Rafael Devers: post extension performance

Rafael Devers has had a strange season so far in 2023, and I thought it might be time someone started a thread to talk about it.

Overall, Devers has not quite been himself this year. He is still hitting bombs, but his OPS+ (111) and wRC+ (108) are at their worst levels since his short 2020 campaign (107 and 108 respectively). In particular, Devers' OBP is suffering at .290, a career low and nearly 70 points off his 2022 mark.

fWAR and bWAR have never quite aligned on Devers, with the former pegging him at a 4-5 win pace over the past two years while the latter rated him closer to the 4 win end of the spectrum. His peak fWAR was his 6.7 win 2019 campaign, while his peak bWAR (also 2019) only reached 5.4. However, both systems agree that he's played at about a 3 win pace this year.

Digging into the statcast data, we can quickly see that Devers' quality of contact is down a smidge but overall still at or around career norms. His exit velocity is right there, his barrel % is the second highest of his career and his hard hit percentage is the highest of his career. His launch angle is up a bit. His xWOBACON and xSLG are the second highest of his career, his xWOBA third highests, and his xBA is a touch lower than normal. Despite all of this, Devers' BABIP is at a career low (.252), down over 60 points vs his career norms.

One obvious area where Devers is struggling in is his BB% (4.8%), which is the worst of his career with only his 5.2% in 2020 coming close.

Compared to last year, Devers is hitting more flyballs (+9%) at the cost of grounders (-2.8%) and line drives (-6%).

He's also become a bit more pull-happy (+8.6%), with oppo% and middle% dropping by 2.7% and 6% respectively.

Pitchers are approaching Devers a bit differently this year, throwing fewer fastballs (-7.2%) and more breaking (+4%) and offspeed (+3.2%) stuff.

One pitch category jumps out as a glaring problem: offspeed pitchers. Devers wOBA and xWOBA vs. fastballs this year is fantastic, up 41 and 55 points respectively. He's been a bit worse against breaking balls, with a wOBA and xWOBA 20 and 22 points lower than last year. Against offspeed pitchers, however, Devers' wOBA and xWOBA are down by 215 and 111 points respectively! He's whiffing more on offspeed pitches (+8.4%) despite whiffing less on breaking balls (-3.9%). Despite Devers' K% only being up a little, his PutAway% (% of 2 strike pitches that result in strikeouts) on offspeed pitches is double what it was last year.

On the plus side, Devers' defense has continued to improve with a flat 0 dWAR on bbref and (tied with 2019 for career high) and .5 on fangraphs (second to 2019).

OK, so what to make of all of that?

  1. Devers' BABIP is way lower than it should be, although changes to his batted ball profile suggest that at least a little bit of this may not be luck. Overall it should improve though.
  2. There are some causes for concern in the underlying data, particularly his performance against offspeed pitches and, to a lesser extent, in his batted ball profile.
The luck should even out over time, but I think there are some things here that need scrutiny. Here are my hypotheses about what might be going on:

  • Devers may be trying too hard to hit homers, and the resulting shift to pulled fly balls over line drives and up the middle contact is causing his aggregate results to suffer. This change could also be impacting his BB%.
  • Something is causing Devers to have a hard time picking up offspeed stuff. I don't know if there are sample size concerns, but the magnitude of the effect is so large that I can't help but wonder if something real is going on there. If it's real, then pitchers can throw Devers offspeed stuff in 2 strike counts with impunity, as he is quite likely to whiff on them and if he does put the ball in play his contact results have been terrible. That seems like the kind of problem that will get worse over time if its not corrected.

If I'm right, what underlying causes might result in Devers seeing offspeed pitches poorly while still picking up breaking balls OK? Maybe someone who knows more about hitting than I do can comment on this.

EDIT: Devers' performance vs specific pitches from best to worst, ranked by wOBA:

  • Cutter (51 pitches): .560 wOBA/.672 xWOBA
  • Sinker (73): .546/.467
  • Curve (99): .392/.360
  • 4-Seamer (280): .371/.385
  • Sweeper (29): .313/.232
  • Slider (84): .282/.373
  • Changeup (123): .204/.272
  • Splitter (41): .000(!!)/.139
The data on the splitter is particularly interesting as it's actually the pitch against which Devers has the highest hard hit % (66.7) coupled with very high whiff (38.5) and K (40) %. So I'm guessing that he's swinging at splitters like crazy and either whiffing or pounding the ball into the ground. Despite the high hard hit %, Devers' xBA on splitters is only .147.

Devers was also bad against splitters in 2022, but he only saw 51 of them all year vs 41 in less than two months this year. Last year his whiff (35.7) and K (29.4)%s were bad, but not quite as bad as this year. His xWOBA was still awful at .156. Prior to that, his whiff and especially K% vs splitters was much better 20-35% and 10-20% respectively, and his xWOBA was way higher (~.400 in both '20 and '21, albeit only .262 in '19 when he had a higher whiff and k%).

His performance against the changeup is similar, with whiff and K% up and xWOBA way down, although less dramatically than with the splitter.

I'm not sure how he's getting into trouble with the changeup, but with the splitter I'd bet he's not recognizing it well and thus is swinging at low splitters rather than laying off, resulting in a lot of balls hard hit into the ground and a lot of swings and misses. This pattern started last year, but pitchers are capitalizing on it this year.
 
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Daniel_Son

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  • Something is causing Devers to have a hard time picking up offspeed stuff. I don't know if there are sample size concerns, but the magnitude of the effect is so large that I can't help but wonder if something real is going on there. If it's real, then pitchers can throw Devers offspeed stuff in 2 strike counts with impunity, as he is quite likely to whiff on them and if he does put the ball in play his contact results have been terrible. That seems like the kind of problem that will get worse over time if its not corrected.

If I'm right, what underlying causes might result in Devers seeing offspeed pitches poorly while still picking up breaking balls OK? Maybe someone who knows more about hitting than I do can comment on this.
Why would it get worse over time? He's made adjustments before.
 

LogansDad

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This is a really good post.

I wonder if Devers is a hitter who will (is?) actually get hurt by the shift restrictions.

What I mean is, when the shift was on, pitchers spent the whole time busting Devers inside, trying to get him to hit into the shift. Devers responded by learning to demolish inside pitches with high launch angle.

I am curious whether the data shows he is getting pitched away more often this year than in the past?
 

Sin Duda

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All good hypotheses, I think. I want to add in a human effect. Xander is gone, JD is gone, and Raffy thinks he needs to assume the leadership mantle (although he's said and we've heard that the quartet of former Dodgers is providing good leadership). I noticed a quote from Alex Cora that Raffy needs to fix some things. From Masslive, "Just a matter of slowing it down, keep swinging at strikes, which is the most important thing” Cora said. “Overall he’s doing damage but he’s not where he wants to be.”

I'm betting that the hitting coaches are pounding into Devers the idea of hitting where the pitch is thrown (so more up the middle and oppo swings). That gets Raffy back to more line drives . And I'll bet the hitting coaches convince him to stop trying to be the hero of the batting order and just move the line. We'll see.
 
Why would it get worse over time? He's made adjustments before.
I think you missed the "if it's not corrected." If he adjusts and fixes the problem then clearly it's not going to get worse over time. My concern is that this may not be an issue that he can adjust to in a typical way. For example if it's an eyesight issue that's subtly effecting his pitch recognition then it likely won't get fixed unless he/the team recognize that is what's going on. Of course I have no idea if that explanation is even plausible. Regardless, if it is indeed a problem with offspeed stuff then that seems very exploitable by opposing pitchers who will move more and more to trying to get Devers out with slow stuff (and thus the problem could get worse).

This is a really good post.

I wonder if Devers is a hitter who will (is?) actually get hurt by the shift restrictions.

What I mean is, when the shift was on, pitchers spent the whole time busting Devers inside, trying to get him to hit into the shift. Devers responded by learning to demolish inside pitches with high launch angle.

I am curious whether the data shows he is getting pitched away more often this year than in the past?
Thanks! Unfortunately I don't know if data on pitch location is available. That said, historically Devers hasn't shown a consistent performance difference between being shifted on vs. not:

  • 2019: 21.6% shift rate, 51 points (wOBA) better vs no shift.
  • 2020: 48% shift rate, 29 points better vs no shift
  • 2021: 46.8% shift rate, 34 points better vs no shift
  • 2022: 55.9% shift rate, 35 points better vs shift
He's never been shifted against exclusively, so he's always had a lot of PA against a standard configuration. He's also generally been better against no shift (although not universally so), so I doubt that suddenly not facing the shift would cause such a dramatic swing in his performance.

He used to be a fairly slow batter who talked to himself and took deep breaths between each pitch. What about the pitch clock being an issue for him?
Could be, not sure what impact this would have on him. Could the speedup interfere with his pitch recognition?
 

Rovin Romine

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I'm betting that the hitting coaches are pounding into Devers the idea of hitting where the pitch is thrown (so more up the middle and oppo swings). That gets Raffy back to more line drives . And I'll bet the hitting coaches convince him to stop trying to be the hero of the batting order and just move the line. We'll see.
It seems the longer the hitting coaches work with players. . .
 

ehaz

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All of his statcast data (xBA, xwOBA, xSLG, hard hit, exit velo, etc.) is basically identical or better than last season. Relax.
 

radsoxfan

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Great post and data. I'm sure there is some nuance here and real issues could be going on.

But big picture, I think the overwhelming likelihood for a 26 year old with over 3,000 MLB PA appearances is simply some random variation. 200 PA isn't that many, he's hitting the ball hard, and should be fine.
 

trs

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Could be, not sure what impact this would have on him. Could the speedup interfere with his pitch recognition?
While at first glance (stretched pun not intended), it would seem not, but I wonder if part of the "slowing things down" includes reminding oneself the count and therefore perhaps when deceiving off-speed pitches, like the split or change, become more likely?

Then again, I stopped trying to recognize pitches in the NEPSAC at age 18, and not because I had mastered it.
 

nvalvo

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The offensive performance has been mixed, but the defensive performance has been remarkably good, and makes Devers look (really for the first time) like a player who has many years ahead of him at third. 80th percentile in OAA! That'll play.
 

AlNipper49

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He was so bad in the 2nd half last year that I'm taking this as a positive. The risk with the contact, beyond the tail end, was that the 2nd half was a sign of things to come rather than an anomaly.
 

simplicio

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He was so bad in the 2nd half last year that I'm taking this as a positive. The risk with the contact, beyond the tail end, was that the 2nd half was a sign of things to come rather than an anomaly.
He wasn't bad in the 2nd half, he was injured the end of July and terrible in August, but he came back to be great again in September.
 
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Great post and data. I'm sure there is some nuance here and real issues could be going on.

But big picture, I think the overwhelming likelihood for a 26 year old with over 3,000 MLB PA appearances is simply some random variation. 200 PA isn't that many, he's hitting the ball hard, and should be fine.
But the point is his OBP is under .300 because of terrible strike zone judgment. If that doesn't change, he's a #5 hitter and not a HOF'er.
 

Max Power

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He’s not.

He is a very good player that the Red Sox felt compelled to pay as a top 10 player
He's a very good player who hit free agency at a very young age. The salary is reasonable if you think there aren't many decline years included in the contract. But he's not even a particularly good player if his OPS is below .800. He needs to start hitting again for the team to have any chance at making the playoffs.
 

grimshaw

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He’s not.

He is a very good player that the Red Sox felt compelled to pay as a top 10 player
Pretty much this. Though I think there was some turtling due to the fanbase. It would be wonderful if he appeared to be someone in his early prime sooner than later though.
Though we are only 3% of the way through the deal.
 

shaggydog2000

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He's 15th in WAR for hitters over the last 4 seasons (including his current numbers for this year), and mostly surrounded by older players who would have more of their prime included in those numbers. Juan Soto is the only one younger in that list, and the rest are at least 3 years older. If you expect him to age like a normal player, the next 4-5 years should be a really good investment at the numbers they have him at, and by the time his last 5 years roll around the contract won't be that high relatively and he still won't be too far out of his prime. It only runs to 36 for him, not 43 like some of the other big player contracts. This is not the contract a 32 year old with the same numbers over the last 4 years would have gotten, all because age matters in baseball. A lot.

https://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2023&month=0&season1=2019&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&startdate=2019-01-01&enddate=2023-12-31&sort=22,d

Or maybe he just sucks forever now because of the last few weeks.
 
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AlNipper49

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He sucked at the second half of last year, which perhaps was the results of not being at his physical peak. He's historically been more streaky than not streaky. He's a tough guy to judge over this smallish time frame of less than a half a season. I'd take him being better than the second half of last year as a positive.

He'll never be a MVP type. He got a larger contract because his age mitigates the risk.
 

Sandy Leon Trotsky

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In an ideal world if you could only take one- X, Devers or Mookie (this is not a 78th version of the Mookie trade) all the same age….It’s Mookie 10/10. Second would be Xander.
But due to a variety of issues that wasn’t possible (and realistic). Devers was signed and expected to be a cornerstone in the offense for the next 6 years. He’s been known to be streaky and has played injured (and struggled) in the past. His one major flaw was his discipline though. Last season early he was terrible against breaking balls then adjusted…. But he STILL had a low BB rate and pitches/PA for an elite hitter.
His struggles this season are rightfully worrying- he hasn’t been able to get his poor discipline up to not just “elite” but even to “very good” levels. If he can’t do that…. He’ll be floating around a streaky and slugging driven .800 OPS.
It’s not worth a $30m contract…. Maybe $25m? But they Sox needed him and the overpay was their position they put themselves in.
 

Max Power

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He's hitting poorly and the underlying statcast info says it's not a fluke. No numbers are going to tell us why that's the case. He could be hurt, mechanically messed up, or just slumping. But it doesn't seem like it's a pitch selection issue.
 

Niastri

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After his homerun last night, Devers is on pace for (forgive me using traditional counting stats) 37 homers and 129 rbi, both of which will be top10 in the league.

Not bad for a down year, and he still has a lot of time to shake out of it.
 

tims4wins

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After his homerun last night, Devers is on pace for (forgive me using traditional counting stats) 37 homers and 129 rbi, both of which will be top10 in the league.

Not bad for a down year, and he still has a lot of time to shake out of it.
Not quite the same point in their career, but maybe it will end up being his equivalent of Papi's down year in 2009 (.238 / .332 / .462 / .794). Papi then bounced back to post .292 / .383 / .562 / .945 over the next seven years!
 

soxhop411

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Devers fielding issues of late are becoming a concerning trend, given what he is being paid, as evident by the play today in SEA where he ran into the SS who was fielding the ball...


He also has been in a slump offensively the past 14 days, with only 2HR and 3RBI



and here is the Statcast data on a macro level


Hopefully he can turn both around, because the fielding issues will become even more of an issue down the stretch and if the sox make the playoffs
 

ookami7m

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Devers fielding issues of late are becoming a concerning trend, given what he is being paid, as evident by the play today in SEA where he ran into the SS who was fielding the ball...
To be fair that's the 3B ball all day long, Chang should have been going behind Raffy.
 

Fishy1

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I for one think Raffy is mostly having a run of miserable BABIP luck that looked worse because his plate approach was pretty hacky in the first half. He's adjusted, his BB% is now over 8% (higher than Yoshida and Duvall and just behind Verdugo and Turner).

He's never posted a BABIP this low (.277), or at least not since his second year in the bigs, when he finished the year at .281: he's usually around .300 or higher. In 2000 plate appearances since 2019, his BABIP has been closer to .320 than .300.

I'm looking for a big last fifty or sixty games for him. Add that to hopefully a resurgent Trevor Story, and the offense should be gangbusters.
 

jwbasham84

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I certainly hope you are right and a strong finish to the season is coming. My concern is that he has looked over matched (purely by the eye test) by fastballs, a pitch he used to crush routinely. Perhaps someone with a better ability to pull stats could check to see if my feeling is correct. I don't know if he is sitting off-speed and that makes him late on the fastball, but that seems concerning.
 

Fishy1

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I certainly hope you are right and a strong finish to the season is coming. My concern is that he has looked over matched (purely by the eye test) by fastballs, a pitch he used to crush routinely. Perhaps someone with a better ability to pull stats could check to see if my feeling is correct. I don't know if he is sitting off-speed and that makes him late on the fastball, but that seems concerning.
Baseball Savant breaks down batter performance by pitch type: here's Devers all the way back to 2020 based on pitch type!
68468

Expected batting average against fastballs is slightly down from last year, but SLG% is way up.
 

Auger34

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Baseball Savant breaks down batter performance by pitch type: here's Devers all the way back to 2020 based on pitch type!
View attachment 68468

Expected batting average against fastballs is slightly down from last year, but SLG% is way up.
This is an awesome table, thank you for this.

Based off of the data, it looks like Raffy's downturn is related more to not hitting offspeed stuff (I am assuming a sweeper is a slow slider?) relative to the last two years.

I would bet a good amount of money that Raffy finishes the year en fuego
 

jwbasham84

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Thank you so much for the data... This was exactly what I was hoping someone would provide. Sweeper and changeup is down, but so is his hitting of the 4-seamer. He has hit sliders, curves, sinkers and cutters very well this year. I hope he gets going and we make a strong push for the playoffs!
 

LogansDad

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Thank you so much for the data... This was exactly what I was hoping someone would provide. Sweeper and changeup is down, but so is his hitting of the 4-seamer. He has hit sliders, curves, sinkers and cutters very well this year. I hope he gets going and we make a strong push for the playoffs!
I don't want to tell you how to live your life (or ruin it by making you end up wasting a bunch of time and getting fired from your job), but if you like that kind of stuff you should totally bookmark Baseball Savant.
 

SoxinSeattle

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What's the deal with the sweeper? Is it a new name or a new pitch? I swear I had never seen the term until last year or so.

Edit to answer my question. The main characteristic of a sweeper is a large amount of horizontal movement, as opposed to a traditional slider, which has "tighter" break. Sorry for the hijack. This video is outrageous. How do hitters ever hit anything?

View: https://twitter.com/i/status/1644875826561798146
 
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jwbasham84

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I don't want to tell you how to live your life (or ruin it by making you end up wasting a bunch of time and getting fired from your job), but if you like that kind of stuff you should totally bookmark Baseball Savant.
Well I spend all day in front of a computer analyzing data... this just gives me more data to review.... even though it's not work related I feel it's just honing my skills... so work beneficial... As a friend said to me the human mind has the infinite ability to rationalize anything...
 

azsoxpatsfan

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Devers is now slashing .274/.347/.530/.877 with 29 home runs. His season numbers now look exactly like his numbers from 2022 and 2021, and better than any other year other than 2019 which was the maxed juiced ball (I was looking at that year and it’s absurd. Michael Chavis hit 18 homers in 95 games. X went for 33 and Vazquez and JBJ hit 23 and 21).

Simply put, the guy fucking mashes
69488

I’m thrilled to have him at the center of our order for the next decade, and, ¾ of a year in, I’m thrilled with his performance post-extension
 

Sandy Leon Trotsky

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Devers is now slashing .274/.347/.530/.877 with 29 home runs. His season numbers now look exactly like his numbers from 2022 and 2021, and better than any other year other than 2019 which was the maxed juiced ball (I was looking at that year and it’s absurd. Michael Chavis hit 18 homers in 95 games. X went for 33 and Vazquez and JBJ hit 23 and 21).

Simply put, the guy fucking mashes
View attachment 69488

I’m thrilled to have him at the center of our order for the next decade, and, ¾ of a year in, I’m thrilled with his performance post-extension
Looked like he really beefed up some numbers at The Toilet the last 3 days. Definitely had some BABiP luck and was able to abuse that short RF fence. I was 99% certain that if the Sox didn't lock him up and he hit FA after '23 that the Yankees were going to go all in on him.... just addition by subtraction for them. He's got a perfect swing for that place. Hopefully it'll get him locked in and he'll continue to rake in Houston. Was really looking forward to seeing Casas pull a few over the porch too. Damn kid!
 

kazuneko

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On the plus side, Devers' defense has continued to improve with a flat 0 dWAR on bbref and (tied with 2019 for career high) and .5 on fangraphs (second to 2019).
I’m sure I’m missing something, but I had always thought Fangraphs dWAR was listed under the abbreviation Def right after Off in the two columns before WAR. If that were true Devers is at -6.2 for the year, which is not only his third worst season ever but a huge step back from last year, which was his best -by far- in this category (-0.1). That stat (whatever it is) also pegs him as the worst 3rd baseman in baseball.
 

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I’m sure I’m missing something, but I had always thought Fangraphs dWAR was listed under the abbreviation Def right after Off in the two columns before WAR. If that were true Devers is at -6.2 for the year, which is not only his third worst season ever but a huge step back from last year, which was his best -by far- in this category (-0.1). That stat (whatever it is) also pegs him as the worst 3rd baseman in baseball.
Fangraphs DEF is "Defensive runs above average", based on UZR with a positional adjustment added. It is one of the building blocks of fWAR but I wouldn't call it dWAR because it's counting runs, not wins. From the definition of DEF: "League average is set to zero and roughly 9-10 runs of DEF is equal to about one win of value." So if you tried to express that -6.2 DEF in wins, it would be -0.6 or -0.7.

Fangraphs DEF for Raffy has varied a bit over the years: just -0.1 last year, -7.4 in 2021 and +11.9 in 2019. In terms of wins it's swinging between less than -1.0 to a little more than +1.0. B-Ref dWAR largely tracks, with him going 0.0, -0.9, -0.3 and -0.3 in 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023; B-Ref just sees him as neutral instead of positive in 2019. Overall they seem to agree that Raffy's defense costs the team somewhere in the range of a fraction of a game each year.
 
I’m sure I’m missing something, but I had always thought Fangraphs dWAR was listed under the abbreviation Def right after Off in the two columns before WAR. If that were true Devers is at -6.2 for the year, which is not only his third worst season ever but a huge step back from last year, which was his best -by far- in this category (-0.1). That stat (whatever it is) also pegs him as the worst 3rd baseman in baseball.
My post was months ago, so doubtless the numbers are very different now. That said I may have made an error and transcribed the wrong column at the time, too! Clearly the defense this season is not a positive.
 

kazuneko

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Fangraphs DEF for Raffy has varied a bit over the years: just -0.1 last year, -7.4 in 2021 and +11.9 in 2019. In terms of wins it's swinging between less than -1.0 to a little more than +1.0. B-Ref dWAR largely tracks, with him going 0.0, -0.9, -0.3 and -0.3 in 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023; B-Ref just sees him as neutral instead of positive in 2019. Overall they seem to agree that Raffy's defense costs the team somewhere in the range of a fraction of a game each year.
It feels like it hasn't been that variable except for one extreme outlier: 2019, when he was actually remarkably good. Other than that he's been worst in baseball (among qualified 3b) 3 times (2023, 2021 and 2020) 10th (of 16) worst once and 169th of 174 players to play the position in his 500 inning rookie season. All together that leaves him the worst 3rd baseman in all of baseball from when he was called up in 2017 to the present day. 2019 was a remarkable year, but his performance before and since makes you wonder if that might have just been too small a sample to be meaningful..
 
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