Rafael Devers Is the Latest Rookie to Start His MLB Career on Fire
For most of the year, there was something missing with the Boston Red Sox. Many would point to the lineup not having designated hitter and grizzled veteran David Ortiz in the middle, but 20-year-old Rafael Devers seems to be filling the gap.
When Devers made his big league debut on July 25th, Boston was 55-46 and held just a two-game lead over the New York Yankees. Now entering action on Tuesday, they're 71-53 and have opened up a 4.5-game lead over New York. And judging from what Devers has done in his first 93 plate appearances in The Show, he's been a big part of this hot streak.
The rookie is currently boasting an impressive 172 wRC+, .435 wOBA, and an Isolated Power (ISO) of .333 since getting the call from Triple-A. Most of that power has come via the home run, and it's all happened within his first 20 games.
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). pic.twitter.com/GobUkdfNt2
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) August 20, 2017
This is a crazy stat, but doesn't this sound familiar? It should, because we've been treated to some incredibly powerful performances from rookie hitters in recent memory when focusing in on their first 20 games in the bigs.
A Movie We've Seen Before
What Devers has done over his first 20 games with Boston is impressive, but he's far from the first player to make such a huge splash in such a short period of time. In fact, this is at least the seventh instance a rookie has racked up homers at a similar pace since the start of 2016.
The first player that comes to mind is likely Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, but there's plenty more where that came from. Devers is also joined by the likes of Trey Mancini, Gary Sanchez (remember when he was the big deal before Aaron Judge started doing superhuman things?), Hunter Renfroe, Cody Bellinger, and Paul DeJong.
And if we use certain statistics to measure Devers' performance against the ones that came before him since the start of last season, he's consistently finding himself at or near the top. The below table shows how many plate appearances each player received in their first 20 big league games, along with their OPS, ISO, number of homers hit, and wRC+.
While Sanchez did this between his age-22 and age-23 seasons, he also ended up finishing his minor-league career with 109 Triple-A games under his belt. Devers, who won't turn 21 until October, is experiencing this success after basically going from Double-A straight to the majors (he spent just nine games in Triple-A), and is only looking up to Sanchez in this group with regard to OPS and wRC+.
To put Devers' 197 wRC+ further into perspective, that number is exactly the same as the one Bryce Harper produced during his National League MVP season back in 2015. It's also exactly the same as what Judge racked up during his incredible first half this season.
It's sometimes hard to quantify how good a player has been over a period of time -- especially since we've seen a number of rookies debut like a house on fire and torture opposing pitchers for a 20-game stretch. However, considering Devers' experience in pro ball and his current age, it's crazy to think that his first 85 big league plate appearances have been nearly as productive as the insane things Sanchez did (mostly) last August.
Backing it Up
Sanchez and Story were the two players that did most or all of their damage in 2016, and they've each gone in opposite directions this season. Sanchez has looked more mortal in 2017, but a .249 ISO, 23 homers, and a 127 wRC+ as a catcher is nothing to scoff at. Story has collected another 18 dingers through 406 plate appearances, but his .197 ISO and 69 wRC+ are a far cry from his rookie-year production (.296 and 120, respectively).
Similarly, Devers' pace is likely unsustainable, but there are two areas in particular working in his favor once he inevitably comes back down to Earth: his plate discipline and batted-ball direction.
He's produced a 9.7% walk rate since his promotion, and while his 30.8% chase rate is slightly above the league average, his 90.3% contact rate on balls in the strike zone is much better than the rest of the league, as is his 9.8% swinging-strike rate. So as long as he stays consistent with his approach, he can still be productive for Boston after cooling down.
While his 47.5% ground-ball rate is a little high, he's making up for it with a 36.1% fly-ball rate and 39.3% hard-hit rate. However, he's managed to pull just 18.0% of batted balls so far in the majors, with 39.3% going up the middle and 42.6% going the opposite way, which is much different from what he did in Double-A this season (41.6% pull rate, 25.3% up the middle, and 33.1% to the opposite field in 320 plate appearances).
Given the success he's encountered and his ability drive the ball, this shows a willingness to let the ball travel deep into the zone, which will be helpful once this hot streak is in the rearview mirror.
Devers' first three weeks in the big leagues couldn't have gone much better, and his presence was exactly what the Red Sox needed to get themselves going. And from the looks of it, their new third baseman is set up nicely to be an asset moving forward, even when he's not hitting like Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge.