Pressure was at the fulcrum of the 2020 Major League Baseball season. Teams were tasked with having to navigate a pandemic, playing inside a stadium while COVID-19 ravaged the world outside. On the field, the shortened 60-game season offered another layer of pressure, forcing players to rush their progression without a clear sense of direction.
The Red Sox and Rafael Devers certainly felt the brunt of that at the start of 2020 and throughout.
“A couple months of the season, everybody was trying to get off to a good start,” Red sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “And then some players didn’t and that’s when the stress and anxiety [came into play]. Trying to do a little more than they’re capable of doing.”
Devers has a history of starting slow at the plate. In 2019 when Devers slashed .311/.360/.555 with a .916 OPS and 32 homers, he hit just .246 through his first 71 plate appearances. He was without a homer until May 3.
Devers appeared lost to begin 2020, batting just .223 in his first 30 games, only to take off shortly after. In his final 27 games, Devers put together a .306/.353/.568 line with a .921 OPS. He finished the season at .263 and tied with Xander Bogaerts with 11 homers. Now, imagine if he had a full slate of games under his belt? This year, Devers has a full slate to look forward to.
“It’s calming to know that I’ll be able to take the spring that I’ve been having right now and carry that over and not have to worry about shutting it down,” Devers said through team interpreter Bryan Almonte. “So it’s good to be able to be ready for an actual full season.”
Devers wants to get off to a good start. Yet his talent and skill to hit a baseball can be a gift and a curse. Devers’s bat-to-ball talent includes his ability to hit bad pitches. He can take a pitch at his shoes and lace it off the Green Monster or a pitch up in the zone and belt it for a homer to straightaway center. But when Devers is going bad, he can get a overzealous. And the pitches outside the zone he typically would get to are suddenly rollover grounders to the second baseman or a swing-and-miss.
In turn, the Sox coaching staff has to find a balance that doesn’t nullify his skill, just reels it in a bit.
“I don’t want him to go out there and just swing just for the hell of it, you know, like have a plan,” manager Alex Cora said. “Know what you’re looking for and go from there.
“So he works hard on it, but obviously, you know, his ability is different from others. He can be better, and when he walks he becomes more dangerous.”
Devers’s offense is a fixture in the middle of the Red Sox’ order. He was hitting just .190 in 45 Grapefruit League appearances before Thursday but spring training isn’t where Devers earns his money. His track record and proven hitting ability offer him the opportunity to hit when the lights shine brightest.
Devers came to camp slimmer and more locked in, it seems. The concern surrounding a potential restart or shortened year isn’t the black cloud that it once was. He feels rejuvenated, knowing he doesn’t have to chase stats.
“Come Opening Day, the first game, I want to be able to get three hits and get off to a good start,” Devers said. “But all I can do is just put in the work that I continually do every single day and just try to play the game and try to put up the stats that I know I can.”