It was clear that Rafael Devers was something special in the making when he became the youngest player in MLB history to hit an inside-the-park homer in the postseason during the Red Sox’ final game of the 2017 ALDS. They didn’t win, but Devers was a winner in that short postseason run; while most of the lineup laid down and played dead, the then-20-year-old went 4-for-11 with 2 walks, 2 home runs, and 5 RBI. His following postseason was impressive too, with a .294 AVG, 3 walks, another home run, and 9 RBI. Almost all of this before his 22nd birthday on October 24, 2018, give or take 4 days.
So much of baseball is unpredictable. Predictions and power-rankings are often way off-base, pun intended, but it was still a fairly sure thing to say last February that 2019 would be Rafael Devers’ breakout season.
Narrator: “It was.”
In what was supposed to be the Red Sox’ defending champs season, many of his teammates fell apart due to injury or complacency. Devers, on the other hand, positively exploded in 2019. He finished 12th in MVP voting. He should have been an All-Star. For much of the season, he lead the entire league in a variety of offensive stats, including hits, doubles, and RBI. At season’s end, he finished 4th in the AL with a .311 batting average (11th overall) and 3rd in RBI (10th overall) behind teammate Xander Bogaerts. He and Bogaerts were also tied for 8th-best slugging percentage in the AL. Devers finished 2nd in hits, and the only person in the American League who scored more runs than he did was Mookie Betts (135), and that’s often because Devers was the one driving him in with a clutch hit. In 2018, he did not crack the top-40 in any of the aforementioned stats; only a year later, he was leading most of the league in many major categories. That’s quite the ascension for a player who’s only recently turned 23 years old.
It gets better. Today, Baseball Savant officially expanded its Outs Above Average statistic to include infielders as well as outfielders. Not only was Devers the top-ranked Red Sox infielder with a +7, but he was tied with Mookie Betts for best on the team. He’s also ranked higher than any Yankee infielder in 2019.
So what is OAA? Here’s the CliffsNotes version: Outs Above Average measures how many outs a player makes (or does not make) and takes into account not only whether or not they made the play, but how difficult the play was to make. It factors in Catch Probability, which MLB defines as “the distance an outfielder must go, the time he has to get there, and the direction he travels to put a percentage of catch likelihood on each individual batted ball.” The player is receives a credit (+) or amount to be debited (-) depending on the outcome of each play. OAA is the cumulative metric of the entirety of a player’s Catch Probability for the season.
But in Devers’ case, there is more to this stat than meets the eye. There’s something more important about him having a +7 OAA last season than the fact that he was one of the team leaders in the statistic. 7+ speaks to Devers’ growth as a defensive player. In 2017, he had a -11 OAA. In 2018, he improved to -7 OAA. In 2019, he changed that negative to a positive, one of the biggest improvements of any player for this defensive metric. Rafael Devers is only 23, and he’s quickly developing into an excellent player, at the plate and on the third baseline. He appeared in 36 more games and played 336.8 more defensive innings in 2019 than in 2018, but committed 2 fewer errors. The eye test is in his favor too; countless times this season, he made the most difficult plays look completely effortless.
Between the slashed payroll, the uncertain future of the starting rotation and Mookie Betts, and Alex Cora’s alleged involvement in not one, but two electronic sign-stealing schemes, it’s not easy to look forward to the 2020 Red Sox.
Rafael Devers is the bright eye of this storm. He’s poised to reach incredible heights, and he’s just getting started.
Welcome to the Decade of Devers.
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