Just 10 months since clinching the World Series title in Los Angeles, the Boston Red Sox are 5.5 games back of the wildcard. This is despite a breakout season from 22-year-old third-baseman Rafael Devers.
A top prospect since his signing as an amateur in 2013, he got his first major league action in 2016 when he appeared in 58 games and had an OPS of .812. After a relatively successful first taste of the majors he was expected to take a step forward in 2017 but he disappointed, hitting just .240 with a .730 OPS. The indifferent performance of their young third baseman didn’t hinder the Red Sox too much – they still managed to win the World Series.
It has undoubtedly been a disappointing season for Boston, mainly due to their pitching. Their position player core has been impressive, particularly Devers who has seemingly adjusted and lived up to his prospect hype. He leads the league in hits, doubles and RBIs, is hitting over .330, and has improved defensively from poor to around average.
He has achieved this by improving significantly against fastballs, striking out less and hitting the ball harder. He is hitting all pitches better, but there has been an additional 100 points of batting average when facing fastballs this year compared to last. Devers has also cut his strikeout rate by 9%, meaning he is making more contact. The contact is also harder; he has hit more line drives and his exit velocity and hard-hit rates are in the top 6% of the league.
He will likely only get down ballot MVP votes as there have been so many brilliant performances in the American League. He is only 9th in WAR for position players and there are multiple others with better cases.
Mike Trout will win it as the best player in the world having the best year of his career. Alex Bregman has been a better hitter than Devers this season whilst playing excellent defence at third base. DJ LeMahieu has been the most valuable player on the best team in baseball, staying hot whilst his teammates hit the IL. There are also better candidates from contenders Oakland and Minnesota.
Regardless of his MVP votes, Devers becoming a star was needed for the Red Sox. Devers is controllable through 2024 and will help replace the production of Mookie Betts and JD Martinez who can be free agents after 2019 and 2020. They have already paid Xander Bogaerts and Chris Sale and will need to rebuild their pitching staff after a disastrous 2019, leaving little room to extend both core offensive players. Even if both were to leave, a line-up with Devers, Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi paired with a strengthened pitching staff led by Sale should be competitive.
In a poor season, the young third baseman has given the club with the worst farm system in baseball reason to be optimistic that this season is just a blip in a period of sustained success.