NEW YORK — Rafael Devers turned Yankee Stadium into his personal playground for history on Saturday night. With a 5-for-5 night that included a grand slam and a double, Devers — at the tender age of 21 years and 249 days — became the youngest visiting player ever to record five hits in a game at Yankee Stadium, as well as the youngest Red Sox to hit a grand slam against the Yankees.
The performance in the Red Sox’ historically lopsided 11-0 romp over the Yankees offered a glimpse into a player with immense potential, one who has an unusual ability to hammer the ball all over the park. The first-inning grand slam was to left field off Yankees starter Sonny Gray, and Devers added two more singles to the opposite field — one off Gray, another in the ninth inning off lefty Chasen Shreve. He also had a single to center and a double to right that came just short of clearing the fences.
In a season in which he’s run both hot and cold, Devers is now hitting .251/.294/.447. He has 14 homers and 33 extra-base hits, a pace that would yield 27 homers and 64 extra-base hits. There are only 24 players to hit at least 25 homers and collect 60 extra-base hits at age 21 or younger; many of them either already have plaques in Cooperstown or eventually will.
In short, it was a remarkable night for Devers that said a lot about the possibilities that are opening in front of him. Yet the night was also a revelation in another regard.
When Devers hit his first-inning grand slam, the dugout exploded in a way that offered a glimpse into a team that has taken one of its own under its wing. That Devers performed as he did, and that his teammates and coaches beamed with a sort of parental pride, offered evidence of what members of the team refer to as a “hitting culture” that is taking shape and playing a sizable role in the team’s first-place standing and major league-leading 5.2 runs per game.
At 21, Devers remains at an early stage in his development. The fact that he is in the big leagues doesn’t alter the fact that he is an unfinished product.
“We take him for granted because he’s talented and he did what he did last year but he’s still a kid,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He’s doing a lot of things that probably he skipped a few things during his minor league career obviously because they needed him here last year.”
This year, Devers found it difficult to replicate the immediate success he had upon reaching the big leagues. With the league having adjusted to him, often attacking him with fastballs up and in, he was having a hard time in the early months of the season making the necessary counter-adjustments to remain productive.
And so, one day earlier this month, rather than taking normal batting practice on the field, Devers had an extended indoor batting practice session with assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett on the road. The details are a bit imprecise. Cora thought it might have been in Baltimore at the start of a road trip; Barkett (who is lefthanded) thought it was on a day when the Red Sox were scheduled to face a southpaw.
Regardless of the timing, the value of the exercise was felt immediately. In essence, Devers was getting a private tutorial — one that teammate J.D. Martinez joined — in which he could feel comfortable and focus on both the physical and mental adjustments he needed to make. The value of such a setting immediately became apparent, and in recent weeks, all of Devers’s pregame hitting work has taken place indoors.
“It wasn’t a plan of, ‘Hey, you’re not doing this anymore.’ It was just, ‘Hey, this is our new routine.’ It’s become a daily thing,” said Barkett. “He likes a certain kind of music. We play that. It’s kind of a time for him to decompress mentally and be able to work without a lot of noise.”
Barkett and Devers work together every day. On occasion, Cora has joined. Significantly, so have veterans Martinez and Mitch Moreland.
(“Carita!” Martinez will sometimes yell across the clubhouse, summoning Devers by his nickname to start a session.)
In the first session, Barkett, who, like Martinez and Cora, is bilingual, recalled, “J.D. showed him a drill. It was a simple way to get him to do what [hitting coach Tim Hyers] and I had been talking about to him a little bit. He liked the drill — plus, J.D. is saying it to him. That’s a huge influence.
“J.D. is great. I’ll go to him and say, ‘Hey, we’re trying to get to Devers about this. Can you talk to him for me?’ ” Barkett added. “He’s a 21-year-old kid, and sometimes, maybe [he’ll think], ‘I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear it.’ But coming from [Martinez], he’s going to listen to it. [Devers is] great. But I remember being 21 and people trying to tell me stuff. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got it. I’ll figure it out.’ All of a sudden, somebody like that talks to me and I take it differently. From there, that kind of helped him. It cleaned up a lot of things. He started getting results.”
The work varies. Sometimes Devers will hit off a high-speed pitching machine, sometimes Barkett will throw to him, sometimes he’ll offer flips, sometimes they’ll watch video. Different drills are likewise featured. But just as important, there’s also a lot of chatter involving Devers and Barkett, with a rolling ensemble of cameo participants.
For Martinez, the opportunity to work with and mentor teammates as well as to receive feedback from them offers as much satisfaction as his ability to translate his own work into personal results. Martinez recalled the challenging start of his career with the Astros, when he felt like he was on a hitting island without the influence of veterans around him.
“I think it’s huge [for a young player like Devers]. When I was in Houston, I never had that,” said Martinez. “I never had an older veteran player to talk to, to bounce ideas off. I think it’s huge. It’s sad because the way the game is going today, you’re not going to see that as often. But I remember just searching for answers, searching for ideas, and I’d just be in there with the hitting coach — not being able to talk game plans, not being able to talk how you study pitchers, what you’re looking for, going over at-bats, stuff like that.”
Now, Martinez relishes the chance to spare one of the youngest players in the majors from a similar fate — and, for that matter, to connect with the other members of the lineup in regular conversations about hitting. When Martinez joined the Sox and had the chance to talk to Hyers — who brought to Boston in his first year as the big league hitting coach an offensive philosophy that closely matches the beliefs of Martinez — the two agreed to have daily hitters’ meetings to strategize for opposing pitchers and to discuss their craft.
“I love being able to have everyone bounce ideas off each other, everyone talk, game plans, what’s a good game plan off this guy from guys who have had success, and really making it open — not making it one-sided, not making it narrow-minded,” said Martinez. “If you’ve had success off a guy, share it. Let’s hear it. Maybe that might help somebody.”
Devers particularly seems to relish friendly challenges from his teammates, whether bets from Cora about the frequency with which he walks or back-and-forth exchanges with Martinez about where they’re attacking pitches. Such exchanges help Devers learn to develop an approach in a fashion that is encouraging rather than threatening.
“We play games with each other. We’ll make bets: If I swing at a ball here, I owe you this. If you swing at a ball here, you owe me this. He loves it. It makes him really focus. He really gets caught up in it. I think that’s an important thing for a young hitter like him to go up there with a plan and not just go up there to swing,” said Martinez. “I get on him every now and then about, ‘What were you swinging at there? C’mon. You’ve got to be better than that. If you have a game plan or a reason, I can understand that.’ ”
Devers has been able to credit a number of teammates — Martinez, Moreland, and Mookie Betts among them — along with Barkett and Hyers with some of the in-season adjustments he’s been making to get his swing back under to control and reclaim the rare opposite-field power he showed in his big league debut last year. Yet those same teammates are careful to credit Devers as the one who has been willing to work, and to learn.
Saturday night’s grand slam offered some glimpses of how the behind-the-scenes work has paid off. In an effort to control the pull-heavy tendencies that characterized him early in the year, Devers has closed his batting stance. He still sometimes pulls off the ball — as he did in swinging and missing at a 1-0 offering from Gray and fouling off a 1-1 pitch — but then, on a 1-2 pitch, he remained closed off through his swing, kept his bat inside the ball, then drove it into the left-field seats.
The swing represented the payoff for Devers’s work in his setting — as well as his growing awareness of who he is as a hitter.
“[Before the game] he was actually working on something that he came up with on his own to maintain his [swing] path,” said Barkett. “Usually I flip to him and then throw it to him live. I said, ‘Are you ready for me to throw live?’ He said, ‘No, no, bro. I’m working on something today. I’ve got something.’ I thought, ‘Wow.’ Then the last at-bat against Shreve, we game-planned against him. I said, ‘Hey, get him early in the count because the split is nasty late.’ He hits the first pitch for a line drive [single].”
Such moments illuminate not only how Devers is improving but also the offensive environment that the Red Sox are creating. Cora often mentions how much he’s enjoying the increasing volume of “baseball talk” in the clubhouse and dugout, teammates sharing a passion for the game in a way meant to support each other.
Martinez feels that the atmosphere is like that of a family, with big brothers looking out for the young “Carita,” hoping to help him and delighting in watching him grow. As the Red Sox coaching staff observes the development, they see meaning that goes beyond the impressive numbers of any individual or their lineup.
“For me as a coach, when they’re coaching each other, especially a veteran player coaching a younger player, that’s the kind of culture that [Hyers] and I have tried to create through [Cora],” said Barkett. “It’s the batting-cage culture, so to speak. It’s not like, ‘We’re a coach, you’re the player.’ We’re all there together, sharing ideas. We’re collectively trying to get better. That’s kind of what it feels like as we move through this season.”