First off, let’s make sure I’m not burying the lede here. At this point in the season, the unquestioned AL MVP is Shohei Ohtani. His two-way prowess is not just the most valuable profile in the league – it is the most impressive, and the most exciting. Behind him, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having the breakthrough season we all knew he had in him, and is leading the league in several hitting categories. In any other year, we’re anointing him already.
But were we to live in a bizarro world alternate dimension (or perhaps just the National League?) wherein those two were not factors, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more worthy third AL MVP candidate than Boston’s Rafael Devers.
At 24, Devers is coming into his own on a team that has bounced back with a vengeance in the AL East. He is hitting .282/.353/.570 with 19 Home Runs and 64 RBI. Along with Homers and RBI, he leads the Sox in WAR (2.9), Total Bases (162), and Slugging % (.570), while sitting second on the team in Runs, OPS+, WRC+, and Walks.
To whit, Devers has unquestionably been the best Third Baseman in the game this year. He leads all Major league hot corner denizens in (deep breath)… Home Runs, RBI, Runs, ISO, Slugging &, WRC+ and WAR, and is second to only Justin Turner in OBP and AVG. At a position that has traditionally been the bastion of offensive titans, Devers truly stands alone at the spot. At the very least, he’s looking at a Silver Slugger award and an All-Star appearance in 2021.
It’s important to note that we’ve seen this version of Devers before – his 2019 season was vastly underrated, wherein he hit .311 with 32 HR, 115 RBI, and a 5.9 WAR while reaching a career-low in K% (17.0%). But he wasn’t yet a leader on the team. That stellar 2019 season was good for just 12th in AL MVP voting – probably because he had Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts ahead of him in the Sox lineup. Now, while the 2021 lineup is still impressive – Bogaerts is hitting well, JD Martinez is coming back into relevance, and Alex Verdugo is emerging – Devers is front and center as the team’s offensive lynchpin.
Beyond the surface stats, it’s important to note that all of Devers’ key expected stats – wOBA, SLG, and AVG – are all above where he currently sits. Much of that has to do with a ridiculous Hard-Hit rate – 55.1% – that is sixth in the Majors, and an average Exit Velocity that’s 12th. All of this is to say that he is hitting the ball hard, and he is hitting it miles.
The Face of Boston?
When Devers came into the league in 2017 at the spritely, cherub-faced age of 20, he was the fourth-ranked prospect in the game. The hype was palpable, and he fulfilled much of it when he hit a frozen rope to center for his first Major League home run on his first Major League hit in his first Major League game. He doesn’t fit your Boston prototype – a city that traditionally embraces grizzled every-men and the tough-guy aesthetic and bravado of a Bruins fourth liner or David Ortiz. Devers looks more like a kid you’d see in the recruitment ad for a local college or a Jeep commercial than he does the leader of one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball. I mean, just watch this video below – the guy is just so damned pure and likable:
It feels great to be Rafael Devers. It'd feel even better if he was an All-Star.
— Red Sox (@RedSox) June 30, 2021
But don’t let the cherubic joy fool you – this is a guy who steps into the box with one of the most fearsome approaches in all of baseball. His off-kilter, staggered back leg stance is reminiscent of the power hitters of yore. He actually sees the highest percentage of Fastballs from opposing pitchers in the entire Majors, at 64.3% – so he is given plenty of chances to hit balls hard. And while he started the year hitting poorly off of Fastballs, he has made some adjustments in the past month to bring those numbers back up to respectability. Currently, he’s hitting .254 with a .491 SLG off of the speedy stuff (though that is a far cry from his .429 & .857 numbers against Off-speed stuff). Still, his 35.5% Whiff rate on the smoke contributes to the 24th percentile Whiff % number you see in the Baseball Savant chart above. So there’s an identifiable weakness in his game, and it’s likely why Devers sees so many fastballs from the opposition. If he can further remedy that, hitting above .300 again is easily attainable.
But it’s not all weakness – he translates his league-high Fastballs Faced % into a lot of barrels – the fifth most in the league – and, as you can see from the clip below, he can challenge (and dominate) some of the best pitchers in the game:
It’s a slugfest for the Red Sox today at Fenway. Rafael Devers is the second Boston player to take Gerrit Cole deep in just the first inning.
Boston leads the Yankees 4-0. 😳
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) June 27, 2021
The bottom line is that there will be some who look at the Red Sox lineup and say that Devers isn’t even the best hitter in his own batting order. That’s the product of hitting alongside the consistently elite Xander Bogaerts every year. But when you consider, at 24, what he has contributed to the lineup – and how he is unquestionably the best hitting Third Baseman in the game right now – you could make a compelling case for Devers as an MVP frontrunner. It’s unlikely that he’ll win it in the year of Shohei and Vlad – but it’s fun to see him coming into his own, and it’ll be funner (not a word) still to see him in the MVP race for years to come.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)