The jolt provided by Michael Chavis has been immediate, with the 23-year-old bursting onto the scene in a way that has helped to jumpstart a moribund offense. In that sense, his arrival in the big leagues has been a lot like that of a player with whom his professional career long has been entwined, Rafael Devers.
The two first crossed paths in 2014, when Chavis made his pro debut in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League after being taken by the Red Sox in the first round of the draft. Devers was promoted to the GCL from the Dominican Summer League, a rare assignment for a 17-year-old in his first pro season. The impression made by Devers on Chavis (who is roughly 14 months older than his teammate) was immediate.
“I went over and played at third base for about three days. They brought Devers over and I went, ‘Well, I guess I’m not going to play there anymore,’ ” recalled Chavis. “His first at-bat, he hit a double off the center-field wall. We all were like, ‘OK, this kid is different.’ ”
Indeed, the distinctiveness of Devers remained apparent the following year, when Devers and Chavis were teammates in Single A Greenville. They shared third base duties, spending hours every week with each other and with manager Darren Fenster, who helped both refine their defensive games.
Chavis often was overmatched in his first full pro season, hitting .223/.277/.405 in 109 games; Devers, though one of the youngest players in the leagueJ, didn’t play like it, hitting .288/.329/.443. Even on a team that featured Chavis, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, and several other future big leaguers, there were plenty of times when Devers was the head-turner.
Current Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett was the roving hitting instructor for the Marlins in 2015, a role in which he saw Miami’s Single A affiliate play against the Greenville Drive. His memories of the time remain clear.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes off Devers the whole time,” said Barkett. “The quiet front side, the ability to manage the count, the ability to not miss mistakes, the gifted hands, the power — all of it. . . . Devers was the one who really caught my attention.”
Now, four years later, it is Chavis whose offensive burst in his first exposure to the big leagues is commanding a spotlight. Yet just as it would have been a mistake to overlook Chavis while he was in the shadow of Devers and Moncada, there are a number of subtle aspects of what Devers is doing in 2019 that suggest potentially significant growth — while also offering a reminder of how much he’s already accomplished at the game’s highest level.
Already, he entered this season with 31 homers, just the third Red Sox player ever (along with Ted Williams and Tony Conigliaro) to hit at least 20 homers through his age-21 season. On Thursday night, he drove in a pair of runs, becoming (at 22 years, 182 days) the fifth-youngest Red Sox in the last 100 years to reach 100 career RBIs.
While Devers has looked like a potential middle-of-the-order force since he, like Chavis, started pulverizing pitches in his first days in the big leagues, this year, his production has been atypical. Devers has made huge gains in his walk rate (11.9 percent, up from 7.8 percent last year) while significantly lowering his strikeout rate (15.8 percent, down from 24.7 percent). According to Fangraphs, he’s chased 32.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, again, a marked drop from his 37.3 percent chase rate in 2018.
That more refined approach has helped Devers to hit for average (.276) with a strong .370 on-base percentage. But to date, he’s seen a spiking groundball rate with far less pitches driven in the air, explaining how he has yet to hit a homer this year while posting a surprisingly low .345 slugging mark.
But on Thursday night against the Tigers, Devers stayed back on a 3-and-2 curveball and drove it in the air and off the Green Monster for a two-run double. If he can combine his more disciplined approach with more of the easy loft that he more frequently has generated, he has a chance to emerge quickly as an offensive force.
“He’s learning to control the zone,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “[Thursday] was hopefully the beginning of him hitting the ball in the air. When he starts hitting it consistently in the air, it’s going to be fun to watch, because he’s controlling the strike zone.”
It’s easy to overlook the fact that Devers continues to learn, and that he remains young enough for considerable growth in all aspects of his game — both defensively (where Cora described him as “pretty solid” despite his seven errors) and offensively. The Red Sox are pleased with who he’s been thus far this year – but based on the increasing maturity of his offensive approach, they’re particularly excited about what he might become moving forward.
“There’s going to be growing pains, but there’s growth in this young man that we’re seeing on a daily basis with him gameplanning, studying, and learning more about pitchers and about himself,” said Barkett. “We all expect him to be great. I expect him to be great. But greatness takes time. Greatness isn’t sometimes as fast as we all want it to be, but I think this young man has a bright future.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.