Even after a breakout season for the Boston Red Sox in 2019, Rafael Devers never seems to be recognized as an elite player. Why?
Underrated. That’s the last word you might think of to describe a dynamic young star in one of the biggest sports cities in America. However, this is just what’s happening to Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16 for $1.5 million, he had always been a highly-touted prospect, even one that former President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski deemed untouchable.
He breezed through the minors, making his debut in 2017 and instantly filling the black hole that the third base position had become for the Red Sox since the departure of Kevin Youkilis. Devers posted a .819 OPS that year, leading his team to an AL East championship celebration―where he was not even old enough to drink the champagne.
Injuries and underperformance hampered his sophomore campaign, placing second in the league with 24 errors and hitting just .240. Even so, he showed promise, hitting 21 home runs in under 500 at-bats. Besides, he was just 21 years old, an age at which when most players are still facing low nineties fastballs in Double-A.
Players often make their names during the postseason when the whole world is watching them and Devers hit .294 with a homer during the Red Sox World Series run. Even so, his performance―albeit impressive―stood in the shadows of Nathan Eovaldi’s superhuman pitching, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s timely hitting, and David Price’s comeback story. Sometimes, a team is just too good. That certainly seemed to be the case with the 108-win World Champion Red Sox.
Boston’s young third baseman sought to make his name known during the 2019 season, batting .311 with 32 home runs. He never seemed to be part of the media’s narrative in Boston, though. The story was about established superstars Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, the disappointing seasons from Chris Sale and Andrew Benintendi, and the frustrating third-place finish.
In worrying about all those other players, many seemed to have forgotten that “Carita” led the American League with 54 doubles and led the entire MLB with 359 total bases. And while a common criticism of Devers is that he is not a good defensive player, he took major strides in 2019. He placed 21st out of all infielders with 7 outs above average. At the end of the year, he was rewarded with a 12th place finish for MVP.
However, when the MLB came out with their list for the top 10 third basemen entering 2020, Raffy was left off the list. Why, after all he’s done, does he still seem to be overlooked?
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In the modern world of baseball where batting average is seen as an archaic stat and on-base percentage is championed above all, Devers’s .361 OBP is seen as quite unimpressive. And while a 22-year-old player hitting 30+ home runs was quite an achievement a decade ago, it seems almost pedestrian in 2020.
Young stars like Ronald Acuna Jr., who hit 41 home runs at the age of 21, and Juan Soto, who led his team on a miracle World Series run in his age-20 season, have captured the public eye. Meanwhile, Rafael sulks in the shadows of this new wave of young superstars. Even in his own city, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum led his team within one game of the NBA Finals while he was a teenager. Devers isn’t overlooked, he’s just overshadowed.
However, Devers fits the mold for a superstar as well as anyone. In many ways, he embodies the modern direction of baseball. He can always be seen on camera, grinning ear to ear, and has a tendency to watch his home runs―something that used to be seen as disrespectful. Rafael embodies the fun of baseball.
In an era in which people’s attention spans are short and the desire for excitement and action is high, it’s only a matter of time before he steps into the spotlight. Devers may be underrated for now, but don’t expect that to last. It may take him an extra season or two, but before long the Red Sox slugger will become one of the faces of baseball.