Red Sox: Rafael Devers’ poor plate discipline could point to inconsistencies

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 05: Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after the Red Sox loss to Minnesota Twins 2-1 at Fenway Park on September 05, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 05: Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after the Red Sox loss to Minnesota Twins 2-1 at Fenway Park on September 05, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers’ poor plate discipline.

Rafael Devers had a breakout year in 2019 and one of the best hitting seasons as a third baseman in Boston Red Sox history.

In the American League, Devers was 1st in doubles (54), 1st in extra-base hits (90), 2nd in hits (201), 4th in RBI’s (115), 5th in AL batting average (.311), and 5th in offensive WAR (5.8). He also won AL Player of the Month in May. It was a phenomenal year for Devers to say the least. But there is one statistic that worries me about Devers maintaining consistency and backing up his breakout year.

In scouring Fangraphs‘ multitudes of statistic information months ago, I discovered the plate discipline page. And to my surprise, I found Devers to be at the bottom of the league in some of the plate discipline categories. In 2019, Devers ranked 11th in Major League Baseball with a 54.9 Swing%, and 12th with a 40.5 O-Swing%.

Swing% is swings/pitches and O-Swing% is swings at pitches outside the zone/pitches outside the zone, according to Fangraphs.

It has taken me a while to contextualize Devers’ numbers in these categories, but I’ve finally been able to piece together what it could mean. So I took a look at players who have been in the top tier of Swing% and O-Swing% in recent seasons.

Players who are in the top 10 bracket in O-Swing% or Swing % typically bat in the .270-.280 range. But, these stats are flawed by players like Tim Anderson (.335), Jeff McNeil (.318), and Hanser Alberto (.305) who were in the top 10 in both categories in 2019, but batted above .300.

Of players that were in the top 10 in Swing % or O-Swing% since 2014, only these players batted above .300:

2019: Jeff Mcneil, Tim Anderson, Hanser Alberto.
2018: Corey Dickerson and Freddie Freeman.
2017: Avisail Garcia.
2016: none.
2015: none.
2014: Jose Abreu and Justin Morneau.

Keep in mind that Devers is outside the top 10 in both categories, but he is very close to it. Only 9 out of 60 players in this category (since 2014) bat above .300, which is alarming.

In my opinion, Freeman, Abreu, and Dickerson are no cause for alarm because they have sustained solid batting averages over their careers, including multiple seasons over .300; thus not flawed.

Morneau is in between territories because he has batted over .300 multiple times, but his BA was streaky over his career.

I took a closer look at a few of these players. Tim Anderson, for example, has a .276 career BA, and two sub .260 seasons. He then batted .335 in 2019. How did that happen? He happened to make a lot more contact (77%) in 2019, than his career average of 72.2%, discounting 2019. If you swing a lot, you’re bound to be streaky, and maybe strike gold, like Anderson did in 2019.

The same idea stands with Hanser Alberto. He has a .276 career BA (and .183 in three seasons not  including 2019) and he batted .305 in 2019.

Same goes for Avisail Garcia. He led the league in Swing% in 2017, and is typically around highest in the league in both Swing % and O-Swing %. In 2017, he batted .330. His career average would be .258 if you discount that career year.

I took a look at Jeff Mcneil, and his numbers just seem fishy. Where did he come from and how has he managed to sustain an elite average in the majors? This is a guy that played in the minors for five years before making a major league appearance.

Maybe swinging more allows these types of players to have a breakout year where they just happen to get the bat on the ball more so than in previous years, but it doesn’t correlate to consistent good hitting numbers.

I have to worry that the same trend could follow for Devers in the upcoming seasons. Could last season have been a fluke?

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In 2017, Devers played well in 58 games as a 20-year-old, slashing .284/.338/.482. But in the World Series winning 2018 season, Devers played in 121 games total, starting most of them, and he hit for a dismal .240/.298/.433. That was good for third-to-last among Red Sox starting players and barely ahead of Jackie Bradley. Out of 151 qualified players in the MLB (more than 490 PA’s), Devers was 125th in BA, 132nd in OBP, and 83rd in SLG.

Yes he was young – he still is – but what if 2019 was just a flawed season that follows the trend of other players who have poor plate discipline? What if 2019 was his one shining year?

He put up some unbelievable numbers last year- historic numbers- and hopefully those aren’t flawed, but a lack of plate discipline could lead to pitchers figuring him out, giving him more pitches outside the zone that he will swing at at a high rate (which was 40.5% in 2019).

Teammates have said in Joon Lee’s 2019 ESPN article that Devers was more open to listen in 2019 than 2018, and that he was more calm at the plate. But his O-Contact% went from the 63% range in 2017 and 2018 to 71.9% in 2019, and his Swing% went from 52% to 54.9% in 2019, which were both top 12 in the league. He just happened to make a lot more contact in 2019 than he did in previous years.

No, O-Swing% and Swing% don’t correlate with average (it is around a .2 correlation), but it suggests poor plate discipline. Sure Devers is an aggressive hitter, but what if he just got lucky in making all the great contact he did last year? Some other case studies certainly suggest that like Tim Anderson or Hanser Alberto.

dark. Next. 2020 may be the final season for J.D. Martinez in Boston

Could it be a fluke? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t have enough sample size to tell. After all, Raffy has played under 350 games and is just 23 years old. Some statistic trends point to the possibility of a fluke, but Devers is a different player, so it could turn out differently. We will have to wait and see.