American League All-Stars marvel at Rafael Devers' growth at the plate

John Tomase
NBC Sports Boston

The batter's box routine may not rival Nomar Garciaparra's for obsessive intricacy, but it's more revealing, because it's effectively an inner monologue come to life.

Throw Rafael Devers a ball just a little off the plate and he might purse his lips and nod. Throw him a strike and he might smile, grimace, laugh, groan or some combination thereof. He berates himself in English. He scolds himself in Spanish. He'll even whack himself on the visor with his bat.

But watch this one-man act a little more closely, and what stands out is the coda, as White Sox All-Star catcher James McCann explains.

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"He's a character, and his talent is off the charts," McCann said this week in Cleveland. "It's interesting to see the things he says to himself, the hitting himself in the head, but the one thing I noticed that he does is he always takes a deep breath and calms himself and relaxes himself. And then he's ready to hit."

Is he ever. That final exaggerated breath - Devers' barrel chest heaving like an oil derrick - brings his primary responsibility into focus, which is annihilating the baseball. And since the start of May, few have done it better, establishing Devers as one of the game's brightest young stars and a primary driver of Boston's World Series title defense.

Devers owned a middling .748 OPS on May 3 when he finally launched his first home run of the season. All he has done in 53 starts since is hit .338 with 16 home runs, 52 RBIs, and a 1.003 OPS.

His performance has certainly caught the eyes of the best pitchers in the American League, who raved about his future this week at the All-Star Game, which could be the last one not featuring Devers for a while.

"We caught him when he wasn't quite hot, so I don't have the best - impression's not the right word, but recollection of how he was doing," said A's closer Liam Hendriks. "Now I look back at how he was doing when we were there and then all of a sudden you look up and he's leading the league in damn near everything."

While that's not technically true - Devers doesn't actually lead the AL in anything - he's climbing leaderboards all over the offensive spectrum. The American League's Player of the Month for May, Devers ranks third in batting average (.324), third in runs (69), third in doubles (25), sixth in RBIs (62), and fifth in offensive WAR (3.4). And it feels like he's only getting started.

He's hitting .432 with four homers and 14 RBIs since moving to the No. 2 spot in the order on June 25, a span of 10 games. It's no coincidence that that's when the Red Sox started scoring in the first inning again after a three-month deep freeze.

"When we were at Fenway, he was getting real hot," said White Sox ace Lucas Giolito. "He swings super hard, but what impressed me was the discipline, especially how old he is. His approach to hitting is pretty advanced. He's already a star. He's going to continue to be more and more of a star."

Opponents marvel at Devers' combination of power, confidence, and youth.

"How old is he? 22? He's not even baseball-savvy yet," McCann said. "His experience is only going to make him better. To see the talent that he's got and what he's doing right now and the numbers he's putting up, and he's only been in the league for two years? Wait until he's had experience and faced pitchers for five or six years. He's going to draw on those experiences plus his talent. He's going to be a special player."

Indians closer Brad Hand is one of the toughest left-on-left pitchers in baseball, with only six hits allowed to left-handed hitters all season. Devers owns one of them, a not-trying-to-do-too-much single to left that brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning of Cleveland's 7-5 win on May 28.

"He stayed on everything against me, kind of just used left field against me," Hand said. "I faced him in Boston, just went the other way to left field. He's tough on lefties. He's a good hitter against other left-handed pitchers. He's put in the work. He's a tough AB."

Another left-hander, Rangers starter Mike Minor, held him hitless in three at-bats but still came away impressed. He especially noticed Devers' improvement at the plate and in the field, where he made nine errors in the first five weeks, but has been charged with just three since.

"From last year to this year, he's been even better," Minor said. "From seeing him make plays in the field, last year he made a lot of errors, maybe he wasn't as good. I think he's been working that side of his game, and he obviously has power."

The moment that stands out for Minor came in Devers' 2017 debut, when he turned around a 103-mph fastball from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and blasted it out the other way.

"He's not intimidated of anyone on the mound," Minor said. "We saw that a couple of years ago with Chapman when he takes him deep. He obviously doesn't care who you are or what you throw, which is a big factor in this league. Some guys get intimidated by a name or the stature of who they're facing, but not him."

That lack of fear translates to a more disciplined, less defensive approach.

"His biggest issue had always been pitch selection and chasing stuff, but talking to some of their guys they said he cut it down," Hendricks noted. "If you throw something and he chases it, he won't chase it again. I remembered that a little bit, because I threw him a couple good sliders, which he took. He's got that aggressive swing, and if he can continue to get on the ball and not swing at balls, the guy's going to be a good hitter for a long time."

When the White Sox saw Devers for the first time in May, he had yet to homer. That changed in the second game of their series when he took Reynaldo Lopez deep. He ended up going 6 for 15 to end that series and hasn't stopped hitting since.

"The thing that was impressive to me, when he faced him the first time, his average was up there, but he didn't have a lot of power," McCann said. "I didn't see him overswinging, I didn't see him try to hit for power. I remember thinking, 'Hey this kid has a good approach. He's riding out his base hits and the power's going to come,' and the next thing we know we see him two months later, and he's going on 15 homers or whatever he's got. A lot of guys would've freaked out and said I've got to hit homers and the next thing you know their average is at .210 and they've got three homers. He stayed the course and he's hitting .320 with 15.

"He's one of those guys that hits the ball all over the ballpark. He'll go oppo with authority. He'll pull the ball with authority, and he'll also take his singles the other way. That's something that makes it tough to call a game against, because he does cover the plate extremely well."

The challenge for the rest of baseball will be containing him. That's easier said than done, especially while Devers psyches himself up in the box with a running commentary that is a show unto itself. Even rivals who know he can do damage acknowledge his importance to the future of the game.

"He's a fun-loving player," said Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole. "He hits in big moments. He seems like a fun-loving personality that's engaging, and that's always nice to see."

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American League All-Stars marvel at Rafael Devers' growth at the plate originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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