Rafael Devers Is Incredible – But Still Has Room to Improve

When Rafael Devers was called up in 2017 to take over third base for the Boston Red Sox, it was impossible not to let your imagination get carried away with what his career could turn out to be. I can’t tell you how many times I woke from fitful sleep whispering his name on my lips, starstruck by dreams of Hall of Fame potential. The problem only worsened after Game 4 of the 2017 ALDS. The Red Sox lost to the Houston Astros, 5-4, officially ending their season, but not without a bit of excitement. Down 5-3 in the ninth, the then 20-year old Devers lead off with an inside-the-park home run, a mad dash around the bases with 37,305 Fenway Faithful, a few moments ago damp from the rain and dreary from the score, suddenly electrified. I was at that game, and even though I’ve seen plenty other incredible ones – including incredible ones that the Red Sox won – that Devers moment was the single most exciting thing I’ve ever witnessed. I turned to my close friend, Peter Gammons, who was at the game with me for a work thing, and said, “That little boy is going to win an MVP someday.” To which my friend responded, “I’m Peter Gammons.”

But in 2018, Devers took a step back. After an impressive 58 game chance in 2017 that saw him produce 0.8 fWAR and a solid (actually, spectacular considering Devers was only 20 years old) 110 wRC+, according to FanGraphs, Devers’s result plummeted to just 1.0 fWAR and a 90 wRC+ in 121 games in 2018. It’s difficult to find any real fault with Devers – after all, the Red Sox still won 108 games and a World Series, it was expected that big league pitchers would adjust to him, and he was still basically a child, forced to stay up well past his bedtime on many school nights so he could play third base for the Red Sox. Still, it would have been nice to see some positive signs in his sophomore season.

Well, whatever Devers was searching for in 2018, he’s found in 2019, as he’s blossomed into a superstar and one of the lone bright spots for Boston in a year marred with disappointment. A quick look at Devers’ Baseball Savant page is enough to make any stat-head drool:

If only he were a little faster…

That’s an awfully appealing amount of very red knobs turned almost all the way up. If Rafael Devers was one of the workers in the recent hit HBO show Chernobyl, he’d be doing an excellent job! (Or, rather, a very, very bad job that will ultimately result in an unmitigated disaster, but in this scenario, that disaster has been for opposing pitching pitchers.) Devers, apparently, did a lot of growing up in the past calendar year, because the numbers he is putting up in his age 22 season are better than what many established All-Stars could even claim to be their career year. Entering play on Tuesday, September 17th, Devers has an absurd .311/.363/.557 triple slash. He leads the American League in doubles (50) and total bases (328), and he’s added an additional 29 homers and 107 RBI’s for kicks – made all the more impressive by the fact that he didn’t hit his first homer of the season until May 3rd. All of that adds up to a 133 wRC+ and 5.3 fWAR.

And it’s easy to see why Devers has been so, as Gabe from The Office would put it, exquisite (I’m on an Office binge right now, and let the record show that I don’t like Gabe. He’s like the Eduardo Núñez of the show). Devers has put up career numbers in a plethora of categories: according to Baseball Savant, his barrel percentage has increased to 9.1% (up 0.2% from last season), his strikeout rate has plummeted from 24.7% in 2018 all the way down to 16.5% in 2019, and his contact percentage has skyrocketed to 78.3% after a mediocre 74.5% mark in 2018. Devers is making more contact, so it follows that his results would be improved. 

What we couldn’t have predicted, however, is just how insanely good that contact was going to be. Because Devers has not only improved himself in a few other areas, but he’s positioned himself among the elite names of the game:

  • Devers’s expected batting average of .294 is in the top 7% of the MLB.
  • His 92.1 MPH exit velocity is 18th in baseball among the 461 players with at least 50 batted ball events.
  • He is first in the MLB with 231 hard hit balls (balls hit 95 mph or harder). 

Any way you want to measure it, Devers has been a revelation, backing up his .383 wOBA with a .364 xWOBA. While that implies a bit of luck, both marks are easily career highs for Devers, so you won’t find anyone in Boston worried too much. 

And somehow, Devers has done all of this while being only 22 years old. His age alone, and the natural aging curve most players go through, reaching their peaks around 26 to 28 years old, is enough reason to expect even more from Devers in the future. But be careful not to underestimate just how good Devers can be. While 2019 has been excellent, he’s still shown plenty of areas that he could improve on. 

Most notably, Devers has had a problem chasing pitches out of the strike zone:

Image courtesy of @RedSoxStats via FanGraphs

You’ll see that his O-Swing% has steadily climbed throughout the year, and currently sits at 40.2%, which would be a career high. And, as expected, Devers has struggled to hit balls out of the zone with much authority:

Image courtesy of FanGraphs

For much of the season, Devers was able to get away with it, but it’s finally catching up to him. In 38 games since August 1st, Devers is hitting just .256 and, far more concerning, has produced a paltry 11 walks and a .312 OBP. That’s a troubling sign, but it’s encouraging that Devers has still been so special even with that red flag, and until around July, his O-Swing% was at a reasonable level. It will certainly be something to keep an eye on moving forward, but if Devers can reign it in just a touch and be a tiny bit more patient, Fenway Park won’t be able to hold him. 

Rafael Devers is having a truly special season. And yet, somehow, he still has plenty of room to improve his game for 2020 and beyond. I’m confident he can, and that someday, he’ll make my prediction come true: that little boy – er, 22 year old man – is going to win an MVP someday. 

Featured Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/29052124457

Dakota Lovins

Dakota is a sophomore in college, and one day he wants to be a baseball announcer. He is 6'5'' with size 17 shoes, a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and he is afraid of moths. Last year he finished in 5th place out of 10 in his fantasy baseball league. Follow him on twitter @kotalov16.

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