Bruins fans.

This debate has a time, a place, and a value all its own. But there’s something grotesque about the way that, in the post-Moneyball era of baseball, the dominant discourse amongst fans revolves not around what we see on the field, but around efficiency, aging curves, and which front offices most successfully exploit their players. We’re not discussing, in other words, the things that make us react like the fans in that video.

The purpose of baseball is not to serve as a mental exercise in the resource allocation of multi-billion dollar limited liability companies. The purpose of baseball is to provide moments like the one Rafael Devers gave us on August 13, 2017, during a Sunday night game between the Red Sox and Yankees. That’s why we watch. That’s why we care.

Red Sox fans can now hope for 11 more years of such moments. There’s nothing more important about the Rafael Devers contract than that.