The count was even at 2 and 2 during a Grapefruit League game this spring. Atlanta Braves catching prospect Alex Jackson had the right idea: Try to get Rafael Devers to chase a changeup low and away.
Braves righthander Mike Foltynewicz did his part, spotting his pitch as Jackson asked — off the plate just enough to keep the Red Sox third baseman from doing damage.
It seemed like a good plan. Or so they thought.
Devers committed to the pitch as soon as it was released. His body remained athletic and loose as he sunk his upper half on a downward plane into his legs in order to reach the point of attack. His front foot was planted firmly. His barrel followed.
The result? A two-run homer to center.
For many hitters, it would be a lazy fly out or a swing-and-miss on a pitch they had no business chasing. But Devers is a different beast. It’s no surprise that his ability to recognize pitches out of a pitcher’s hand is something the Sox rave about.
Devers established himself as one of the better hitters in the game last year, hitting .311 with 32 homers while tallying 201 hits. He also showed one specific and unusual skill: the ability to square up pitches that are off the plate.
In short, he’s a great bad-ball hitter.
“First of all, he’s got really good hand-eye coordination,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “He recognizes the pitch and has the strength level to stay through the ball. I call it kind of the adjustability out front. There are times when he’s fairly balanced in his legs. Even if the ball is away, with his strength level, he can sort of just ride it out."
Devers is athletic, particularly at the plate, where he’s nimble and flexible, allowing him to attack each part of the strike zone as well as spots outside the zone.
That skill was on display during the Sox’ June 2 matchup against the Yankees last season. In the top of the eighth inning, Luis Cessa threw a changeup low and away on a 1-and-1 count. But Devers’s knack for getting the barrel to the ball won the battle, resulting in a bloop single that scored Xander Bogaerts from second.
Devers can handle fastballs up in the zone as well, which indicates just how quick his bat is. Swinging at a high pitch requires a batter to add some muscle while staying fluid but never tense. It requires more than just dropping the bat-head.
Last June, White Sox starter Reynaldo Lopez tried to throw a fastball inside but missed chest-high. The ball, traveling more than 95 m.p.h., veered toward the righthanded batter’s box. Devers’s barrel stayed flat in the zone — another of his skills — enabling him to get to the high heat. The ball left the bat at 104.7 m.p.h. and bounced off the Green Monster. Devers was held to a single because of the ball’s exit velocity.
His work ethic has helped Devers hone his ability, but his knack for covering so much of the strike zone and then some is, in some ways, an innate trait that can’t be taught. It’s part of what intrigued the Red Sox when they scouted him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic.
“Even from a young age, he exhibited the ability to square balls up,” assistant general manager Eddie Romero said. “When you’re scouting these guys that are so young, it’s very hard to see them recognize breaking balls, much less make consistent, hard contact.
“He was able to do that. We saw him go through balls that were about to hit the dirt and hit them hard. Guys who throw high fastballs, he’d have the ability to square those up.”
On June 11 last year against the Texas Rangers, Ariel Jurado had Devers 0 and 2 and tried to waste a 95-m.p.h. fastball at his eyes. Devers squared it up for a triple that scored two runs.
“It’s something you moreso see when you’re a kid,” said Devers’s former teammate, pitcher David Price. “Whenever there’s a player that’s head and shoulders above everybody else on the field, no matter what you throw them, they’re going to put the barrel on it. You don’t see it a lot in the big leagues.”
Price recalled just two players he’s faced who had the ability to chase and still square up pitches like Devers: Houston’s Jose Altuve and Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero.
When Guerrero was with the Angels, Price threw him a changeup that he thought would land over the white line in the lefthanded batter’s box.
“He hit it 111 [m.p.h.] back by my face,” Price said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I belong here if that pitch is being hit.’ ”
Guerrero is an extreme case and perhaps the greatest bad-ball hitter of all-time. But Devers, too, can leave a pitcher who thought he made a great pitch dejected.
“It’s kind of tough to game plan for those guys,” Price said. “Because you know that they’re going to swing. You know that they’re going to be aggressive. You try to make your pitch, and if they wind up laying off the first couple of pitches, now you’re kind of forced to throw them a strike.”
Throwing a strike, Price explained, sometimes is the game plan for aggressive hitters who have such great coverage. When he faced Guerrero, the scouting report sometimes involved huge risk: Throw it down the middle. The thinking was simple but daring: Guerrero was so used to being pitched to all parts of the zone that, maybe, if he saw one down the middle, it would surprise him.
“Just throw it middle-middle,” Price said. “He might get too big and pop it up.”
There certainly can be a downside to Devers’s approach — believing you can hit anything. In Devers’s case, he needs some control when the lows hit.
Last year, he ranked third in the majors in swings out of the zone (527), according to Baseball Savant. He also was fourth in chase rate (40.5 percent), per Fangraphs. When he hit .262 in September, his chase rate went up just 1.9 percent. But the contact percentage on that chase rate decreased from 76.2 to 72.6 percent. Chasing can have a negative impact when Devers hits a little bump in the road.
Devers is just 23 years old and is still learning what it means to be disciplined at the plate. The Red Sox have focused in on him being more selective; Price mentioned that sometimes last season when Devers would lay off a ball, former manager Alex Cora would give him a prize.
Still, Hyers and the Sox are careful in how they go about teaching Devers patience. They don’t necessarily want to tame him when it comes to what he can do on pitches off the plate. The coaching staff understands his special skill. Stripping him of that would be taking away from the type of player Devers is. It’s more about narrowing the focus on a specific part of the zone until he gets to two strikes.
“He’s an aggressive hitter,” Hyers said. “We don’t want him to be passive at all. We need him to be aggressive because I think it frees him up. When he overthinks and he’s trying to be too precise and too narrow-focused, I don’t think we’re getting the best Devers.”