Fire & Ice: Rafael Devers & Rick Porcello
We have officially arrived at the halfway point of the season. The All-Star break is a great opportunity to step back and analyze where your team realistically sits. Take a deep look at your standings and throw out some trade offers to chase that ‘ship! On top of that, it’s a great time to dive into player trends that you may have overlooked. We have two Boston players on the docket today (the Dokken Docket?) who have probably caught your eye already, but search recent leaderboards yourself. You will definitely find something that surprises you in the production of Rafael Devers and Rick Porcello.
Fire – Rafael Devers
You simply can’t find a player who has enjoyed July more than Rafael Devers. He has smashed four homers in six games while batting second each game for the Red Sox. That puts him at 16 home runs for the season to go along with a robust .328/.382/.554 slash line. As of this writing, his 69 runs scored tie him with Mike Trout and Josh Bell for third in MLB. This is an offensive explosion coming off a sophomore season in which he hit just .240. Are we looking at a new superstar fantasy option?
I came into the season dubious that we would see a breakout. At just 22 years old, it was unfair to expect a huge step forward from Rafael Devers. However, a breakout seems to be exactly what we’re looking at. The biggest step forward with Devers’ game has come in terms of batting average. He’s hitting .328, and it’s not just BABIP-fueled.
Devers has never struggled to make contact even at his young age. That’s a testament to the caliber of prospect he was coming through the Red Sox system. What has enabled him to become a .300 hitter, however, is an impressive jump in contact rate. Devers has increased his contact rate by 4.2% since 2018 while lowering his swinging strike rate by 1.5%. Less whiffing, of course, leads to fewer strikeouts.
Devers has been able to slash an impressive 8.9% from his 2018 strikeout rate. You would still like to see him walk more than 7.5% of his plate appearances, but the strikeout decrease will still help you in points leagues. Of course, a .360 BABIP will help you hit .328 as well. That’s a .079 point swing from 2018. We know BABIP can be fluky, but are there other changes potentially driving the BABIP surge?
The answer is yes, which makes what Devers is doing even more impressive. It’s strange to say, but by actually lowering his launch angle, Devers has been able to lower his pop-up rate by 3.2% while hitting 7.2% more line drives. He has also increased his exit velocity 2.2 MPH, with his 92.9 MPH average exit velo ranking 10th in MLB. He has more balls hit over 95 MPH than any other player in baseball with 141. It has helped his power that he is pulling the ball far more than ever at 43.5%. He has also improved as a fastball hunter, increasing his xwOBA from .323 to .407 against heaters.
One final element of the Devers breakout worth noting is his apparent improvement against same-sided pitching. I say “apparent” because while he has improved his wOBA against lefties from .271 to .335, he still has a poor 25% hard contact rate. He has also enjoyed a .342 BABIP in spite of that low Hard%. Those numbers don’t support the statistical successes against lefties, leading me to lean towards that 2019 split being some small sample size magic.
Even if he’s not crushing lefties, he is still striking out 7.3% less against them. That ain’t nothin’. Rafael Devers has clearly earned the trust of manager Alex Cora as well. He has been batting second in the lineup throughout July, nestled between Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. That is arguably the tastiest lineup sandwich you can find. While Devers’ breakout is legitimate, there is likely to be some regression. However, even if he’s a .280 hitter the rest of the way instead of a .328 hitter, his R+RBI totals and surprising aggressiveness on the bases (his eight steals this year match his first 179 career games) will continue to buoy his very strong fantasy value.
Ice – Rick Porcello
Whereas everything was unicorns and apricot syrup with Rafael Devers, things are not so peachy (or apricot-y) with Rick Porcello. It doesn’t get much worse than what he’s done over his last three starts: 12 IP, 12.75 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 2.33 WHIP. That’s enough to make anyone consider rage-dropping him. We know that patience can be a virtue in fantasy baseball though, so do we bail or hold on?
Crazy enough, Porcello is just 30 years old. It seems like he’s been around for 20 years. It’s hard to declare most players non-fantasy entities at that age when they have a track record like Porcello’s. The first foot in the proverbial grave we can find, however, is a tumble in strikeouts. His 7.31 K/9 is his lowest mark since 2014 when he was still with the Tigers. The K% drop coincides with an increase in fastball usage.
As is typical with most starters as they age and lose velocity, Porcello’s fastball usage has been on the decline almost since he moved to Boston in 2015. He’s gone to his slider more frequently since that is his biggest whiff-getter. The state fair corn dog stand is my biggest whiff-getter, but that’s another subject entirely. In 2019, as he has gone back to more fastball usage, the strikeouts have fallen as a result.
Rick Porcello’s walk rate is also the highest of his career, even as it sits at just 2.80 BB/9. That’s a great walk rate for most pitchers, but Porcello needs his command to be on point for success since he doesn’t have wipeout stuff. The good news is his 67% first-pitch strike rate is top-10 in the league. The bad news is his 45.4% zone rate is down substantially from his glory days of 49%. It’s not an egregious drop from his 46.3% 2018 mark, but it’s not encouraging.
Also not encouraging is his barrel rate. He’s yielded at 10.1% barrel rate, which is far and away the worst mark of his career. His 33 barrels allowed are second-most in MLB behind only Mike Leake. Taking that into consideration, Rick Porcello is a bit fortunate to have a .307 BABIP and 11.3% HR/FB. Frankly, things aren’t looking great in general for Porcello’s near future. He could reclaim some of his value by going back to the slider a bit more, and his command isn’t that far off. When you’re squinting just to see a league-average pitcher though, you’re not looking at a pitcher who is a must-own in standard mixed leagues.
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has had his work featured in numerous books and magazines. He has also appeared on many podcasts and radio shows and hosts the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts. His written work can be found exclusively at Fantrax HQ, and his personal thoughts and opinions can be found on Twitter @NathanDokken.
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