Rafael Devers suddenly can't hit a fastball -- what's going on?

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Tomase: Astros exposed a troubling Devers trend originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If you're a hitter with a weakness, you can trust that the Astros will find it.

Two years ago, rookie Michael Chavis took the Red Sox by storm, homering 10 times in his first 28 games. Chavis didn't just leave the park, he obliterated it with one 400-foot moonshot after another. He looked like Boston's newest folk hero.

And then the Red Sox visited the Astros.

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In the course of three games, Houston fed Chavis a steady diet of fastballs above the belt. He went 2 for 11 with six strikeouts, and in the series finale struck out three times against Justin Verlander on 14 pitches -- all fastballs. Hitting .283 with a .967 OPS when the Red Sox arrived, Chavis would bat just .242 the rest of the way. The book on him that the Astros established endures to this day.

Fast forward two years and the Red Sox are back in Houston where a young hitter far more naturally gifted than Chavis is finding that there's a new book on him, too. And the Astros are exploiting it.

Fastballs wouldn't seem to be a problem for a slugger like Rafael Devers, who arrived in Minute Maid Park hitting .284 with 14 homers, 43 RBIs, and a .961 OPS. If Devers has taught us anything over the course of his career, it's that he hammers everything, consistently ranking among the league leaders in barrel rates and exit velocity.

It would stand to reason that a slugger that gifted must feast on fastballs -- especially after taking 102.8 mph from Aroldis Chapman over Yankee Stadium's left field fence as a rookie in 2017 -- and so naturally, teams have tried to retire him with offspeed stuff for years.

But the numbers don't bear that out, especially not this year. Devers is hitting .362 on breaking balls and .485 on off-speed pitches. He has such tremendous bat control that he can hammer anything he can time.

Fastballs are another story. Devers is hitting just .159 on them with a staggering 52 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances, his swing growing less and less disciplined as he tries to catch up. It's actually the continuation of a career-long trend that no one seems to have noticed. Devers has only hit over .300 on fastballs once, and that was during his breakout 2019, when he hit them at a .308 clip. That same year he murdered offspeed pitches to the tune of a .385 average.

Over two ominous games in Houston, however, Devers has seen nothing but fastballs, and when we say nothing but fastballs, we mean it -- 35 pitches, 35 fastballs.

He's 0 for 7 with five strikeouts, and the Red Sox fully expect the approach to continue until Devers does something about it.

"It seems like he's gotten away from who he is," manager Alex Cora said. "It seems like he knows a fastball is coming and he's getting bigger and bigger. Sometimes we forget that he's still young and he's still learning at this level, and stuff like this is going to happen."

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So what can the Red Sox do? In an offense built around four players -- Alex Verdugo, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Devers -- they can ill-afford to have one of their linchpins so easily dispatched. Cora said that Devers will work with hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Peter Fatse to regain the approach that makes him a threat against any velocity.

"That's something we've been working on the last few days at home," Cora said. "We saw the trend. The fact that he hits mistake pitches out of the ballpark is great, but at the same time, obviously, this is a guy, he can catch up with the fastball. He can get on top of it and shoot it the other way. It's just a matter of him slowing it down. I think he's speeding up now. He knows it's coming. He had some good takes on some of them, but then he got big. We've got to make sure he's on time and gets on top of it. A good line drive to left field is probably what we're looking for right now. If he does that, he's going to be fine."

The Red Sox have two more games in Houston before visiting the Yankees this weekend. If Devers wants constant exposure to fastballs to fix his timing, he's in the right place.