There was a time when Rafael Devers struggled to hit fastballs. But that feels like ancient history now as the Red Sox third baseman has emerged into one of the most consistent hitters in baseball.
It was a year ago in early June when Devers learned a hard lesson. The Astros found a vulnerability in the young star and attacked it, throwing him nothing but fastballs — more than 50 consecutive heaters over a two-game span in Houston — that Devers simply couldn’t catch.
“The reality was that they exposed him, let’s be honest,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said then.
But Devers learned from the experience, and hasn’t let something like that happen again. The third baseman improved hitting fastballs drastically as the 2021 season progressed, and he’s carried that successful rebound into 2022. More than a year since that Houston trip, that specific development represents a microcosm in Devers’ overall consistency as a hitter as he trends towards a second consecutive All-Star appearance — and the favorite for a second straight start at third base if he can hold off Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez in voting.
Devers’ overall numbers against fastballs have significantly improved across the board. After starting to figure it out last June, his success against heaters have taken even another jump this season, as he entered Friday hitting .348 with a .716 slugging percentage against heaters — both career bests — fueled by going .435/.887 in June.
“Number one is the growth and maturation of a hitter,” Red Sox hitting coach Pete Fatse said. “I think he’s made adjustments to having a better understanding of when guys are going to attack him with the fastball and just how he wants to approach the fastball. I think that he’s having a really nice year, so it’s no surprise he’s made adjustments there. I think his work and his overall approach, he’s done a really nice job in staying in balance pretty much the entire season so far.
“He’s done a good job of covering top to bottom. His mechanics, I don’t want to say they’re necessarily more simplified, but just more under control, I feel like from the start of the year. He’s just been in a really good place.”
Fatse credited Devers’ improvements to include his posture and swing path, with the third baseman doing a better job of starting his swing above the ball more so than in the past.
Those adjustments have paid dividends for Devers, who’s been prone in his career to expanding out of the zone.
“He’s just continued to develop that understanding of what he handles in the strike zone,” Fatse said. “Guys make mistakes, he hits it. … I don’t necessarily say it’s his maturation in terms of hitting the fastball. I think he’s always going to hit fastballs. It really comes down to like, when you’re starting at the top of the zone, you’re able to cover the top, you also know where that threshold is more. It’s like, if I’m able to cover this pitch at the top of the zone, I’m probably more apt to not want to expand, but it’s when I struggle to catch back up, that’s when you start looking up and expansion happens.
“I just think he has a better understanding of his attack at the top of the zone.”
That has, at least in part, been due to Devers’ increased work. Fatse has noticed that Devers is hitting off a machine more this season, a more challenging practice than regular batting practice that requires a higher level effort and forces him to be more intentional with his swing and movements because of the quicker pace.
“Every day I feel like he does something off the machine, and I think that has helped tighten the bolts for him in a good way,” Fatse said. “Like he’s done a lot of high-intensity work and that’s a tribute to him knowing what he needs on a certain day. I feel like it’s been something that he’s done quite a bit of this year.”
The results have spoken for themselves, as Devers is among the league leaders in most major statistical categories and is experiencing a number of career highs. Everything seems to be coming together at once for the 25-year-old, who has turned weaknesses into strengths and has a more complete understanding of himself as a hitter.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Fatse said. “He loves to hit, obviously. Just knowing himself, he’s been really good this year. Obviously having been in the cage the last couple years, obviously we work through things specific. He would make adjustments and try it in drills, and things like that. But I feel like this year, he just has a really, it’s like a little more of a calming presence almost in the cage. Like he knows what he wants to attack.
“He’s done a really good job that if something feels off, there’s an idea or a thought in his mind that he knows how to approach it. I feel like that’s what’s led to the consistency. He’s done such a great job of knowing and anticipating the next adjustment that he needs for himself and it’s been really great.”
BOSTON, – May 18: Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates his triple during the second inning of the MLB game against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on May 18, 2022. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)