I’ve told my dad of two current MLB players that I believe will be Hall of Famers. The first declaration came in the middle of the 2016 season, when I said that Mookie Betts, who was enjoying a breakout year, would end up in Cooperstown when his career was over. My second claim came at the beginning of last season, when I said that Rafael Devers would, after winning a few more championships with Boston of course, be a Hall of Famer. Now, I can’t say that I came to this conclusion all on my own. I have to give some credit to the Twitter account Red Sox Stats (@redsoxstats), who, through their tweets, helped me realize just how special of a talent Devers is. Once I knew what to look for, there were few hitters that I would have rather watched last season than Devers.
After putting up just 1.0 fWAR in 121 games in 2018, Devers produced 5.9 fWAR during the 2019 season, tied with Nolan Arenado for fourth among MLB third basemen, according to Fangraphs. Given that he’s in the early stages of his career, it’s natural to expect season-to-season improvement from Devers, but it’s fair to ask what exactly contributed to an increase of 4.9 fWAR from 2018 to 2019.
Looking at some of his numbers on Baseball Savant, and just by watching him play, it’s clear how hard Devers hits the ball. His 2019 average exit velocity of 92.1 mph ranked in the 94th percentile of MLB. There’s an intriguing combination of changes in Devers’ numbers from 2018 to 2019: his hard-hit percentage increased (41.7% to 47.5%) while his strikeout percentage decreased (24.7% to 17%). Devers’ lower strikeout percentage last season is likely due to a much higher chase contact percentage, or O-Contact%, than years prior. According to Fangraphs, Devers made contact with 71.9% of the pitches outside of the strike zone that he swung at. For reference, Fangraphs has the league average for the 2019 season at 62.7%. This data could actually be bad, however, because it could indicate that Devers, by hitting bad pitches, was making weaker contact. Yet the numbers refute this when it comes to Devers’ case, as there was an increase in his solid contact percentage and a decrease in his weak contact percentage when comparing his 2019 season to 2018, according to Baseball Savant.
(Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
I have one last batting statistic to throw at you: Devers has seen a dramatic increase in Baseball Savant’s meatball swing percentage, which means exactly what it says, in every year of his career. In 2017, Devers swung at “meatballs” at a 67.1% clip. In 2018, he upped that percentage to 76.6%. Finally, in 2019, Devers swung at 86.3% of meatballs, well above the league average of 76.1%. This brings me to my next point: Devers has found himself in an excellent situation for a young ballplayer. His meatball swing percentage didn’t just increase because he got older; Devers was likely encouraged to up this number by Alex Cora and the aggressive hitting approach that he brought to the team when he was hired as manager in the offseason prior to Boston’s 2018 championship year, when Devers was just 21 years old. One also has to imagine how much J.D. Martinez has helped catalyze Devers’ development. Martinez is one of the smartest and most methodical hitters in the game, and he is more than willing to help his teammates. During an interview with Barstool Sports’ Section 10 Podcast, Michael Chavis raved about Martinez as a teammate and how willing he is to help the Red Sox’s young hitters. If you need statistical proof, look at Devers’ career pace, or seconds taken between pitches. Devers’ 2017 and 2018 paces were 23.2 and 23.5, respectively. In 2019, however, Devers’ average pace was 26.2, almost three seconds longer than the season prior. If you watched Red Sox games in 2019, you could notice Devers often closing his eyes and taking deep breaths between pitches. I’m just speculating, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine that Martinez had something to do with that. This is not to say that Devers’ progression is solely due to others’ influence. He clearly has incredible talent and a strong work ethic. Devers possesses the skills of an MVP-caliber player, which he proved last year, but something I believe has taken his performance to the next level has been the mental side of the game, which older players and coaches, like Martinez and Cora, have likely helped to foster.
Devers’ defense is often criticized by fans, using his high error marks (60 errors through 324 career games) as evidence. While there is no denying that he has room to improve in the field, you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m optimistic about his future in this area. Devers has shown exceptional range at third base, specifically when fielding balls to his glove side, and has produced his fair share of web gems. According to Baseball Savant, he ranked in the 92nd percentile in Outs Above Average in 2019. Oddly enough, his errors seem to come more often on routine plays. This, however, is why I am confident he’ll overcome this issue. Devers is still young, and with more repetitions and innings under his belt, he should continue to improve in the field. In 2017, Devers averaged one error every 36.2 innings. In 2018, it was an average of one error every 42.3 innings. Finally, in 2019, he averaged one error every 61.5 innings. As he continues to make the routine a routine, and his range keeps, or even improves, Devers could become an elite defender in addition to what he brings offensively.
(Photo by Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
Devers is a special player, but with so many young superstars in baseball right now, he can be overlooked by fans (spoiler alert: he’s the Red Sox’s underrated player in L.A. Rice’s most recent article). Is it possible that I’m a little biased and could be hyping up Devers a bit too much because I’m a Red Sox fan? Perhaps. But stats aren’t biased, and they tell me that Devers will continue to grow into a superstar, and may eventually end up in Cooperstown when it’s all said and done.