Rafael Devers At The Plate

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Rafael Devers was not supposed to reach the majors this year. He finished last season in A+ ball, and the expected progression for him was to reach AAA Pawtucket around the mid-point of the season, and then spend much of 2018 in AAA as well, improving his defense and refining his batting. However, the tire fire that comprised the Major League Red Sox third base situation in late July made calling Devers up seem like the best of the available options, and he played his first big-league game on July 25, at the age of 20.

Offensively, Devers has responded as well as could be reasonably hoped, batting .291/.348/.490/.838, with 10 home runs in 54 games (all stats are current as of Thursday afternoon). However, his offense has dropped each month, with his OPSes being 1.231 in July (albeit in just six games), .812 in August, and .757 so far in September. His defense was considered the weakest part of his game, and he has committed 13 errors so far in the major leagues, although he has made a number of fine plays as well.

Here’s a chart of Devers’ major-league hits shown as total bases per pitch, broken down by pitch type and location, and color-coded relative to the league average for each; red is better than average, blue is worse, white is average. The grey polygon shows the strike zone as it has been called this season. Pitch locations are shown as the grey contour map in the background of each chart.

Fastballs are not Devers’ strong suit. Within the strike zone, he is slightly better than average right in the center of the plate, but average, or worse, for most of the in-zone regions. He hits pitches below the strike zone, and high and outside, better than average, but that doesn’t mean he hits well there. In particular, the inside third of the plate is his weakest point. He is also quite weak on offspeed pitches in general, but hits breaking pitches relatively well.

Summarizing his season by month, over the whole season he has been just about an average hitter against fastballs, good against breaking pitches, and bad against offspeed. However, his success against fastballs comes mainly from his first few games, when he destroyed fastballs and breaking pitches; in August and September, he has been well below average as a fastball hitter.

It doesn’t take long for a book to be put together on major league batters, and major-league pitchers quickly adjust. Here are the various pitch types Devers has faced:

Pitchers have steadily increased the percentage of fastballs Devers sees (from 54.7% in July to 63.0% in September), while decreasing the percent of breaking pitches (28.4% to 23.5%).

Pitchers have also identified Devers’ weakest locations, and are specifically targeting their pitches there as well. Look at the location of fastballs to Devers from July to September:

In July, fastballs often came in to the outside half of the plate — Devers’ strongest location. By August, pitchers were throwing fastballs to the upper inside part of the strike zone, his weakest location. Breaking pitches haven’t changed location as much, presumably since Devers hits most of those pitches well regardless of location. He is strongest in the top half of the plate, and breaking pitches are generally kept down to him. Offspeed pitches also haven’t changed much, but he is generally weak against them, and in any case they are the least common pitches and are often used to set up other pitches, so location is more complicated.

Devers has already shown that he has exceptional power, and that he is capable of hitting major-league pitching; even with “the book” against him, he is producing offensively. Defensively he clearly needs work, and was done no favors being rushed to the majors. The Red Sox had little choice but to bring him up this season, but we will have to see if they are willing to leave him as the starting third baseman in 2018, or whether they will give him more seasoning at the AAA level to start next season.

Featured image courtesy of pressherald.com

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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