Rafael Devers detoured on the path to stardom in 2020.
In 2019, he looked like a Red Sox hot-corner cornerstone for years to come, a player with elite offensive capabilities who was making steady defensive strides. In 2020, while still posting solid offensive numbers, he fell short of the bar he’d reached the previous season. And his defense declined sharply, raising questions about his long-term future at the position.
In 2020, of course, several standout players across baseball fell short of their established or anticipated performance levels while trying to adapt to the strange circumstances of playing in a pandemic.
The variance brought by a 60-game season, along with restrictions impeding routines and behind-the-scenes work, contributed to lots of players struggling offensively, particularly at the midsummer start of the season. Devers seemed to fall into that pattern.
“At the beginning, he was just trying to get his timing,” said Nelson Montes de Oca, Devers’s agent.
“The fact that Spring Training 2 wasn’t really a normal spring training, it took him a little longer to get back into timing and his hitting timing.
“The first two weeks were bad, but after that, especially the last six weeks, he was back to being Devers.”
Devers hit .183/.239/.317 through the Red Sox’ first 23 games, then went on a tear, hitting .307/.350/.573 over the final 37 — marks that fell in line with his 2019 performance (.311/.361/.555). Though he proved a less-disciplined hitter in 2020 — and the Red Sox want him to become more selective — his ability to obliterate pitches in a number of locations in the strike zone remained intact.
The more enduring concerns relate to his defense. Devers committed a major league-high 14 errors, and the miscues came in bunches — eight in the first 17 games, another four in a six-game burst toward the end of the year. Moreover, his range, which often was average or slightly above in 2019, was diminished.
Early in the season, some members of the Sox felt Devers struggled not only in regaining his timing but also because he returned from the shutdown heavier than he’d been during spring training.
“He was kind of catching up a little bit,” said third base and infield coach Carlos Febles. “He was getting back in shape.”
Yet just when Febles and others thought Devers had done just that, he suffered another setback that lingered for most of the season. On Aug. 9, Devers injured his left ankle when stretching for the bag on a ground out (the broadcast captured a grunt just after he crossed the base). He missed two games Aug. 10-11, then played 42 of the final 43, appearing in a team-leading 57 for the season.
But the ankle never truly healed, and that affected his range and throwing mechanics. He committed three throwing errors in a game shortly after his return to the field and made nine in total after returning. While there was no structural damage serious enough to keep him out of the lineup, Devers nonetheless struggled through the end of the year.
“It’s hard to take him out of the game,” said Febles. “He loves to play. He wants to be there.
“There were a few errors he made that I don’t think he would have made if he would have been healthy, to be honest. Sometimes he was not setting his feet the way he should.
“You need your ankles. You need your legs. When an athlete is not healthy and he’s concerned about not making some moves when you go to the baseball, sometimes it affects the way you play.”
Bad habits proved difficult to correct for two reasons. First, Febles believes Devers tended to beat himself up rather than moving forward. (The infield coach prepared a video playlist featuring Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, and Matt Chapman — not only to examine their strengths as third baseman, but also to highlight that they, too, make errors.)
Additionally, the injury and COVID-19 protocols often prevented Devers — typically a hard worker before games — from participating in pregame defensive work.
“We didn’t do any early work the last month and a half of the season,” said Febles. “I wanted to make sure that he saved it for the games. We weren’t going to get anything out of it; we were just going to make it worse.”
Devers made it through the year, and when given the chance to sit out — particularly toward the end of the year — he declined. But he spent time in Boston at the conclusion of the year rehabbing and working out with Red Sox strength coach Kiyoshi Momose.
Devers continued his strength and conditioning work through the winter in the Dominican Republic. He’s currently at about 230 pounds — slightly lighter than the 235 at which he played in 2019 — and will leave next week to work with a personal trainer in Tampa Bay.
“He’s 100 percent now,” said Montes de Oca. “He’s getting ready to have a really good 2021 season. He takes pride on helping the team win and hopefully bringing another championship. He loves that team. He loves the city and loves the fans.”
That enthusiasm for Boston makes it natural to wonder whether Devers — who is eligible for salary arbitration this offseason for the first time, and could become eligible for free agency after 2023 — might be open to a long-term deal with the Sox.
For now, there haven’t been conversations between Devers and the team on that. Instead, the sides are focused on agreeing to a salary for 2021 by next Friday, in advance of the deadline to file figures for arbitration.
“We haven’t talked about 2021 or a multiyear deal right now,” said Montes de Oca.
“Right now he’s just concentrated on getting in shape for 2021 and put in the best season and helping the team win. We haven’t talked or thought about any multiyear deal at this point.”
A return to the track Devers was on entering 2019 would be a significant development for a Red Sox team hoping to rebound from the disappointment of 2020.
“I know how he feels about 2020,” said Febles. “In 2018, he struggled, came back strong in 2019. He struggled in ’20. He’s going to play with a chip on his shoulder now.
“He’s going to come back. You’ll see. He’ll come back stronger. He’ll be the player that we saw in ’19, and the player that we think he should be.”