The Case for Rafael Devers

Yesterday, Nick Stellini noted that there might be an AL East bidding war for third basemen this summer. The Red Sox’ current third basemen are a collection of misfits, while the Orioles could choose to shift Manny Machado back to shortstop to replace J.J. Hardy if they find there aren’t that many appealing options in the shortstop trade market. Both teams are playing well enough to expect to be buyers, and in some form, the left side of the infield looks like a place both teams could make real improvements.

But if I’m Dave Dombrowski, I’m probably not planning on trading for a third baseman this summer. I think there’s a pretty decent chance that the Red Sox’ stretch-run third baseman is already in the organization.

You probably know the name Rafael Devers already. He’s not any kind of under-the-radar prospect; Eric Longenhagen had him at No. 22 overall on his preseason top-100 list, and he was mentioned frequently in trade talks over the winter as Dombrowski pushed in on his win-now agenda. But while the team shipped out a bunch of good prospects (and Travis Shaw, a useful big leaguer who would make this entire post moot) in the Chris Sale/Tyler Thornburg trades, the Red Sox hung onto Devers. And by jettisoning Shaw and Yoan Moncada, without bringing in any real veteran to hold down third base, the Red Sox actually cleared the way for Devers to become the obvious third baseman of the future.

But with Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt, and Josh Rutledge injured and/or struggling, the team is currently starting Deven Marrero at the hot corner. Marrero got the call because he can actually catch balls hit in his general direction (setting him apart from Rutledge), but he’s simply not a guy that a contender should be counting on in a regular role. And that means that Devers may very well also be the best internal option for third baseman of the present.

The general case against promoting Devers is simply that he’s 20, and the 128 plate appearances he’s accumulated in Double-A are the only ones he’s ever had above A-ball competition. It’s pretty unusual for guys this age, with this lack of high-level experience, to make the jump to the big leagues, and especially to take over an everyday job for a team trying to win it all.

But as a counter, I’d like to point out that what Devers is doing in Double-A is also pretty unusual. Over the last decade, 43 players have been assigned to Double-A to begin their age-20 seasons. I’ll spare you a table of 43 season lines, but just for fun, here are the top 10, by wRC+.

The Top 20-Year-Olds in Double-A by wRC+, 2007-Present
Name Season Age PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Carlos Correa 2015 20 133 11% 19% 0.342 0.447 226
Giancarlo Stanton 2010 20 240 18% 22% 0.417 0.325 204
Rafael Devers 2017 20 128 10% 18% 0.261 0.365 176
Starlin Castro 2010 20 121 7% 9% 0.193 0.404 170
Oscar Taveras 2012 20 531 8% 11% 0.252 0.323 159
Xander Bogaerts 2013 20 259 14% 20% 0.192 0.378 153
Colby Rasmus 2007 20 556 13% 19% 0.275 0.300 149
Jonathan Singleton 2012 20 555 16% 24% 0.213 0.350 148
Cody Bellinger 2016 20 465 13% 20% 0.221 0.287 142
Gleyber Torres 2017 20 115 11% 17% 0.188 0.321 141

Of the 43 different 20-year-olds who’ve started their year in Double-A, only two have hit better than Devers is hitting right now. And those two spent their summer punishing major-league pitching.

This is effectively the same point at which the Astros decided that Correa needed a new challenge, moving him from Double-A to Triple-A, and a few weeks after that (once the Super Two date had coincidentally passed), Correa was summoned to the big leagues; he went on to put up a 135 wRC+ and produce +3.4 WAR for the Astros over the rest of the year.

Now, Devers isn’t destroying the league in the same way that Correa was, and his prior minor-league track record isn’t as strong either, so what Correa did in 2015 is an unreasonable expectation for Devers, or anyone else really. And Devers doesn’t have Stanton’s power, so you don’t want to look at the 118 wRC+ and +2.7 WAR that Giancarlo put up after getting called up to Miami as the baseline for Devers either.

But it is worth noting that Devers is showing the kind of power that is really rare for a player his age at this level. Of those 43 guys who started the year in Double-A at age 20, only the seven you see among that top-10 wRC+ posted ISOs over .200. Of the 43 young-for-Double-A guys, 36 didn’t have this kind of power, and if you look at the primary separator between guys who got to the big leagues at age 20 and performed well, it’s power on contact. The guys who have been impact hitters in the big leagues at this point in their careers have been those whose power developed early enough to allow them to overcome the too-aggressive approach that is common for this age.

So while Devers has always controlled his strikeout rates, it’s the big spike in ISO that suggests that he might have the skills necessary to be a useful big leaguer this year. And while 128 PAs is indeed too small of a sample to conclude that Devers now has useful big-league power, his power spike actually began last summer.

In his first three months in High-A last year, Devers hit .233/.298/.335. The walk and strikeout rates were fine, but he ran just a .101 ISO and a .268 BABIP, and wasn’t doing much damage on contact. Only 16 of his 60 hits from April through June were extra-base hits, and only four of those 16 XBH went over the wall.

From July through the end of last season, though, the story was entirely different. He hit .333/.375/.557, running a .224 ISO and a .393 BABIP, while keeping his strikeout rate at essentially the same rate. Thirty-five of his 82 hits over the last few months of the season went for extra bases, nearly doubling his XBH%, but it was still mostly doubles and triples power, as only seven of his 35 XBH were home runs.

This year, he’s already launched seven home runs, and 16 of his 38 hits have gone for extra bases. The power spike hasn’t just carried over from the second half of last year, but he’s now converting some of those doubles into home runs. And he’s done it without sacrificing contact.

Dating back to last July, Devers has now run a .235 ISO, while maintaining an 18% strikeout rate, in his last 392 PAs. This is the combination of tools that lets hitters this age hold their own against big-league pitching.

That isn’t to say that Devers should be expected to immediately step into the lineup and hit like Correa or Stanton. But the Red Sox don’t need him to do that in order to be worth calling up. Steamer projects him for a 90 wRC+ over the rest of the season, and while we don’t have an official ZiPS ROS projection yet, ZiPS was 10 points higher on the preseason wRC+ forecast than Steamer was, so it’s likely that ZIPS probably pegs him as close to a league-average hitter right now.

And those projections are basically going up every day, as Devers is showing that he’s ready for another challenge. Since May started, Devers has taken his control of the strike zone to another level, drawing 11 walks against just 10 strikeouts in 64 PAs. As Double-A pitchers have figured out they want no part of Devers, he’s been content to let them put him on first base, the kind of lesson that 20-year-olds usually don’t learn. But the walks haven’t slowed his power spike: he’s running a .358 ISO this month.

In another month or so, when the Super Two deadline is passed and Devers is magically now ready for consideration for a promotion, it’s quite possible that both ZiPS and Steamer will see Devers as ~95 to 105 wRC+ hitter right now. And as Nick pointed out, when your alternatives are Todd Frazier and David Freese, there’s no real reason to give up talent to get one of those guys when you already have someone capable of performing at their level in your system.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any prospect will come up and hit, and Jon Singelton hangs out on that list as a reminder not to take anything for granted. But there are also no guarantees with MLB veterans, and regardless of what they decide to do, the team will be taking a risk on a flawed player. With enough talent elsewhere on the roster, the Red Sox just need competence at third base, and tossing in a bit of upside wouldn’t hurt.

Given what Devers is doing in Double-A, at his age, the organization should be encouraged that he can be that competent, reasonably productive third baseman down the stretch. At the very least, he should get a shot before they settle for a Frazier or a Freese, or even a Mike Moustakas. If you call Devers up in mid-June and he looks overwhelmed for a month, there’s still time to make a trade. But guys who hit like this in Double-A at this age? Sometimes, they just carry your lineup in the second half of the year.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

That table is why ZIPS loves Correa so much. What numbers he put up.