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Red Sox Phenom Rafael Devers Is Taking over AL Pennant Race at Just 20 Years Old

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 21, 2017

Boston Red Sox's Rafael Devers watches his two-run home run off Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez during the first inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Rafael Devers' official nickname is "Carita," the Spanish word for "baby face."

For the Boston Red Sox, though, he might as well go by "The Difference."

The 20-year-old third baseman didn't make his major league debut until July 25. Yet, he's already made the leap from a well-regarded but untested prospect to one of Major League Baseball's hottest hitters, not to mention the main driver of Boston's surge in the American League pennant race.

Devers owns a .350/.416/.700 slash line across 21 games. He collected his eighth home run on a hard shot to the deepest part of Fenway Park on Saturday, which MLB Stat of the Day and Elias Sports highlighted as a history-making dinger:

MLB Stat of the Day @MLBStatoftheDay

The kid can rake. @Rafael_Devers is the only player with 8+ homers in their first 20 @MLB games before turning 21 (h/t @EliasSports). https://t.co/GobUkdfNt2

For the Red Sox, it amounts to a dream solution to what had been a nightmare problem. 

Whether it was Pablo Sandoval, Josh Rutledge or Deven Marrero manning the position, third base was an offensive black hole through the season's first four months. Making matters worse were the many reminders of what the Red Sox were missing.

Former Boston third baseman Travis Shaw was mashing for the Milwaukee Brewers while the guy the Red Sox traded him for, reliever Tyler Thornburg, recovered from season-ending surgery. Yoan Moncada, the elite infield prospect at the center of the Chris Sale trade, was thriving in the Chicago White Sox's farm system. And then, despite rumors about him going to Boston, the White Sox spurned the Red Sox by trading veteran slugger Todd Frazier to the New York Yankees.

It was fair to read the promotion of Devers—who was the youngest player in the majors up until the Atlanta Braves called up Ozzie Albies—as an act of desperation that could easily backfire. The Red Sox risked setting his development back and thus changing the setting on their third base problem from "Short Term" to "Long Term."

Instead, Devers has been exactly as advertised.

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 19:  Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox returns to the dugout after he scores in the fifth inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on August 19, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Im
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Devers was liked by scouts when the Red Sox signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. He was a top-100 prospect by 2015 and entered 2017 as a top-20 prospect.

Then he really took off, putting up a .955 OPS and hitting 20 homers in 86 games for Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. In summing up his offensive profile, Jeffrey Paternostro and Ben Carsley of Baseball Prospectus wrote words that now sound awfully prescient:

"Rafael Devers may have the best overall offensive tool set in the minors right now. He can get pull-happy at times, and he takes his hacks, but he can cover just about everything including premium velocity. The power plays to all fields and is potential plus-plus in games in short order."

That last part sure checks out. Courtesy of MLBFarm.com, here's what it looks like when all of Devers' 2017 hits are put in a single spray chart:

Image courtesy of MLBFarm.com.

His doubles and home runs have gone to all fields. If those hits were soldiers on a battlefield, he'd have the enemy surrounded.

With six homers to the left of center field, the left-handed swinger has mostly favored going the other way since he's gotten to the majors. That's a hell of a way to make a living at Fenway Park, where one need not crush the ball to get it off or over the Green Monster.

Yet Devers' capacity to put a charge into the ball must not be underestimated. He went into Sunday in a prominent spot on the MLB exit velocity leaderboard:

RankPlayerAVG Exit Velo (MPH)
1Aaron Judge95.2
2Joey Gallo93.4
3Nelson Cruz93.1
4Miguel Sano92.8
5Khris Davis92.6
6Rafael Devers92.4
7Paul Goldschmidt91.7
T7Manny Machado91.7
T8Ryan Zimmerman91.7
10Giancarlo Stanton91.6

Some of this is due to how Devers picks his battles. He's not on Joey Votto's level, but his above-average walk rate is a testament to an approach that doesn't feature too many swings at bad pitches.

Mostly, though, Devers' thump stems from his ability to get the barrel to the ball regardless of the pitch. Nothing illustrates that like the time he took a 103 mph Aroldis Chapman fastball for a long ride at Yankee Stadium:

That's at least the fastest pitch hit for a homer since 2008 and quite possibly the fastest pitch ever hit for a homer. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan has a terrific piece that shows how it was made possible by adjustments Devers was making on the fly as he squared off against Chapman.

Regardless of the specifics, Devers is faring about as well against good velocity as Paternostro and Carsley teased he would. The average fastball is 92.2 mph. Fastballs clocked at 93 mph and above are leaving his bat at an average of 100.9 mph, helping to earn him a 1.143 slugging percentage.

The obligatory words of warning are that 21 games isn't a large sample size and that pitchers are bound to find a weakness in Devers' game and look to exploit it. This is the way of things.

Great hitters, however, are able to adjust back. And all the evidence on the table right now suggests Devers is on his way to being a great hitter.

As it is, he's already transformed Boston's offense. Before he arrived, it had a .735 OPS and was averaging one homer per game. Since he arrived, it has an .800 OPS and has averaged 1.3 homers per game.

Although his bat is far ahead of his glove, Devers has even pitched in on defense as well. Never more so than when he started a triple play against the St. Louis Cardinals last week.

"He's very special. He's been doing everything you possibly can do," Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said this weekend, per Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald. "What more can you ask for? He's been able to step up in big situations, and he's handled it like he's a veteran."

The club's fortunes have changed accordingly. The Red Sox are 16-6 since Devers debuted. Their lead in the AL East has gone from two games to five games. Their deficit behind the Houston Astros for the American League's best record has gone from 12 games to 4.5 games. And, according to FanGraphs, their odds of making the World Series are now about as good as any AL team's.

Hence, the nickname their young third baseman ought to have.

               

Data courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs, Baseball Savant and MLBFarm.com.

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