Rafael Devers has been rendered powerless by repeated exposure to his kryptonite.
Over two dreadful days at Minute Maid Park, the Astros have bullied Devers with the bluntest imaginable plan of attack. They’ve thrown the 24-year-old literally nothing but fastballs. Despite the near certainty about what’s coming, the star slugger has been utterly helpless.
On Memorial Day, Astros starter José Urquidy and reliever Enoli Paredes combined to throw Devers 15 consecutive four-seam fastballs. He struck out in all three plate appearances with four swings-and-misses in an 11-2 Red Sox loss.
“Obviously, these guys attack him with the fastball,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of the Astros before Tuesday’s game. “It’s a game of adjustments. I believe probably they’re going to keep attacking him with fastballs. Let’s see if he can make the adjustments today.”
The Astros held up their end of the bargain. Houston starter Luis Garcia threw Devers 14 pitches over three plate appearances. All were four-seam fastballs. So, too, were the four pitches thrown against him by reliever Ryne Stanek in the ninth.
Devers did not make the adjustment. His 0-for-4 night represented a giant, flapping red flag in the Red Sox’ 5-1 loss to the Astros.
Devers had two strikeouts and a weak flyout with five swings and misses against Garcia, and flied to left against Stanek. After his second strikeout – a swing-and-miss through a thigh-high fastball to strand the tying runner on first in the top of the sixth – Devers hurled his helmet and bat in disgust amidst a mind-boggling stretch of frustration, one that highlighted the strange nature of his season.
In 2021, the Red Sox five-hole hitter has re-established his standing as one of the most impressive sluggers in the game. He entered Tuesday hitting .280 with a .349 OBP, .597 slugging mark (seventh in the majors), 14 homers (tied for fifth), and 31 extra-base hits (1st).
Yet his production has been of an atypical sort. He entered Houston with the fourth-highest average (.362) and fifth-highest slugging mark (.745) in the majors against breaking pitches. He crushes breaking stuff regardless of location – in or out of the strike zone.
But against fastballs (both four-seamers and sinkers), he’s been a mess, hitting .172 (243rd out of 262 players who have seen 200 or more fastballs) and slugging .366 (192nd). Devers has 51 strikeouts this year on fastballs, far and away the most in the majors. He’s swung and missed at 22.2 percent of the fastballs he’s seen, the third-highest whiff rate in the majors.
This is not the player who once drilled an opposite-field homer off of a 103 mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman. Nor is it the player who hit .306 and slugged .555 against fastballs in 2019.
“It seems like he’s gotten away from who he is. It seems like he knows a fastball is coming and he’s getting bigger and bigger [with his swing],” said Cora. “Sometimes we forget that he’s still young and he’s still learning at this level, and stuff like this is going to happen.”
And the depth of his struggles are ominous. Pitchers generally have moved away from fastball-dominant approaches because, regardless of how hard they’re thrown, the pitches that move the least tend to get hit the hardest.
But nearly everyone who steps on a mound now hasmid- to upper-90s velocity in their pocket. And when they see vulnerability on a fastball, they don’t hesitate to exploit it.
That’s been the case with Devers, who has seen 59.3 percent fastballs this year – the eighth-highest rate of fastballs thrown against any hitter in the majors. The Astros, obviously, took that plan of attack to a new extreme. Undoubtedly, other teams will follow until Devers proves capable of punishing them.
Devers isn’t foreignto struggles. At times in his career, he’s gone through profound funks when he couldn’t hit anything, as happened when he carried a sub-.200 average through nearly two months of the 2016 minor league season in High-A Salem.
“He was a young kid. He was trying to find his way,” said Joe Oliver, who managed Devers in Salem that year. “That first half of the year was very frustrating for him. I got to see a lot of young Rafael. Then the second half, he just took off and he found his rhythm. He found his swing. I didn’t see as much of the tapping himself on the helmet [or the] kind of pushing his head further into his helmet.”
That episode – and many others throughout his career – offer a reminder. Devers has been resilient as a professional and capable of self-correcting when something goes awry.
Still, Tuesday’s game offered a glimpse into the severity of the third baseman’s struggles and anguish. Shortly after Devers betrayed his frustration with his post-strikeout helmet and bat fling in the sixth inning, he compounded it with a fielding error in the seventh. For one of the first times this season, he looked like a player consumed by his slump.
“This is a guy, he can catch up with the fastball. He can get on top of it and shoot it the other way,” said Cora. “A good line drive to left field is probably what we’re looking for right now. If he does that, he’s going to be fine.”
For the Red Sox and Devers, there is urgency to reach that point. The Red Sox are four games into a stretch of 15 consecutive contests against teams that have had strong across-the-board pitching performances early in the season, with seven games against the Astros (3.87 ERA, 11th best in MLB), three against the Yankees (3.20, fourth), four against the Blue Jays (3.91, 12th), and three against the Marlins (3.40, eighth).
Those teams are certainly capable of pitching to gameplans and exploiting weakness. And in the case of Devers, the stunning inability to hit big league fastballs represents a glaring vulnerability.