Red Sox ALCS: Fastball-heavy approach won’t work against Rafael Devers this time
Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers has adjusted to the fastball
Rafael Devers couldn’t handle the heat during his last trip to Houston but he’ll be more prepared for it when the Boston Red Sox visit the Astros to begin the American League Championship Series. Naturally, we’re not talking about the weather here. This is all about Devers’ ability to hit the fastball.
Devers was mired in a slump when the Red Sox arrived in Houston for a four-game series as May drifted into June. The Astros quickly identified a hole in his swing and they exposed it by dialing up the velocity against Devers. During that four-game series, Devers saw 62 pitches, all but one of which was a fastball. He went 3-for-15 with seven strikeouts as the Red Sox dropped three out of four games in Houston.
Midway through the series when Devers had started out 0-for-7 through two games, it was clear the fastball-heavy approach was working. He had a history of hammering elite velocity in previous years but he wasn’t producing against fastballs earlier this season. At that point in the season, Devers was hitting a woeful .159 with a .355 SLG against fastballs. He had struck out 52 times in 107 at-bats with a staggering 39.6 Whiff% against that pitch.
Of the three hits that Devers collected in that series in Houston, two were infield singles that came on sinkers that didn’t crack 93 mph. The other was a double on a 92 mph fastball from Jake Odorizzi. The Astros had the right approach to attacking Devers but not everyone on their pitching staff possesses the velocity to take advantage.
The Astros stuck to this strategy against Devers when they visited Fenway Park about a week later. He fared a bit better this time but his 3-for-12 performance felt empty without a single RBI in the series. Devers saw almost exclusively fastballs again during the three games in Boston and his only extra-base hit, a double, came against an 85 mph splitter.
Those fastball woes feel like a lifetime ago. Devers has since made the adjustments to fix his flaws. As pitiful as his production was at the beginning of June, Devers finished the season with a more respectable .266 average and .504 SLG against fastballs, per Baseball Savant. That’s a significant climb from where he was halfway through the season.
Devers turned his season around by improving against fastballs almost immediately after that trip to Houston. He hit .369 with a .615 SLG against fastballs in the month of June and followed that with a .309 average and .564 SLG in July. He fell back into a mini-slump during the dog days of August but finished strong with a .316 average and .544 SLG against fastballs in September.
The improvement was more than merely the result of Devers taking advantage of some mediocre cheese. He has proven himself capable of handling the high heat. His 404-foot bomb in Game 4 of the ALDS came on a 97.7 mph fastball from Rays lefty Shane McClanahan.
Devers homered twice in the regular season finale that clinched the top Wild Card spot for the Red Sox. His first came on a 95 mph four-seam fastball and the game-winner was against a split-finger fastball. He also homered on a 94 mph four-seamer earlier in that series in Washington.
It’s clear that Devers learned a lesson from facing the Astros during the regular season. They challenged him to hit the fastball and eventually he made the adjustments that he’s carried with him into October.
His last trip to Houston was a nightmare. Devers returns to Minute Maid hoping his experience will resemble the 2017 ALDS when he hit .364 with a pair of homers against the Astros or the 2018 ALCS when he hit .385 with a homer and six RBI against them.
Devers has a history of punishing this Astros pitching staff in the postseason. The recent history from this year has certainly been underwhelming but Devers is a different hitter than he was during that mid-season slump. If the Astros think they can attack him with fastballs all night long, Devers is going to make them pay.