Selected or not, Rafael Devers is a star for Red Sox
DETROIT — The are two third basemen on the roster the American League will take into the All-Star game, Houston’s Alex Bregman and Oakland’s Matt Chapman.
It’s hard to take issue with those choices. Bregman is an outstanding all-around player and the heartbeat of a team that leads its division.
Chapman is one of the best defensive players of his generation and a strong hitter for a playoff contender.
Where does that leave Rafael Devers?
Not at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Tuesday, barring an injury in the next two days. But that’s OK. His time is coming and everybody around the Red Sox understands that.
Devers hit a two-run homer to help the Sox to a 9-6 victory against the Detroit Tigers on Friday night. He is hitting .331 with 16 home runs, 61 RBIs and a .946 OPS.
He’s among the American League leaders in most offensive categories and leads the majors with the most batted balls of at least 95 miles per hour.
“He’s one of the best players in the league right now and he’s 22,” teammate J.D. Martinez said. “He doesn’t have to worry about one All-Star Game.”
Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who has had a terrific season, felt snubbed and legitimately so when he was not selected to the team by either the fans or players. He was later named to the team as an injury replacement.
But if Devers was upset, he hid it behind a smile.
“Me?” he said last week when asked about making the team. “No. Not me. No.”
Devers has great respect for Bregman and Chapman. That’s part of it. He has talked about his admiration for Chapman’s defensive skills, particularly his range.
Devers also is cognizant that this is only his second full year in the majors. He’s already appeared in 15 postseason games and has a World Series ring. He doesn’t need an All-Star appearance for validation.
Red Sox fans hold some blame on this, too. Kansas City’s Hunter Dozier, who was on the disabled list for nearly a month, finished with more votes than Devers. Sox fans sat out this election for the most part.
Devers also is paying for the sins of his teammates. The Sox are one of baseball biggest underachievers this season, mired in third place and on pace to win 86 games — 22 fewer than last season.
None of that has been his fault. But at some point, a third-place team deserves only so many choices.
Focus instead on the fact that Devers is one of the few players on the team who has improved since last season.
He’s a more selective hitter, one who recognizes his strengths and doesn’t chase pitches he can’t do something with. It’s a product of better pre-game preparation and a willingness to use the information that’s available.
Devers trusted his hands last season, believing he could get his bat to any pitch because that is what he had always done coming up through the minors. A .298 on-base percentage last season showed him the folly of that strategy. Pitchers make adjustments quickly at the highest level.
Devers may not as consumed with video as Martinez, but he now pays attention to scouting reports and how to employ them.
His defensive strides are even more striking.
Devers committed a ninth-inning error in Chicago against the White Sox on May 2; it led to a walk-off loss that left him dejected.
It was a routine play that Devers botched. It was his ninth error, the second-most in the majors at the time. He has only three since.
Errors can be an inaccurate way to judge defensive ability. Defensive Runs Saved is better, and Devers is at plus-1. Only seven other third baseman are better. Devers was minus-13 last season.
Devers got more serious about his pre-game defensive work after that flub in Chicago, working with coaches Carlos Febles and Ramon Vazquez on his timing on grounders, when to charge, and when to take a step back.
He also changed how he positioned his glove, attacking the ball on the side so he could have a better angle to throw to first.
“Raffy has worked hard,” manager Alex Cora said last week. “You can see the difference. It’s not just the routine plays, either.”
For young players, confidence plays an outsized role in success. Devers now routinely charges balls hit in the hole instead of letting Bogaerts make a tougher play.
He’s proud of his defense, something that wouldn’t have seemed possible last season. Devers has answered the question of whether he will stay at third base for the long term. He will.
Devers cracked a two-run, opposite-field homer in the second inning on Friday night, giving the Sox a 3-1 led before a rain delay of two hours and four minutes.
Should he be an All-Star? Probably so. But Devers is improving at a rate where he’s going to become a regular, and Bregman and Chapman will be fighting for a spot.