In his first full season in the majors, Rafael Devers had an almost forgettable year. But in 2019, Devers became a prominent star for the young and talented Red Sox squad. Most fans could tell through the course of the year that the 23-year-old was having a special season. He was more involved in important team moments, such as his walk-off against Toronto (4:33). Even after the conclusion of the regular season, the stats told a deeper story about Devers’s success. So what changed in the 2018 offseason that made him a top-tier player in 2019?
Power is key
Throughout his rise within the Red Sox minor league system, Devers was always seen as a future power hitter. Though he didn’t quite exhibit this as a prospect, scouts projected big power from Devers in the majors. And in 2019, he really began to live up to these expectations. His exit velocity was in the top 6% of the league at 92.1, and his Hard Hit %, the top nine. He also had an increase of 3.6% in his Solid hit % in 2019. Meaning he not only hit for more home runs but was also able to hit well for doubles. This change allowed for a significant increase in his total bases sum in 2019 when he led all leagues with 359.
Along with his new increase in power, Devers was able to find success pulling the ball, something that was a struggle for him in his past. He pulled 36.5% of his batted balls last season, compared to only a 31.7% mark in 2018. This change was an important aspect of Devers’s success in 2019 as he had to figure out different ways to get hits with shifts becoming more prominent.
On base improvement
In lots of scouting reports, concerns were drawn about Devers’s limited ability, even in the minors, to draw walks. This concern was due to his long swing. It also continued to be a certain reservation with Devers, as he had an average BB% (BB/PA) of only 7.65% through his first two years in the majors. In 2019, his rate declined further, to 6.8%. But, Devers still was able to substantially increase his OBP from .298 in 2018 to .361 the next year. He was able to do this, despite his walk rate, because of his increased rate of extra-base hits and his decreased K%.
As mentioned earlier, Devers was able to hit for lots more extra bases, which allowed his OBP to rise. Another factor of this was the steep drop in his K%, which ended the season at 17%, around league average. This dropoff was important because it contradicted earlier opinions drawn about Devers. While he still isn’t drawing walks at an above-average pace, he has been able to lay off bad pitches out of the zone, decreasing his K%, increasing his OBP, and proving most scouts wrong about his extended swing.
Along with this, his long swing has become an advantage to him, as it allows him to turn on pitches out of the zone and produce hits. For Devers, learning to lay off bad pitches but turn on the right ones was key to his success, as he was able to create more opportunities to get on base. In 2019, Devers had a batting average of .318 on pitches down and away or outside. Compared to a league-average BA of only .244 in that zone, a whopping range of almost 75 points. His Chase % increased from years past, but so did his Chase Contact %, which rose 7.5% from 2018. This ability to see tough pitches and determine which ones to swing at is a very mature skill. For Devers to exhibit this skill at 23-years-old is impressive and, if it continues, could be a large factor in a successful career.
In 2019, Devers struggled on defense. He almost led the league in errors, although that is an subjective stat, just two behind Tim Anderson’s 26 that led the AL. He also had a -7 mark for Baseball Savant’s newly introduced OAA (Outs Above Average). Along with a -3 rating by Fangraphs’ Def, a below-average mark compared to other third basemen. Luckily, Devers was able to improve these ratings in 2019. He rose his calculated OAA to 7, which ranked in the 92nd percentile in the league. He also increased his Def rating to 4.9, which is above average.
These improvements allowed Devers to also play more games at third, especially with the departure of Eduardo Nuñez. This means Devers got more defensive exposure at third, having 304 attempts at plays in 2019, compared to just 288 in 2018. It is impressive to see Devers’s defensive ratings jump when he saw substantially more attempts than the year prior. And, if this becomes a trend, Devers will continue to get time at third and further improve his defense.
Change produces great success
Another important thing for Devers in 2019 was his movement in the batting order. Moving Devers up to the two spot proved to be a good decision for both him and the Sox. He got the most PA’s there (335) than any other spot in the order. This gave Devers a greater chance for RBI as the leadoff hitter, Mookie Betts, had an OBP of .391. It was also a showcase for his power and on-base skills. During the season, he hit .353/.421/.471 with an OPS of nearly .900 in the second slot. Compare this to Devers hitting .243/.309/.462 in the seven spot in 2018, and it is clear to see that a switch in the batting order allowed for him to showcase his substantially improved skills in 2019.
At the end of the 2019 season, fans saw a star in the making. Devers had increased his OBP, an important factor in this game. Along with a greater OBP, Devers was able to find his power stroke and produced XBH at an extraordinary rate. The batting order swap in 2019 was a big factor in allowing Devers to showcase his newfound abilities. He learned more plate discipline and also the important skill of pitch identification. He also improved his defense to an acceptable rate. Hopefully, in the coming years, Devers can uphold these improvements, become a perennial all-star for the Sox, and even help the team win more World Series titles.