The specter of Mookie Betts still looms over Fenway Park.
It’s been over a year since the Boston Red Sox cut ties with their homegrown superstar, trading him to the Dodgers rather than pony up $365 million. The team has its second Opening Day sans Betts on Thursday when they host Baltimore, yet fans and the franchise haven’t moved on. Why?
Well, the Dodgers won the World Series in dominant fashion last fall and Betts could’ve been MVP, making the Sox look foolish. The pandemic made for a short, late and overall strange baseball season; in fact, the last time fans were allowed to go to Fenway Park, Betts was still patrolling right field.
The biggest reason folks are still hung up on the Betts trade, though, is one few seem to be talking about: his heir apparent didn’t have a very good season in 2020.
As Rafael Devers goes, so go the Red Sox. It’ll be true for the 2021 season and it may be true for the entirety of this phase of the franchise’s development.
After the 2019 season, it looked like Devers was one of the best young sluggers on planet Earth. He batted .311, hit 32 homers, drove in 115 runs and finished 12th in the American League MVP voting at age 22. He led the AL in total bases (359) and doubles (54) while totaling 201 hits.
It can’t really be overstated how ridiculous a 200-hit, 50-double season is. Manny Ramirez never did that. Nor did David Ortiz. Nor did Alex Rodriguez. Nor did Betts himself. In theory, building around a kid who was the first third baseman to ever get 200 hits, 50 doubles and 30 homers in a season didn’t sound so bad.
Can Rafael Devers regain the form of his MVP caliber 2019 season after a down year in 2020? (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Yet last summer Devers regressed to a .263 average. His OPS (on base plus slugging) dropped 150 points. His slugging dropped 70 points and his strikeout rate jumped by 10 percent. His defense, an issue three years ago that seemed solved in 2019, also fell apart to the tune of a league-worst 14 errors.
Which was the fluke, 2019 or 2020? Is Devers a perennial MVP contender, or a regular .270-ish hitter who will pop every now and then?
Think back to 2017 when a 20-year old kid turned on a 103 mile-an-hour fastball from closer Aroldis Chapman to help the Red Sox beat the Yankees. This kid was the real deal … he had to be, with all the tools and a great smile, right? Devers looked like a kid that could be the face of the Sox, and maybe baseball, in the 2020’s.
Now? Baseball is in the middle of a revolution of fun, exciting young talents and it feels like Devers is being left behind.
Juan Soto of the Nationals is 22, Ronald Acuna of the Braves is 23, Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres is 23, Dodgers star Cody Bellinger is 25 and the Blue Jays have Bo Bichette (23) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr (22).
Somehow, Devers isn’t one of the best five players in the game under age 25. The dissonance between that fact and his 2019 slash line is deafening.
How does he regain that form and hop back on the rocket ship to superstardom?
The return of manager Alex Cora, who stewarded his development in 2018 and 1’9, should help. Being protected in the batting order by Xander Bogaerts and an engaged J.D. Martinez (who stunk last summer, too), should help even more.
Maybe, like the rest of the Red Sox, Devers was disinterested by his team’s awful pitching last summer. Maybe he fell into the general malaise that was the COVID-19 baseball season, especially for an also-ran like the Red Sox devolved into.
That being true, Devers was a follower. He’s still relatively young at age 24, but it’s his fourth season in the big leagues and he’s got to become a leader. If he attacks at-bats and mashes the baseball, he’s got the tools to drag the rest of the lineup up to his level. He’s just got to decide to do it.
Devers hit .220 in spring training but did slug over .400 and clubbed three homers. With Cora in the lead, the Sox seem to be taking a professional, business-like, “prove it” approach to this upcoming 2021 season.
No one, it seems, has more to prove than Devers. It’s far from too late to show the ’20 season was a fluke, a dip that won’t be repeated. If he does, the sky remains the limit.
You can contact Matt Williams at MWill[email protected] and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.