Rafael Devers, 3B
So what was behind Rafael Devers’ breakout season? Well for starters, he hit the ball as hard as anyone in the majors. Nobody had more hard-hit balls in 2019 than Devers, and his average exit velocity was top 20 in baseball. When you hit the ball hard, good things generally happen. He also shaved 7 percent off his strikeout rate, showing a much better comprehension of the strike zone in his age 22 season. He still doesn’t walk much, but when you hit .311, does it matter? The next step for Devers is to hit the ball in the air more. He hit far more ground balls than fly balls in 2019, which explains how someone who hits the ball as consistently hard with Devers with as much raw power only ended up with 32 home runs. 32 home runs are nothing to sneeze at, but when you watch the ease that Devers flicks the ball the other way over the Green Monster and obliterates inside pitches down the right-field line, it’s obvious there is more in the tank.
The part of Devers’ game that is most often criticized in his defense. The critics point to his league-leading 22 errors at third base as evidence that he has a lot of room to improve. However, the advanced metrics paint a brighter picture. Fangraphs had him at five runs above average defensively, meaning that while he made more than his fair share of sloppy mistakes, Devers got to a lot of balls and made a lot of plays that the average third baseman wouldn’t make. If Devers can cut down his errors by even a moderate amount, he will be an elite defender
After such a fantastic season, it’s scary to think that Devers can get even better in 2020. After all, he is just 23, and still has a lot of rawness in his game. He’s already shown the ability to make adjustments, as evidenced by cutting his strikeout rate from 24.7% in 2018 to 17.0% in 2019. If Devers can hit the ball in the air more and make a few fewer errors, we’re talking about a serious MVP candidate.
Stat Predictions: .302/.362/.567 37 HR 120 RBI 10-16 SB 139 OPS+ 6.5 WAR
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Bogaerts has had a fascinating career. He came as a highly touted 21-year-old in 2013 and played his way into the World Series lineup. That won him the everyday shortstop job in 2014 but was so bad both offensively and defensively that the Red Sox had to resign Stephen Drew and move Bogaerts to third base. Bogaerts moved back to shortstop in 2015 and proceeded to hit .320, but had only seven home runs. 2016 looked to be his breakout season. He slashed .294/.356/.446 with 21 home runs, won a silver slugger and made his first all-star team. His success in 2016 only made his mediocre 2017 (.273/10/62) all the more frustrated. He bounced back with a stellar season in 2018 (.288/23/103) as part of another World Series team and truly broke out in 2019 with 33 home runs, 117 RBIs and a 140 OPS+. With two championships and seven seasons under his belt, it’s sometimes hard to remember that Bogaerts is just 27, and might still be getting better.
Bogaerts’ breakout has been a two-year process, Since 2017, Bogaerts has raised his fly ball percentage from 30.5% to 35.6% to 39.8%, his walk rate from 8.8% to 9.5% to 10.9%, and his hard-hit rate from 31.4% to 37.9% to 38.8%. By being more selective and hitting the ball in the air harder and more often, it’s no wonder why his home run output has climbed from seven to thirty-three in the last two years. Bogaerts has also established himself at the best clutch hitter on the team. In 2019, he hit .323 with runners in scoring position and .367 in high leverage situations. Even with all the stars in the Red Sox lineup, when they need a big hit, they look to Bogaerts.
Much like Devers, Bogaerts’ defense has been a point of controversy. FanGraphs has him at a solid 8.1 defensive runs saved, while baseball-reference has him at a ghastly -21. At a gangly 6’1 210 lbs, Bogaerts is not the fleetest of the foot, and his range is universally regarded as below-average. He has a plus arm and generally makes the routine plays, so there is no real talk of moving him off the position as of right now. However, as bad as the Red Sox pitching staff was last year, they need Bogaerts to step up defensively.
There is no question now that the Red Sox are Bogaerts’ team. He is the longest-tenured (besides the oft-injured Pedroia) and is the one to take the heat from the media after a tough loss. He is also signed on an extremely team-friendly 5 year/110 million dollar deal, so even the most modest of projections have him as outperforming his contract. However, the 27-year-old Bogaerts should only be getting better, and Bogaerts should continue to make his contract look like an absolute bargain.
Stat Predictions: .297/.381/.547 31 Home Runs 108 RBI OPS+ 131 2-3 SB WAR: 6.4
Michael Chavis, 1B/2B
Chavis seems like an outlier in the Red Sox lineup. While many of his teammates put the ball in play and draw walks at a high rate, Chavis is the classic low OBP/ low contact hitter that has become ever-present in the game today, striking out 33.2% of his plate appearances with a lowly .322 OBP. On the plus side, he did pop 18 home runs in less than 100 games, and when he hit them, he hit them far. Three of the six longest home runs from the Red Sox in 2019 came from the Ice Horse. The reality of the situation is that Chavis swings too violently and has too much loft in his swing to is ever going to hit for a high average. Even his .254 average in 2019 might be misleading, a result of unusually high .347 BABIP. However, if he can work on his plate discipline and hit 25-30 home runs a year, he can still be a productive player.
The biggest question for Chavis is where he’s going to play. He came into the Red Sox organization as a third baseman, but was moved off the position as Rafael Devers emerged. He progressed through the minors as a first baseman until Dustin Pedroia went down with an injury, and he ended up playing 45 games at second base in 2019. Chavis was adequate defensively (-2.5 DRS), and should get even better as he gains experience. With the Red Sox having holes at both second base and first base, Chavis is expected to bounce between the two positions again in 2020. The bat will play at both positions, and his defense, while not exceptional, shouldn’t be a liability.
One of the biggest issues with the Red Sox in 2019 was their lack of lineup depth. They barely got any offensive production from center field, first base, and second base. If Chavis can build on his solid rookie season, a strong Red Sox lineup will get that much better.
Stat Predictions: .237/.323/.456 24 HR 71 RBI 102 OPS+ 3-5 SB 1.2 WAR
Christian Vazquez, C
The first thing you have to mention when you bring up Vazquez is his defense. 2019 was his fifth season in the big leagues, and his fifth season with over 12 defensive runs saved. His arm has always been his calling card, and last year was no different: he threw out 38 percent of base runners and set a career-high with 22 base runners thrown out. He’s also a remarkably consistently framer. Even though framing can often vary from year to year based on the effectiveness of one’s pitching staff, Vazquez has been at least seven runs above average in every one of his five seasons.
Even if Vazquez provided no value offensively, he would still have a major league job. That was the case in 2018, he posted a 46 OPS+ and still managed to play 82 games because of his defense. Yet something strange happened in 2019: Vazquez was not just good offensively, but one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball. He was top ten among backstops in home runs, RBI, average and OPS. Vazquez had been a good hitter before in 2017 when he hit .290, but he did so with little power and benefited from an extremely lucky .348 BABIP. Vazquez’s 2019 appears to be much more sustainable. His 33.6% hard-hit percentage was six points higher than ever before, and he set a career-high in fly ball percentage.
What’s concerning and slightly odd about Vazquez’s breakout year is that his strikeout percentage raised nearly four points. But since he raised both his home run output and walk rate significantly, we can say that Vazquez sacrificed some of his renowned bat-to-ball skills to drive the ball with more authority. Nobody will ever confuse Vazquez with a slugger, as he was only 153rd in the majors in exit velocity, but he can still provide value from the bottom of the order, which is especially valuable for a catcher.
Stat Predictions: .256/.313/.448 16 Home Runs 62 RBIs 85 OPS+ 2-3 SB 3.1 WAR
Bobby Dalbec, 3B/1B
Of all the players I’ve written about, Bobby Dalbec is the most difficult to project. That’s because he hasn’t stepped foot on a major league baseball field, and he might not until the middle of next season. If there’s one thing I can say for sure, it is that he hits bombs. Over the past two seasons. Dalbec has hit 59 home runs, a number that is especially impressive considering he did so in only 264 combined games due to the shortness of minor league seasons. Last year. Dalbec started at Double-A, and, after mashing the ball to the tune of a 143 WRC+, was called up for a cup of coffee at Triple-A. Though he continued to hit for power, raised his average over 20 points, and cut down on his strikeout rate, his walk rate plummeted from 15.5% to 4.7%. This is a major red flag and suggests that he would get overmatched at the big league level.
In the field, Dalbec is much like he is at the plate: Extremely raw, but super talented. Dalbec made more than his fair share of errors at third base over the last two years, but that is to be expected of an infielder in just his second year of pro ball. He still rates as an average defender, however, and his arm is a whopping 70 on the 20-80 scale. Unfortunately for Dalbec, he will have to move across the diamond with Rafael Devers firmly entrenched at third base, giving him little opportunity to show off his rocket arm. By all accounts, Dalbec is more than athletic enough to play third base, so he should have no trouble adjusting to the cold corner.
It’s tempting to say Dalbec is ready for the major leagues. After all, he has shown elite in-game power at each stage of the minor leagues. Imagining his elite slugging ability in the middle of a deep and versatile Red Sox lineup gives hope to a team that is a step behind the Yankees. No matter how many home runs you think Dalbec will hit in the majors, however, it is foolish to overlook his atrocious walk rate. There is no doubt in my mind that if Dalbec were to start in the major leagues, he would be completely overmatched. Dalbec must start in Triple-A, and if he can show a vastly improved approach, he can be a key midseason addition for the Red Sox.
Stat Predictions: .227/.296/.440 13 HRs 38 RBIs 78 OPS+ 1-2 SB 0.6 WAR