Will the Real Rafael Devers Please Stand Up?
In the 2019 season that seems so long ago, Rafael Devers was a breakout star posting a slash line of .311/.361/.555. Yes, that’s correct, a .916 OPS for a player in his age-22 season. People thought so highly of Devers that he was sneaking his way into the back end of the 2nd round of Dynasty drafts. While that steam has cooled off some, with an NFBC average pick of 43.33, you would be investing heavily into Devers, especially when other top 3B in Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon are being picked at 40.64 and 42.09, respectively.
Devers certainly did not have a bad 2020 by most measures, but is he closer to a league-average player as he appeared to be, or can we ignore his 2020 season and expect closer to his 2019 breakout?
In what would have been his third full season in the big leagues, pitchers started to adapt to Devers more than they had in previous seasons, finishing with a slash line down across the board, .263/.310/.483.
There is no doubting that he can hit the ball hard. He fell into the 96th percentile in Exit Velocity, 74th in Hard Hit% in a down year. Where did the struggles come from?
The slump began with pitchers dominating Devers with fastballs. The drop in his xBA against fastballs from 2019 to 2020 was astounding, .289 to .162. His drop-off in xSLG was even worse, .550 to .418. Of the pitches Devers saw in 2020, (980 total) 60.3% were Fastballs, 25.6% Breaking Balls, and 14.1% Offspeed. That total Fastball % is up from the 59.2% that he faced in 2019 and 57.5% he saw in 2018.
What a shortened season changed for hitters
Pitchers are quicker to change their approach to a hitter than the hitter can typically adjust because there is nothing different throwing the same pitches in different sequences. The Red Sox lineup as a whole struggled with adjusting to pitches in the shortened season, even consistently great hitter JD Martinez struggled with the lack of in-game replay room reviews. With the lineup struggles around him, pitchers were attacking Devers harder and better than ever before.
At the beginning of the 2020 season, pitchers attacked Devers with 50% Fastballs in July, but only a month later, that increased by 12% and stayed there through the end of the season as they watched him struggle. In the sprint of a season that was 2020, there was little chance to make adjustments and correct any poor mechanics.
A carryover from 2019, pitchers threw Devers fewer Offspeed pitches as the year went on. To begin the year, he was seeing change-ups and other offspeed at a 25% clip, but that ended the year at just 12% after he crushed them to the tune of a .743 and .700 xSLG in August and September.
When you combine the struggles on fastballs and the success on offspeed pitches, you can see a trend that was not there during his 2019 breakout.
The most noticeable difference from 2019 was his lack of ability to drive the ball to left field. Allowing teams to shift the infield in 48% of his plate appearances, up from 21.6% in 2019. Hitting to where their infielders were led to a .317 wOBA against the shift, down from .338 a year prior. Never before thought of as a pull hitter, Devers only went to the opposite side of the field on 21.2% of his batted balls in 2020, down about 5% from his career norm.
Pitching off the high fastball, pitchers used their Breaking Balls to help get Devers off-balance and rollover on the ball to an abysmal 8-degree Launch Angle. Devers struggled with Breaking Balls mightily, typically grounding out to the right side of the infield and only getting solid contact 5.5% of the time.
To put it mildly, Devers was not seeing the ball well, and reacting to it even worse, as he chased pitches outside the zone a whopping 38.4% of the time, helping him increase his strikeout by 10% in the last year.
How can Devers get back on the road to Superstardom?
In his 2019 breakout season, his leg kick, although long, was controlled enough that he was able to maintain his weight from falling towards the plate. He, instead, used his leg kick to shift power into his back leg, allowing for an explosive shift through the baseball, anywhere in the zone. The most important thing to note about his weight shift in 2019 was that when he had his weight controlled through the zone, he was able to stay upright in the batter's box, allowing him to take the ball to all fields. When Devers takes this pitch, his front foot lands even with his back foot, maintaining balance and an even. He is ready to swing.
As previously mentioned, there was little time for Devers to adapt to how he was getting pitched through the course of the brief 2020 season. There was an ever-so-slight change in his pre-swing load up (leg kick), which forced him to slightly lose control of his weight distribution. He starts his load up at roughly the same time, but it is noticeably longer because he drags his front foot back “open” towards first base. There are two possible outcomes when this happens to a hitter, forcing his shoulders to follow this outward rotation started by the foot, or keeping the shoulders back, but allowing his lower half to be too far in front of his hands, where he cannot get anything behind a swing. Rather than having a balanced center of gravity, he was now falling away from the plate and pulling off the ball.
In terms of mechanical adjustments, if Devers were to close his stance slightly and shorten his leg kick, a la Robinson Cano, there would be more time for adjustment. Cano has a very similar stance to Devers along with a similar batted ball profile, however, he has never been shifted on more than 27% of his at-bats in a season. Cano, however, demolishes Fastballs, and in his long career, has never had a wOBA under .300 against them.
I am a believer that Devers is not the league-average player we saw in 2020, but I am also a believer that the 2019 season will not continue to be an outlier for him as his career draws on. Devers is a REALLY GOOD hitter, but I am just not ready to say he can be a borderline MVP player. Taking a look into his batted ball profile over the years, not much has changed in how he hits the ball. His average exit velocity is elite, and his max exit velocity is top of the charts, but hitters that fail to change their game rarely stay elite for long.
Projections from THE BAT X have Devers finishing 2021 at .274/.336/.505, good for a wRC+ of 121. I feel there is some room for batting average gains because of a notoriously high BABIP throughout his career, but also look for the chance at some OBP drop off, as he has not shown me he will be able to better hit the pitches he struggled with throughout his career.
Overall, coming off a bad season, Devers may be among the best buy-low value you can get in 2021 Dynasty leagues. For re-draft leagues, I will most likely be curbing him this year, until he proves he can overcome his challenges, for a hitter more consistent like Anthony Rendon at his current ADP, or waiting on a 3B in what is a deep position overall.
Unless he is able to fix his issues against the shift and fastballs, we may see a few more seasons similar to 2020 before we see another similar to 2019.