Andrew Benintendi is a great representation of the hypothetical “best case scenario” for a rookie in the major leagues. Benintendi is hitting an eyelash under .280 with 16 bombs and 66 RBI’s. He’s got a flaw or two, like his continual base-running mishaps, but as far as rookies go, you can’t ask for more than he’s done. His swing is a perfect, pure lefty cut that is as effortless as it is powerful. He’s a polished player—some would even say too polished.
Benintendi will be a star in the league for certain, but it remains to be seen if the young outfield sensation could ever attain Superstar status. With the true upper-echelon of baseball talents, there’s just something different. With Chris Sale, Aaron Judge, and even Craig Kimbrel, there is a factor of raw, ugly, and pure talent. Kimbrel doesn’t just make the radar gun—amongst other things—move, but rather, he throws the ball in a way that explodes at its intersection with the strike zone. You can take 100 swings a day and train your body to be able to hit a ball with homerun power when you guess correctly on a pitch, but some guys have a natural feel for playing baseball that overmatches Andrew Benintendi’s perfected swing, or Dustin Pedroia’s unparalleled work ethic.
Rafael Devers has that.
It is unquestionably too early to say this, and maybe some have already beat me to the hot take, but allow me to claim my seat on the Rafael Devers bus as early as I can—I think Devers has a special ability at the plate. He’s done simply remarkable things to kick off his career, obviously, including his first Major-League hit being a homerun and hitting a 103-MPH Aroldis Chapman fastball into the bullpen—in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium—AT THE AGE OF 20. It’s the fastest pitch that has ever yielded a homerun in the Statcast era. Rafael Devers was not a highly regarded prospect who moseyed into the Big Leagues; he’s a damn star, and he announced his arrival with a bang.
It’s not just his initial accolades that convince me to buy his stock. Look at his spray chart from the minor leagues:
The homeruns almost look too perfectly spread out to be believable, but it’s real. My biggest gripe with Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are their occasional tendencies to fall into a dead-pull mentality. They both get into stretches where all they want to do is pull the ball off the Monster, and their averages suffer—and have suffered, this year especially (.268 and .275, respectively). Devers will be able to maintain this hitting profile, too, and it’s because of his greatest and most unique skill; reactionary power.
Allow me to explain. Hanley Ramirez does not feature his reactionary power often. Most of El Trece’s homers are moonshots—calculated power swings with the sole intention being to hit the ball to the sun. David Ortiz was one of the greatest power hitters ever, in large part because of his ability to hit a homerun on a pitch he wasn’t really sitting on. Everyone remembers this Ortiz blast from the 2004 ALDS that helped them get past a tough Angels’ team, who’s excellent season got overshadowed by the Yankees epic ALCS collapse. Ortiz is certainly not sitting on an outside curveball, but his superior hitting knowledge allowed him to put that pitch on the back burner. He recognizes the spin early, and is able to get a good swing off, slicing the ball with power over the Green Monster. This is reactionary power. Betts isn’t strong enough to muscle one out like that, but the swing of Ortiz is so mighty that even a good pitch can be sent far enough over the wall.
Here is the Devers homer against Chapman last night, in the 9th, to tie the game. There are 3 or 4 spots Devers would much rather see that fastball, but his natural opposite field swing that he reacts with here still has so much power. He’s figured out that the complex game of hitting is simple for those who use the 100 MPH+ speeds of baseballs to generate most of the distance. For a hitter, you just have to make sure your bat is meeting the ball at or near the barrel. The real miracle here is that Devers even got around—the 400-foot distance was a product of the simplest mantra in baseball. Just hit it where it’s pitched.
No one in the Major Leagues hits with this mentality, most likely because it is significantly harder than it sounds. But Devers is making it look easy—when you’re hitting bombs off lefties and righties, inside and outside pitches, fastballs and off-speed, you become an incredibly difficult out. Devers is that right now, and he’s only TWENTY?!?!
Baseball Superstars have to have a superpower. Judge is a gargantuan—Vlad Guerrero could hit any pitch, anywhere—Barry Bonds dominated the strike zone and made you afraid to get past the corner of the plate. Devers is nowhere near those names yet, but his superpower exists and was put on full display on national television last night; he simplifies hitting, he uses the entirety of the outfield from pole to pole, and is so naturally powerful that he hits 400 foot fly-balls, even when he’s reacting to a well-executed pitch.
Last night was essentially playoff atmosphere, and somehow, the least scared person in the entire lineup against Aroldis Chapman at Yankee Stadium was a 20-year old baby faced third baseman. I cannot wait to see what we get from someone who fits that description under the bright lights of October.