At the beginning of June, Rafael Devers appeared more vulnerable than he had at perhaps any point of his career.
Over three consecutive games in Houston, the Astros threw him literally nothing but fastballs. Devers was overmatched, striking out in one plate appearance after another. A player who’d been one of the most ferocious hitters in baseball through the first two months of the season suddenly appeared shockingly vulnerable.
“The reality was that they exposed him — let’s be honest,” recounted Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “His mechanics were off. I mean, way off. And it felt like a little kid when you throw to them and they keep swinging and swinging and swinging and they want to hit it, and swinging and swinging and swinging, instead of just trying to stay back and hit it the other way.”
There has been a lot of kid in Devers throughout his career. Youthful exuberance is part of what defines the 24-year-old.
Yet in his fifth big league season, Devers has offered considerable evidence of growth — something that has been evident starting with that Houston series and that claimed a spotlight in the Red Sox’ 2-1 walkoff victory over the Blue Jays at Fenway Park on Monday night.
Devers pulverized a 95-miles-per-hour sinker from Buffalo/Toronto reliever Rafael Dolis, launching a 107-m.p.h. missile at the joint where the Green Monster meets the center-field fence. It was his second hit off a fastball in the game, improving him to 13 for 33 (.394) with a .576 slugging mark against fastballs over his last 13 games.
“I feel like I’ve been progressing well since Houston,” Devers said through translator Bryan Almonte. “They were throwing a lot of fastballs and they keep throwing fastballs now, so I continue to make adjustments I need to make. I know in Atlanta they’re going to be throwing the same thing, fastballs and fastballs. Once I get ahold of one I’m going to be fine. It comes with it and I’m making the adjustments necessary to hit that pitch.”
The ability to adjust is the hallmark of a hitter’s coming of age. Young players almost invariably endure giant valleys in their early big league tenure because they do not know how to counter when opponents repeatedly strike at their vulnerabilities. Struggles become self-perpetuating and overwhelming.
Such a characterization fit Devers to some degree in 2017 and certainly in 2018. But now, he understands the behind-the-scenes work needed to permit his physical gifts — in particular, his electrifying bat speed — to help him escape downturns. Struggles are not the cause for panic but instead a puzzle that can be solved.
And over the past couple of weeks, Devers has solved the fastball puzzle. Opponents continue to attack him with heat, but they are doing so at their own peril.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back to keep moving forward,” said Cora. “The fact that he’s able to make adjustments, it tells you that he’s growing. He’s still a kid, but he’s growing.”
That view harbors considerable promise for the Red Sox. Already, Devers is one of the most formidable middle-of-the-order contributors in the American League. He’s been neck-and-neck with Cleveland’s José Ramirez and Atlanta’s Austin Riley as the most productive players at his position in baseball.
Devers is now hitting .276/.340/.552 with 15 homers and 35 extra-base hits, and he’s delivered an immense number of timely hits. He leads the big leagues with 21 game-tying or go-ahead runs batted in, while hitting .347 with a 1.118 OPS with runners in scoring position. The game-winning hit against Dolis proved merely the latest in a string of significant contributions this year.
“Those are the moments we all want and being able to come through in that moment was really good and really special,” said Devers.
Devers is contributing in a way that is garnering him national recognition. He is currently the leading vote-getter in fan All-Star balloting, with the possibility of a trip to Denver next month in sight. Yet as much as the Red Sox are happy to see him as a potential All-Star, they are even more pleased by what his continuing growth means for the team over the course of the remaining 95 games of the season.
“He’s one of the best third basemen in the big leagues. He’s been amazing these first few months,” said Cora. “The cool thing about this is probably this is his best start professionally, right? He always struggles in the first half and then he becomes a monster in the second half. Hopefully he becomes a monster and he can add up to what he’s doing. If that happens, it should be a fun summer.”