Where Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers ranks at his position
Boston Red Sox star Rafael Devers was ranked surprisingly low on a list of the best third baseman in Major League Baseball.
A heated debate is stirring at the hot corner. Rafael Devers had a breakout season in 2019 but the Boston Red Sox third baseman still falls short of the elite tier at a loaded position.
Jim Bowden of The Athletic ranked the top 10 third baseman in the majors. Despite being among the league’s most productive hitters at any position last season, Devers comes in at only No. 8 on the list.
Devers hit .311/.361/.555 with 32 home runs, 115 RBI, and 129 runs scored last season. He finished no lower than ninth at the position in those categories and was top-five in most. Devers led the American League with 54 doubles and led the majors with 90 extra-base hits.
"“Devers is well-rounded as a hitter; he can hit lefties, righties, fastballs, breaking balls and changeups,” writes Bowden. “He has tremendous plate coverage and awareness as well.”"
Bowden also praised Devers for making adjustments to his two-strike approach, shortening his swing by choking up on the bat and moving closer to the plate. This helped Devers drop his strikeout rate from a dismal 24.7 percent in 2018 to a 17 percent mark that places him in the middle of the pack.
There’s no doubt that Devers was better than the eighth best third baseman with his bat but his glove continues to hold him back. Devers easily led the majors at the position with 22 errors and he was dead-last with -10 defensive runs saved.
Many of those errors came early in the year and Devers steadily improved as the season progressed. Statcast also revealed some new defensive data that suggests Devers was better defensively than other advanced metrics give him credit for.
FanGraphs ranked Devers tied for fourth among major league third basemen with 5.9 fWAR. The Baseball-Reference version wasn’t quite as high on him but his 4.9 WAR still ranked sixth at the position.
So how does Devers land at only eighth on Bowden’s list? He was clearly better than that last year but when projecting the top players moving forward, track record has to count for something. Devers flashed some potential as a rookie but played less than half a season, then followed with an inconsistent 2018 campaign. His one great season isn’t enough to surpass some of the veterans ahead of him on the list.
Alex Bregman is the clear choice to top the third base rankings. The runner-up for the AL MVP award led the majors with 9.1 WAR.
Nolan Arenado‘s offensive numbers are juiced by playing half his games at Coors Field but his strong plate discipline suggests he’s more than simply a product of his environment and nearly half of his 41 home runs came on the road last year. Arenado is an elite defensive player who has earned a Gold Glove in all seven of his big league seasons.
Anthony Rendon led the NL with 44 doubles and 126 RBI to win his second career Sliver Slugger and finish third on the MVP ballot.
That trio makes up the elite tier at the position and Devers has a ways to go before he can crack that group. After that, we can start making a case for how much higher Devers could climb.
Manny Machado had one of the worst years of his career in his first season with the San Diego Padres. Was it the move to pitcher-friendly Petco Park? Did he struggle under the pressure of his massive $300 million contract? Both would be reasonable explanations but neither appears to be changing anytime soon. Placing him fourth on this list seems overly optimistic that a bounce-back season is coming and Machado is trending in the wrong direction.
Devers is clearly a better all-around hitter than Matt Chapman but the power numbers are comparable and it’s no contest when comparing them in the field. Chapman is arguably the best defensive third baseman in baseball, maybe the best at any position. He produced 34 defensive runs saved and a 14.8 UZR last season. Devers is making strides with his defense but the gap remains too wide for his bat alone to overcome Chapman.
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Josh Donaldson bounced back strong form an injury-riddled 2018 season to produce similar numbers to his peak years. However, aside from swatting a few more homers, Donaldson doesn’t have Devers beat offensively. He’s a better defensive player than Devers but not a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman. FanGraphs pegs Donaldson well below Devers with 4.9 fWAR but BR favors him more with 6.0 WAR. The three-time All-Star and former MVP gets the benefit of the doubt for now but Donaldson is a decade older than Devers so it’s only a matter of time before the Red Sox third baseman surpasses him.
Speaking of former MVPs, Kris Bryant rebounded from an injury-shortened season with a strong 2019. His numbers still fall short of what Devers produced and Bryant doesn’t make up for it with his below-average defense. What Bryant has going for him is track record and since he’s only 28, he probably isn’t on the verge of decline.
It wouldn’t shock anyone if Devers followed up his breakout season with comparable production. The lack of track record holds him back as much as his work-in-progress defense. If he proves his offensive production wasn’t a fluke and continues to improve in the field, Devers could easily crack the top five at his position.
Eighth at the position may seem a bit low but there’s no obvious choices who Devers should move ahead of if we look beyond 2019 offensive statistics. The 23-year old has more to prove before he can climb higher but he’s clearly on the rise to superstardom.