We Need to Talk About Rafael Devers

Last night, Rafael Devers played his eighth game in the Major Leagues since being called up to fix Boston’s third base problem. In that eighth game, he recorded his 13th hit. It looked like this.

As home runs go, that wasn’t exactly a majestic blast. Statcast measured it at 98 mph coming off the bat and at a 42 degree launch angle; similar balls are caught for outs 93 percent of the time, which is why the broadcasters called it a “fly ball into left”, then sounded significantly surprised when it landed on top of the Green Monster. This was a Fenway special, and in most other ballparks, Devers would have simply flown out to the warning track.

It wasn’t the first time Fenway gave Devers a home run either. His first home run in Boston required a review to confirm it bounced off the top of the left field wall, and he was only sent home from second base once slow-motion replay confirmed that the ball had cleared by the thinnest of margins. That ball, hit at 99 mph/24 degrees, had a much higher (59%) chance of going for a hit, but only a 20% chance of leaving the yard. In most parks, his first Fenway home run would have been a double, while his second homer in front of the local fans would have been an out.

So, yeah, Devers has had some good fortune at the plate so far. That’s pretty much always true of a guy hitting .406/.486/.750, which is Devers’ remarkable through his first 37 plate plate appearances. You don’t need to read a post on FanGraphs to know that he can’t keep this up. No one could keep this up.

But while everything relating to Devers’ big league performance so far is the definition of small sample size, the fact that he’s already hit a couple of balls over the monster perhaps shouldn’t be that surprising, because Devers is flashing the batted ball profile of a guy who could take maximum advantage of Fenway’s giant left field wall.

So far, Devers has put 25 balls in play, and he’s pulled exactly five of them. 20 of the 25 balls he’s put in play have gone to center or left field, despite the fact that Devers is a left-handed hitter. In his first week in the big leagues, Devers has basically just pounded the ball up the middle or to left field.

For a lefty in Fenway, this is a very good thing indeed. A couple of years ago, when the team made the decisions to sign Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to breathe some life into the offense, Tony Blengino wrote about what Fenway can do for a hitter who can take advantage of the park’s dimensions.

Based on overall park factor, Fenway wasn’t much more hitter-friendly than Dodger Stadium last year. Once you zone in on fly balls — and fly balls to LF and LCF more specifically — the Fenway effect is quite stark. Fenway’s 2014 LF and LCF fly ball park factors of 163.0 and 277.1, respectively, were by far the highest in the game. It’s no one-year phenomenon, either, as they also paced the majors in both field sectors in 2013.

As I explained in a recent article that discussed a variety of park factor-related topics, including Michael Cuddyer‘s move to Citi Field, it’s all about the doubles in Fenway. Scores of routine fly balls in almost any other park become doubles when hit in the direction of the Monster. For instance, MLB hitters batted .071 AVG/.142 SLG on fly balls hit between 87.5 mph to 90 mph to LCF in 2014. They batted .444 AVG/.917 SLG on such fly balls at Fenway in 2014. Thirty-six such fly balls and 15 doubles. That is simply staggering. At 12 other MLB parks — including Coors Field — hitters garnered zero hits on those fly balls in 2014.

Sandoval, of course, was never able to take advantage of Boston’s home field like the team had hoped, and his release is what precipitated Devers’ promotion. But for week one, at least, Devers looks like he might have exactly the kind of batted ball profile that the Red Sox were hoping their last third baseman possessed.

What’s particularly interesting about Devers performance thus far is that, despite going up the middle and the other way all the time, he’s hit the ball very hard. His 25 batted balls have an average exit velocity of 92.5 mph, which ranks 5th highest — behind only Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, Joey Gallo, and Nelson Cruz — in baseball among hitters with 20+ balls in play.

There’s not much overlap between the exit velocity leaderboards the guys who pull the ball the least often. In general, extremely low pull hitters are just slapping the ball around, trying to single their way on base because they lack the batted ball authority to do much damage pulling it. Guys who hardly ever pull the ball are usually weak hitters. For instance, here is who Devers is hanging out with in terms of Pull%, and I’ve listed their average exit velocity and isolated slugging percentage for reference.

Lowest Pull% Hitters, 2017
Name Team Pull% EV ISO
Magneuris Sierra Cardinals 16% 81.8 0.000
Kelby Tomlinson Giants 19% 79.1 0.054
DJ LeMahieu Rockies 20% 88.7 0.088
Austin Romine Yankees 21% 86.4 0.080
Marco Hernandez Red Sox 21% 83.7 0.052
Tzu-Wei Lin Red Sox 21% 81.1 0.080
Rafael Devers Red Sox 23% 92.5 0.286
Miguel Rojas Marlins 23% 83.3 0.057
Emilio Bonifacio Braves 24% 77.2 0.079
Minimum 20 plate appearances. Data through games of 8/2.

Devers is the only guy on that list even running an ISO over .100, and not coincidentally, the only guy with an above-average exit velocity. That list is composed of some of the weakest hitters in Major League Baseball, and then Devers. To call his combination of authoritative contact with very low pull rates unusual would be a dramatic understatement.

Now, again, eight games. If you look at enough eight game samples, you’re going to find some super weird things, and almost none of them will last.

But if you were designing a left-handed hitter to play in Fenway Park, you’d draw up a guy who hits the ball hard and has significant opposite field power. So far, Devers has done nothing but hit the ball hard to left and center field. If he can keep even a semblance of this batted ball profile, while still making a lot of hard contact, he could be a monster of a hitter.

He might become a monster of a hitter regardless of his home park. There aren’t many 20 year olds who hit high-level pitching the way Devers has. The bat looks pretty special even without taking park effects into account.

But when you put him in the best park in baseball for fly balls to left field, and then see him regularly pound the ball to left field in his first week in the big leagues, it’s impossible to not get a bit excited. Rafael Devers and Fenway Park might just be a perfect match.

We hoped you liked reading We Need to Talk About Rafael Devers by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

The scouting book on Devers–and arguably the biggest reason to be high on him–was that he demonstrated opposite-field power almost immediately after signing him. I agree—it’s hard not to get a bit excited.

Interesting to see Tzu-Wei Lin and Marco Hernandez on there too. It’s the whole 3rd base gang! Well, except Pablo.

Peter Bonney
Member

I’m going to guess the Red Sox analytics team already knew for years the oddity I presented at SS15. :) Troy O’Leary is the poster child for how valuable this one specific skill can be at Fenway.