- The Red Sox were criticized for not trading for a third baseman at the deadline, but they may have a goldmine in 20-year-old wunderkind Rafael Devers.
Sometimes, the best trade is the one you don’t end up making. That’s been the case for the Red Sox since the deadline, when they passed on acquiring an outside upgrade for third base and instead turned to a 20-year-old rookie. When Rafael Devers made his major league debut on July 25, he did so having taken just 38 at-bats above Double A, all this season. Nevertheless the Dominican native has been a difference maker in Boston, helping key a Red Sox resurgence in the AL East.
There’s been no bigger hit for the Sox than what Devers delivered on Sunday night in New York. Facing Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in a 2–1 game with one out in the ninth, Devers took a 1–2 fastball at 102.8 mph and sent it over the 399-foot sign in left-centerfield for a game-tying solo home run. Boston went on to win, 3–2, in 10 innings.
Devers' home run was exceedingly rare. The lefty-throwing Chapman hadn’t allowed a homer all season to that point and has given up just six since the start of 2015 (a span of 647 batters). Further, for a lefthanded batter to take him deep is virtually unheard of: Of the 422 lefty hitters who have faced him, only two have homered. To succeed with two strikes against him is equally unlikely, with opposing batters holding a career .102/.189/.141 line in 1,112 plate appearances in that situation. And in at least one respect, Devers stands alone: By taking a 102.8-mph fastball out, he now owns the record for the fastest pitch ever hit for a homer in the Statcast era, which dates to 2015. And all of that comes from a kid who looks barely old enough to shave (and that’s borne out by his nickname, “Carita,” which means “babyface” in Spanish).
Apparently unimpressed with that bit of excellence, Devers added to his legend by homering twice in a loss to the Indians on Monday. That made him just the 35th player since 1913 to record a two-homer game before turning 21 and the first since the Astros' Carlos Correa did so in 2015. Also on that list: Miguel Cabrera, Ken Griffey Jr., Bryce Harper, Al Kaline, Willie Mays, Mel Ott, Mike Trout and Ted Williams, among others. Despite that defeat, the Red Sox have won 11 of the 16 games Devers has played in and boosted their division lead in that time from one game to 4 1/2 games.
Devers is now hitting .339/.397/.677 with six homers in 68 plate appearances. Since 1901, there have been only nine players to post an OPS of 1.000 or higher over 50 or more plate appearances in a season where they were 21 or younger—a list where you’ll again find Williams and Ott (who each did it twice), as well as fellow Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews, Jimmie Foxx and Willie McCovey, plus Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. It’s exclusive company, and Devers is right in the middle of it.
What’s most amazing is just how quickly Devers got here. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 to a $1.5 million deal, Devers arrived with a ton of hype: MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez had him sixth on the list of that year’s top international prospects and noted that “some scouts [considered him] the best lefthanded hitter on the market.” After tearing up the Dominican Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues in 2014, Devers debuted on the top-100 lists of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com before the '15 season. After holding his own in low-A ball that year (.779 OPS) despite being nearly four years younger on average than the competition he jumped into the upper echelons of those rankings the following spring.
Devers impressed at high A Salem in 2016 at 19, then became the crown jewel of Boston’s farm system following Yoan Moncada’s departure as the lead piece in the Chris Sale trade with the White Sox last December. (Andrew Benintendi was officially the Red Sox’ No. 1 prospect ahead of 2017, but he lost that status upon starting the year with the major league team.) Devers went on to destroy Double A in his first taste of the league, batting .300/.369/.575 in 320 plate appearances at Portland; that earned him a promotion to Triple A in mid-July, as well as the No. 6 spot on BA’s midseason top 100 list and No. 5 on BP’s rankings. “Devers garners easy plus hit and power grades on his bat,” the latter wrote. “The bat could make him an All-Star.”
While Devers raked, the Red Sox stared down the black hole that had developed at third base in in Boston. Travis Shaw, who got most of 2016’s playing time at the hot corner, was tearing the cover off the ball—but for Milwaukee, where he’d been dealt in the offseason for reliever Tyler Thornburg. Pablo Sandoval was too injured to produce and was released in late July. Fill-in options Brock Holt, Josh Rutledge, Deven Marrero and Tzu-Wei Lin were overmatched as starters. And all possible trade targets were either unavailable—like Mike Moustakas, who came off the market as the Royals rose in the AL wild-card race—or snatched out from under Boston’s nose. At one point, veteran Todd Frazier was all but moved in the public’s eye from the White Sox to the Red Sox, but the Yankees swooped in late to acquire him and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle (in part to close their own hole at the infield corners) on July 19.
With the market bereft of impact starters—depending on how you feel about the likes of Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera, anyway—Boston decided to roll the dice on Devers, promoting him to the majors on July 23. The Red Sox didn’t pin all their hopes on the rookie, adding veteran infielder Eduardo Nuñez in a trade with the Giants a few days later as insurance, but Devers has taken hold of the position since he arrived. That will be the case for the foreseeable future, as Nuñez will have to fill in at second base with Dustin Pedroia facing possible season-ending surgery on a troublesome sore left knee.
Growing pains would have been tolerated, but Devers has instead flourished. He popped his first home run in his second game, has six multi-hit outings in his first 16 games, and on July 31 became the youngest Red Sox player since Tony Conigliaro in 1965 to record four hits in a contest. He did fall into a brief skid at the start of August, going 4-for-25 over a six-game span, but Sunday’s homer and Monday’s blasts seem to mark an end to that slump.
The inherent danger in talking about Devers right now, though, is having to rely on those kinds of tiny sample sizes—25 at-bats, 68 overall plate appearances and less than a month’s worth of baseball. It’s impossible to predict what’s coming based on that or take much of a meaningful stab at how good he truly is. The only safe bet is that he will slow down at some point, as all players—and especially 20-year-old rookies—do, and that the league will adjust to him at some point. But he’s shown a quick, compact stroke with plenty of power, as well as patience; a 8.8% walk rate isn’t the second coming of Barry Bonds, but it does demonstrate an advanced approach for someone that young.
No matter what Devers does going forward, he’s already done more in recent weeks than Frazier, at least. The 31-year-old veteran is hitting a meager .227/.352/.360 in pinstripes, with 20 strikeouts in 91 plate appearances. It’s also hard to imagine any other player having the same kind of impact (though Nuñez has made a mark, hitting .382/.417/.647 in 67 plate appearances since joining the team). Devers has the same kind of potential impact that fellow former top prospects Xander Bogaerts (in 2013) and Benintendi ('16) had when Boston called them up amid playoff runs deep in the season. Devers is a top prospect for a reason, and barring someone like Nuñez suddenly turning into peak Hank Aaron, he’s as ideal a choice as any to take over at the hot corner.
For now, at least, it’s a decision that’s been vindicated likely beyond what anyone in Boston could have imagined. Through just three weeks of action, Devers has already done things ranging from historic to impossible. It will be worth seeing what he has in store down the stretch—and beyond.