The disappointing start to the 2019 season for the Boston Red Sox has dominated the minds of fans and followers alike. After all, coming off a magical 2018 campaign that saw a jaw-dropping 108 regular-season victories and an impressive jaunt through the playoffs that resulted in a World Series title leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Now that the wins are starting to come more frequently, perhaps attention can be turned to more positive things, such as the noticeable improvement by young third baseman Rafael Devers.
Some may have read that last sentence, hear the proverbial record scratch and shouted, “What!?” Nearly a fifth of the way through the season, Devers has yet to hit his first home run and is on pace to finish with 42 RBIs. He has also committed a whopping eight errors. But, like many things in life, you have to peel back some of these less attractive attributes and see that the 22-year-old has actually made significant strides and is poised for a break out that will likely be coming sooner rather than later.
The most readily noticeable improvement from Devers has been in his physical well-being. Listed last year at 237 pounds, he was heavy and not in top conditioning, which was frequently pointed out. He took the criticism to heart and determined not to follow the path of his predecessor, Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, completely overhauled his lifestyle and training during the offseason. He reported to camp noticeably slimmer and in much better shape. Has anyone noticed the four bases he has already stolen, which leads the team? Despite the high number of errors, stats that measure a player’s range in the field indicate he is getting to more balls than he has ever done previously in his career, no doubt a byproduct of his slimmer self.
Coming into May 2nd, the left-handed hitter was batting .302 with a .388 on-base percentage. Breaking down those numbers further provide further proof of the youngster’s maturation as a player. FanGraphs shows him with an 11.5 percent walk rate and a 16.4 percent strikeout rate. This is a marked improvement over last year’s rates of 7.8 percent and 24.7 percent. Any time a player can cut their strikeouts by a third and simultaneously nearly double their walk rate in the span of a year, you should take notice.
Although it hasn’t translated to balls going over the fence, Devers is also hitting the ball with more authority than ever. His line drive percentage of 26.7 is leaps and bounds beyond his 15.2 figure in 2018. Additionally, his soft contact rate has regressed from 20.5 percent to 16.1 percent. These are all signs that point to a coming surge in extra base hits and home runs. A better approach and striking the ball harder are never bad things when it comes to hitting.
Fastballs used to be Devers’ kryptonite, relatively speaking. In terms of production against the various pitch types he faces, speed gave him the most trouble last year. Keeping in line with all his other adjustments, he is now doing his most damage against the heater, according to FanGraphs’ pitch values.
It appears the biggest factor in what will lead to Devers truly breaking out will be him getting the ball in the air more. He is hitting two and a half ground balls for every one he is putting in the air, which is twice as much as last year. MLB.com shows his average launch angle when the ball comes off his bat and into play is at 6.1 degrees, which is less than half of the MLB average of 12.7. Once he figures this out it will be really interesting to see what the Red Sox have on their hands.
It’s easy to point out glaring flaws in a baseball player, such as errors or a lack of home runs. However, it would be patently unfair to not recognize when such significant improvements have been made across multiple facets of their game—and from such a young player to boot. You’ve been warned. Devers has started showing signs of the impact player he is capable of becoming, but there is much more coming, so don’t be surprised when he gets there.
********************************You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew
I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.