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BALTIMORE — Four innings before Rafael Devers delivered the beautiful swing Monday that offered a reminder of his gifts and his potential, he offered another glimpse that underscored the work-in-progress nature of his young career.
In the top of the seventh inning of the Red Sox’ 2-0 win over the Orioles, against Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy, Devers fouled off a pair of fastballs in the strike zone, then took another one that was inside. On a 1-and-2 pitch, Bundy fired a slider — a chase pitch set up by the fastballs. Devers chased it.
The pitch kept darting inside, well off the plate, a realization the 21-year-old made too late. As he swung, he became completely unbalanced, his weight shifting entirely to his front foot (his back foot actually came off the ground on the follow-through) on a pitch that might have hit him in the shin (about 15 inches off the ground) had he not swung.
The decision to swing highlighted Devers’s lack of pitch selection. He has hacked at 53.3 percent of pitches this year, making him the 15th-most indiscriminate hitter in the big leagues. Yet the fact that he pulled the ball foul showed something else, an unusual degree of hand-eye coordination that permitted him to get the bat on the ball and live to see another pitch.
“I was impressed,” said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett.
That said, Bundy’s pitch accomplished its purpose. His next offering was a fastball above the strike zone. Devers chased it for a strikeout. He followed that plate appearance with a bad rollover in the 10th inning, taking an 0-and-2 outside fastball (after swinging at the first two pitches from reliever Brad Brach) and grounding out to second.
At that point, Devers was 0 for 4 and looked like a player struggling to establish himself as a big leaguer. But his fifth and final plate appearance of the night offered a glimpse of something else.
With Xander Bogaerts on first base and no outs, Devers took a first-pitch fastball below the zone from reliever Michael Givens, then stayed on a 95-m.p.h. fastball away and hammered it to left-center for a double.
The hallmark of Devers’s impressive debut in 2017 was his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. He had 14 extra-base hits to left field in 240 plate appearances as a rookie. This year, that had been lacking, as he had just five through his first 263 plate appearances.
“I’ve been a little bit surprised,” said Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles, who had Devers in Double A Portland last year. “This is a guy who, it was easy for him to get out of a slump [in the minors] because of his ability to hit the ball the other way. He’s not doing that. We all know what he can do when he does hit the ball the other way.
“To me, it’s something you’ve got to remind him, ‘Devers, go the other way. You’re good at it.’ That’s what he needs to do, get back to basics.”
Devers understands this for a couple of reasons. First, his pull-heavy struggles early this year in which he’s been opening up too quickly and rolling over on pitches away harbor some resemblance to other stretches of his minor league career. While Devers spent all of 2017 locked in with an all-fields approach, one year earlier, he endured a rough start to the year, hitting .186/.269/.295 through 42 games.
But he found his way out of those struggles, emerging as one of the best hitters in the Carolina League despite the fact that he was one of the youngest players at the level, hitting .326/.367/.510 over the final 86 games and setting the stage for his monster 2017 season.
Devers has been able to draw upon that experience to maintain confidence in his ability.
“I’ve been going through a tough time now,” Devers said through translator Daveson Perez. “Those times in Salem are things I look back on and see what worked then, and try to implement it now.
“I feel like I’m always confident. I know I can hit. I know I have a talent for hitting and I never lost faith in that. Just remaining confident and knowing that I’m only a swing away.”
That is a message that has been amplified for Devers by those around him. Red Sox hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Barkett have been working with him to find his all-fields approach. So, too, have teammates J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts, who have been encouraging him not only in his mechanics but also having a plan of attack against a pitcher.
“We’re working very hard as a group highlighting certain parts of his day, going over his at-bats. It’s just going to take time,” said Barkett. “He’s a young player, trying to develop in the big leagues, learning about game-planning and how teams are pitching him. That’s something he never really had to learn about in the minor leagues. It’s a learning curve for him.”
The degree of that difference is easy to overlook. What a player must do to hold his own in the big leagues is a drastically different task than what he must do in the minors.
In this age of granular scouting data, ability is not enough. Less than 11 months removed from Double A, Devers is learning that lesson.
The minor league pitchers, said Febles, “don’t know what you’re missing. Playing Harrisburg, playing Altoona, they don’t know how you’re getting a guy out. Now, they know. If he’s getting out on fastballs up in the zone, that’s what you’re going to see.
“It’s about having an approach, a plan, an idea of how he’s going to face them. That’s the next step. J.D. and Mookie are doing a good job with that, trying to help him know how to prepare for certain pitches and pitchers.”
It’s a lesson that Devers can truly learn only at the big league level. In the Red Sox’ view, there wouldn’t be much accomplished by sending the 21-year-old to the minors, where success would come easily to him thanks to his bat speed, strength, and hand-eye coordination.
He needs the challenge of figuring out how to counter in the cat-and-mouse game. His current struggles — which the team can absorb in a lineup averaging 5.2 runs per game and thanks to defense that the team views as strong — represent equity being built to forge a consistent middle-of-the-order producer.
“He’s doing a heck of a job,” said Barkett. “Staying confident, playing really good third base for us, making adjustments — sometimes slowly but surely — but at the same time, he’s continuing in the right direction.”
He’s hitting .232/.287/.401, which is below average but not so bad that the team can’t tolerate it. He is 21 and, to no one’s surprise, showing periods in which he can impact the game and others in which he gets overmatched. For virtually every player, such early-career contrasts are both inevitable and necessary to develop.
“There’s stuff he’s learning here that he has to learn in here,” said Febles. “Is it tough? Definitely. But I think he’s on the right path, surrounded by the right people, talking about hitting, and it’s about getting back on track and simplifying things. It’s a matter of time.”
“It’s just a matter of when,” added manager Alex Cora. “We feel it’s going to happen soon.”
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