State of the Sox: Third Base
Updated: Feb 14, 2020
Third base in 2019:
After examining first and second base over the past two days, it is a relief to get to write about third. With Rafael Devers breaking out in a massive way, third base was a huge strength for the Red Sox in 2019. Devers was essentially the team’s only third baseman—he had 694 plate appearances at the position, with no other player having more than 25—and he was awesome. In 2018, Boston’s third basemen ranked dead last in MLB in bWAR for the position, accruing -0.4. Just a season later, the team’s third basemen—so, basically, Devers—ranked 6th in MLB with 5.0 bWAR. In fact, the increase of 5.4 WAR from 2018 to 2019 was the second biggest increase of any position in baseball, behind only Mets’ first basemen (who increased from -0.6 to 5.1, almost entirely due to 2019 Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso). Devers ranked 4th among third basemen in batting average (.311), 5thin slugging percentage (.555), and 5th in OPS (.916). He was 2ndin MLB with 201 hits (behind Whit Merrifield) and 2nd in doubles with 54 (behind Nicholas Castellanos). He led all of baseball in extra-base hits with 90. The 90 extra-base hits was the second most in Red Sox history, behind only the 91 that David Ortiz compiled in 2004. Devers did all of this as a 22 year old who improved his defense from awful to above-average.
Depth chart for 2020:
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the plan for the Sox entering 2020 is to have Devers once again play essentially every inning of playing time at the hot corner. Michael Chavis played third base throughout the minors, and could be used to give Devers some rest on occasion, and prospect Bobby Dalbec could see some playing time at the position if he gets called up. Barring injury, however, the third base position belongs almost exclusively to Devers for the foreseeable future.
How third base can be better than 2019:
Rafael Devers is only going to be 23 in 2020. After setting career-highs in essentially every statistical category in 2019, it is easy to see a player as young as Devers continue to improve. Nothing about his batted-ball profile indicates that his production last season was due in any large part to luck, so one shouldn’t expect much regression in that regard. He hit more line drives, had more hard contact, hit fewer groundballs, and had less soft contact in 2019 than in either of his other two seasons, and these improvements won’t just disappear. One area where he has room to improve is his launch angle. His fly ball rate was 34.3% in 2019, compared to 38.6% in 2018 and 35.6% in 2017. If he can loft the ball a bit more while still hitting it as hard as he did last season, he should see some of those 54 doubles turn into homers. Additionally, while Devers cut his strikeout rate from 24.7% in 2018 all the way down to 17% in 2019, he actually walked slightly less as well. This was due in large part to Devers swinging more at pitches both in the strike zone and out of the strike zone. Obviously, it’s a good thing that he was swinging at more pitches in the zone. He has such a powerful swing that he should be swinging at every good pitch he sees. However, he also swung at 40.6% of the pitches he saw that were outof the zone, up from 37.3% in 2018. He made much more contact on these swings in 2019 than 2018—71.9% compared to 63.6%—which is why it didn’t hurt his average or on-base percentage at all, but if he can manage to lay off pitches out of the zone slightly more frequently, it will force pitchers to throw more pitches in the zone, which could lead to further improvements for the young third baseman.
How third base can be worse than 2019:
Third base may very well be a less productive position for the Sox in 2020 than it was in 2019, but that’s only because 2019 was such a massive success for the position. Player development is rarely linear, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Devers’ production dip slightly from the highs he reached last year. That said, even if his production does regress a bit, it shouldn’t be cause for concern, and third base should still be a strength of the team.
I can see Devers continuing to improve. He might not reach 90 extra-base hits again in 2020, but I’m confident in his ability to hit at or around .300 with 30+ home runs. Additionally, if he can hit a few more fly balls, I could see him hitting closer to 40 homers and 40 doubles, rather than 32 homers and 54 doubles. Whether he makes that improvement or not, however, Devers is going to remain one of the most exciting young players in baseball, and a massive part of this Red Sox team.