Just how good could Rafael Devers be?
Rafael Devers had a memorable, historic trip to Cleveland. He followed his epic 6-for-6 performance on Tuesday night — which included four doubles — by collecting hits in his first two plate appearances in Wednesday afternoon’s 5-1 victory, the second a solo homer to the opposite field in left.
In a vacuum, there would be plenty to digest from that run, including the fact that he became the first Red Sox player in 81 years to collect hits in eight straight plate appearances. Yet increasingly, Devers’s body of work as a 22-year-old raises questions about whether there might be more historic accomplishments on the horizon.
What Devers is doing at 22 is little short of remarkable. He’s hitting .327 with a .375 OBP, .580 slugging mark, 25 homers (on pace for 33), while driving in 94 runs (on pace for 124). He has 71 extra-base hits — on pace for 94, which would be the second most ever by a player 22 or younger, sandwiched between the 96 accumulated by Joe DiMaggio as a 22-year-old in 1937 and the 91 amassed by Alex Rodriguez as a 20-year-old in 1996.
Of course, the eye-popping extra-base numbers from Devers require a measure of context. After all, this is a year where the baseball often has behaved like a golf ball, flying out of parks as if a tee shot on the moon. Even so, within the context of this year of explosive offense, the performance by Devers stands out as historically significant.
Devers entered Wednesday with an OPS+ of 139 — meaning that his on-base percentage and slugging mark are 39 percent better than the league average. That OPS+ is elite for a player of any age, but for a 22-year-old it’s stunning.
It remains to be seen if Devers sustains anything approaching this level over the duration of 2019. But even assuming some slippage, it wouldn’t be a shock if he wraps up the year with an OPS+ of at least 130. There have been 18 big leaguers since 1980 who had an OPS+ of at least 130 in their age-22 season or earlier. The list is illustrious and suggests that Devers is on an early-career arc that could put him in special company:
■ Rickey Henderson (ages 21 and 22) — Hall of Famer
■ Tim Raines (age 21) — Hall of Famer
■ Cal Ripken Jr. (age 22) — Hall of Famer, two-time MVP
■ Ken Griffey Jr. (ages 20, 21, 22) — Hall of Famer, MVP
■ Juan Gonzalez (age 22) — two-time MVP
■ Alex Rodriguez (ages 20, 22) — three-time MVP
■ Albert Pujols (ages 21, 22) — three-time MVP
■ Miguel Cabrera (ages 21, 22) — two-time MVP
■ David Wright (age 22) — seven-time All-Star
■ Melvin Upton Jr. (age 22) — the outlier in this group
■ Pablo Sandoval (age 22) — two-time All-Star (easy to forget how good he was before Boston)
■ Jason Heyward (age 20) — one-time All-Star
■ Giancarlo Stanton (ages 21, 22) — MVP
■ Mike Trout (ages 20, 21, 22) — two-time MVP
■ Manny Machado (age 22) — four-time All-Star
■ Bryce Harper (ages, 20, 22) — MVP
■ Corey Seager (ages 21, 22) — two-time All-Star
■ Cody Bellinger (age 21) — two-time All-Star
Half of the players on this list won MVP awards — a number that may well grow this year if Bellinger wins National League honors. Four of them (Henderson, Raines, Ripken, and Griffey) are Hall of Famers, with three more (Pujols, Cabrera, Trout) looking like locks to join them, and another — Rodriguez — having produced a Hall of Fame-caliber career, albeit with a giant asterisk.
In short, Devers is delivering a season of such distinction as a 22-year-old that it offers clear evidence of a player for whom it’s not unreasonable to daydream about an extraordinary career. Possibility, of course, does not guarantee the future shape of what he might do — Upton, Sandoval, and Heyward all offer cautionary tales — but it is clear that Devers represents one of the most formidable hitters in baseball right now, with a significant chance of building upon that status moving forward.