2019 may be a lost season for Boston. The Red Sox are in a distant third place in the AL East, with less than a two percent chance to make the playoffs. Making matters even worse, the Yankees are running away with the division— injuries and bad starting pitching be damned.
Boston started the year terribly. They never got the starting pitching and number of quality starts they expected, and now their ace starter, Chris Sale, is on the injured list, potentially sidelined for the rest of the season. For a team that won 108 games in 2018, 2019 has been a shockingly sudden return back to earth.
Despite Boston very likely missing the playoffs, all is not lost in Beantown, as third baseman Rafael Devers has emerged as one of the best players in the American League.
The 22-year-old third baseman entered the season a question mark for the Red Sox. A young international signee that ascended to the big leagues quickly, but had serious defensive troubles at third base, and no clear advanced skill at the plate. In nearly-500 plate appearances last season, Devers managed a 90 wRC+, and struck out nearly a quarter of the time he was up.
With a sub-.300 on base percentage, few thought the Red Sox found a long-term solution at third base, a position that has been difficult for Boston to nail down since the retirement of Kevin Youkilis.
Devers committed to keeping his weight in check this past offseason, and started using video to analyze upcoming opposing pitchers. One of his 2019 goals was to strike out less often, which showed itself earlier in the season. The issue in April and May, however, was that it looked like he traded away power for striking out less often, hardly a trade most players make, especially in today’s game.
Through the first two months-plus of the season, Devers struck out only 38 times in 239 plate appearances (15.8 percent strikeout rate), and hit 15 doubles and eight home runs in that time. Things really started to click in May, when his exit velocity rose to the standards he saw last season, and he continued to keep his strikeout rate down due to some identifiable changes in his approach and stance. Devers opened his stance more, and maintained more of a balanced approach at the plate, which helped his exit velocity and allowed him to stay steady while ripping the ball to all fields.
The new stance, the advanced preparation, and the reps in the majors helped propel Devers to a year at the plate of potentially historic proportions. He has 77 extra base hits this season, including a remarkable 47 doubles, with over a month to go. No player since 1936 has amassed 60 doubles in a season. Devers is effectively tied with Alex Bregman for the most fWAR this season among MLB third basemen.
So far this season, Devers is averaging an exit velocity 92.7 miles per hour, compared to 90.7 mph last season. His hard-hit percentage is up from 41.7 percent in 2018 to 48.8 percent this season.
On top of the remarked improvement at the plate, Devers is unquestionably playing better in the field as well. Though defensive metrics are challenging in small samples, Devers posted a negative 3 DEF per FanGraphs last season, and a positive 3 DEF this season. The trend per Baseball Reference’s metrics match. Even though they still view Devers as somewhat of a defensive liability, it’s trending in the right direction --- his’ Total Zone rating improved from -14 all of last year, to -7 so far this season; not great, but definitely better than last season.
It’s clear that Devers has improved on both sides of the ball in 2019, particularly at the plate, so did the Red Sox miss out by not signing him to a contract extension?
Boston undoubtedly was more focused on perennial MVP candidate Mookie Betts after having inked Xander Bogaerts to an extension through at least the 2022 season (when he has an opt-out), and possibly through 2026.
Luckily for the Red Sox, Devers is still in his pre-arbitration years, so he’ll likely see a modest increase to his $615,000 salary this season. For a team that seems to be constantly staring the luxury tax threshold in the face, Devers’ breakout and subsequent increase in salary will play a role.
His numbers this season bode well for his 2021 arbitration as today’s arb process tends to value more ‘classic’ statistics more than the current ones more favored by front offices. He’s going to accumulate a significant number of home runs (who isn’t in today’s game) and runs batted in this season, if he does it again next year he’ll be well-positioned for a decent payout (as well-positioned as any arb-player can be).
The Red Sox can still lock him up and buy-out some of his free agency years. Under current terms, Devers earliest free agency is 2024. The Red Sox should look hard at the material changes he’s made and potentially make a decision as to whether they want to go all-in on Devers, though they likely will wait to see what happens with Mookie Betts after 2020.
2019 has not gone as planned, but 2020 could see the Red Sox end up somewhere in-between the magical 2018 World Series ride, and a 2019 season in which every game was a struggle.