Pitchers and catchers have arrived at Fort Myers, and Rafael Devers has made the Chris Sale trade all the more sweeter for the Boston Red Sox.
After trading the consensus number one prospect in the game, Yoan Moncada, and 2017 All-Star Travis Shaw, the Red Sox opened up what looked to be a season-long vacuum at third base.
First, they trusted the job to Pablo Sandoval, and, well yeah, that didn’t work out. In short, the Red Sox received the third-worst production at third base (by fWAR) in the first half of 2017, and it would have been just as putrid in the second half if it weren’t for 20-year-old phenom Rafael Devers.
Devers produced a 111 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) in 240 plate appearances after his call-up, which, for reference, was the best mark put up by a Boston player with at least 200 plate appearances last year. He hit what is absolutely the most improbable home run of the 2017 season: a high and tight 103 MPH Aroldis Chapman fastball, a desperate inside-out swing and an opposite-field fly ball that seemed to carry on a parachute right over the Yankee Stadium fence. Let’s play the tape:
As improbable as that homer was, it’s becoming clear that power to the opposite field is not an abnormality for Devers. In fact, his first home run at Fenway Park was also hit the other way:
And here’s another at Fenway Park, against another Yankees southpaw:
Clearly, Devers has some serious opposite field power, and that should feel like Christmas for Boston fans. I can deliver that feeling in numerical form. Let’s look at the best wRC+ marks put up on balls hit to the opposite field in 2017:
It feels good to be sandwiched in between Aaron Judge and J.D. Martinez. Devers gets a ton of production hitting to the opposite field, as shown by this heat map of Devers’ fly-ball spray last year (via Baseball Savant):
That kind of distribution will remind Boston fans of Fred Lynn, and they can only hope it will rub off on fellow left-handed teammates like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. To further this point, let’s look at Devers’ overall batted ball distribution (superimposed over the layout of Fenway Park):
This is more good news for Boston. He’s not going to play every game at Fenway, and there are several other factors that affect the flight of a ball, but it’s still eye popping that at least 17 of these batted balls could have theoretically been home runs at Fenway Park. Consider that Devers played somewhere between one-third and one-half of a season in the Majors. According to FanGraphs Depth Charts, Devers is projected to hit 21 home runs this season; it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that Devers can hit 21 homers this season in his home ballpark alone.
By all accounts, Devers has a quick, violent swing. One of those accounts is my own, as I saw him - two weeks before his Major League debut - at Dunkin Donuts Park in Hartford while Devers and the AA Portland Sea Dogs were visiting. In that game, he turned on a pitch and pulled the ball so deep that it would have been a home run in Fenway’s right field. He also hit a double deep into the right-center field gap, and was intentionally walked in the ninth inning after doing all that damage. I knew that Devers was an elite prospect when I walked into the ballpark, but I also knew he was only 20, so my expectations were tempered. The power in his bat (and a nifty barehanded throw he made on a slow roller down the line) was enough for me to wonder out loud if he’d be playing third base in Boston by September.
Of course, I’m no scout, and I only happened to see him play one great game. Since I already knew he was a top prospect, there was certainly confirmation bias involved. Obviously, small sample size bias clouded my opinion as well. And, most importantly, I had been conditioned to see hope with Pablo Sandoval at the top of the depth chart all season. Still, having command of raw tools like bat speed in the upper minors are signs that you truly are ready for The Show, and Devers proved up to the task almost immediately, posting a 95 MPH exit velocity on fly balls, which was good for 22nd-best in all of Major League Baseball after his promotion.
All signs point to a guy who will mash for years, but he is not without flaws. Every 21-year-old goes through growing pains, and Devers struggled with adjustments pitchers made on him after his hot start. Lance Brozdowski of BigThreeSports looked into those struggles and noticed that the book against Devers is that he can’t help but swing through pitches up and in (although I’m sure Aroldis Chapman doesn’t want to hear any of it). I agree with Lance, as Devers does seem to have a plate discipline problem. He swung at 43 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in September. In a full season, this would be the fourth-worst mark in the majors.
In addition to his plate discipline issues, Devers had one of the worst contact rates on pitches inside the strike zone in September (79.7 percent, 22nd -worst), which correlates directly with his awful whiff rate (13.5 percent, which was 30th-worst) in that span. A contact problem and a discipline problem is a rough juxtaposition for a batter, so the high reward that comes with Devers’ powerful bat also comes with high risk.
Despite this, Devers is getting extremely strong projections for this season. Over at FanGraphs Depth Charts, Devers is projected to produce 2.7 WAR as a 21-year-old. Here’s a list of every full-time 21-year-old third baseman from the past 30 years along with the total fWAR they produced that season:
Projection systems are inherently conservative, so for them to be pegging someone at Devers’ age (and with his plate discipline issues) so highly is a testament to how impressive he has been. Whether he plays up to be a Ryan Zimmerman or falls so flat that he doesn’t officially join this list depends on how quickly he can make his mature tools (namely plate discipline and contact) catch up to his God-given raw tools. The Red Sox will be hoping for a lot of improvement from the core of their lineup this year, and Rafael Devers’ unique skill set inspires both the temptation of hope and the virtue of prudence.
Matt Mocarsky is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.