Rafael Devers' anticipated breakout is happening now

HOUSTON -- Talking to the Boston Red Sox's coaching staff about Rafael Devers feels like talking to proud parents about their star child, with equal parts reverence for what he can do and hope for everything that might come down the road. The coaches talk about all the work Devers puts in, his coming in early to field grounders regardless of whether he's in the lineup. They talk about the extra swings he takes, the time he puts into watching video.

Manager Alex Cora needs to constantly remind himself that Devers is still only 22, and that at the same age during his own playing career, he was still working his way up the minors in the Texas League, trying to crack the big leagues.

Devers, Cora pointed out, was two years younger when he made his major league debut, has already played in two postseasons and has a World Series ring. Last year, when Devers would work in the cages with hitting coach Tim Hyers and Andy Barkett, getting through to the youngster felt like a bigger challenge. There was a language barrier: Devers, who is from the Dominican Republic, is still learning how to speak English, and Hyers does not speak Spanish, requiring Barkett, who speaks fluent Spanish, to act as an intermediary.

But there were other challenges too, like working with a 21-year-old kid who happens to be a professional baseball player. When things weren't going well in the cage, after a mistake, Barkett would notice Devers get frustrated. This year, Devers doesn't need Barkett to be an interpreter anymore. When Hyers gives some advice, Devers nods along, acknowledging that he understood what was said. Now when things aren't going well in the cage, Barkett notes, Devers just moves on instead of dwelling on his shortcomings during the previous swings.

"He's growing into a young man," Barkett said. "When you're a boy, you're shy, you kind of don't know and you're feeling your way around. Now you're comfortable on your own, and you're able to be professional in all facets."

Through the first 52 games of the season, Devers is hitting .330/.393/.508 with seven homers, 30 RBIs, 14 doubles with 1.9 WAR, a career high, and leads all of baseball with 88 hard-hit batted balls (any ball hit harder than 95 mph, according to MLB). Devers' BABIP is at .368, higher than his career average, but the third baseman is striking out significantly less, with his strikeout percentage down from 24.7 percent to 15.3 percent so far in 2018.

Devers also entered Sunday tied for average exit velocity with goliath home run masher Joey Gallo and ahead of star mashers such as Bryce Harper and Ronald Acuna Jr., while ranking fourth in the majors in hits with 65.

The start of Devers' career also finds him in elite company historically. The most recent Red Sox players to record an extra-base hit in six consecutive games while 22 or younger are Ted Williams in 1940, Carl Yastrzemski in 1961, Reggie Smith in 1967 and, now, Devers. And after committing 24 errors at third base in 2018, the Red Sox have praised the improvement they've seen with the glove, despite his nine errors this season, citing his much-improved footwork.

"He's a force," Cora said. "This is what we envisioned."

Devers has been in the consciousness of diehard Red Sox fans since signing as a top international free agent in 2013 and emerging as a top-20 prospect in baseball. Waiting for a breakout offensive campaign that so many expected from day one has at times felt frustrating, like waiting to check something off a to-do list and being unable to do so. After making a splash in 58 games in 2017, the left-handed hitter struggled through his first full year in 2018, hitting .240/.298/.433 with 21 homers and 0.0 WAR. For most of the season, the Red Sox third baseman looked his age: a young player chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone, looking hesitant at the plate and making errors on routine grounders in the field.

The flip switched on a rehab assignment, when Devers landed on the injured list because of a nagging hamstring injury. The Red Sox decided on sending their young player to Triple-A Pawtucket for an extended six-game rehab assignment versus rushing him back to the big leagues. When Devers returned, Cora noticed a change.

"Something clicked there, not just as a player, but as an individual," Cora said.

Devers began paying more attention to the food he put into his body. He was talking to J.D. Martinez and Steve Pearce, studying the day's pitcher and putting together a game plan. He was putting in extra time in the field. Slowly, day by day, he began building his own routine.

The performance ticked upward, as Devers hit .260/.327/.600 with five homers in 55 plate appearances in September before coming through in the postseason, hitting a three-run homer off Justin Verlander in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, and a go-ahead single in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cora visited Devers twice this offseason, once in Puerto Rico and once in the Dominican, and left convinced that his performance in September and postseason wasn't a fluke. But Barkett noticed something else happening with Devers that he saw in many other Latin players during his 12 years working in player development with the Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates. Barkett says many of those players don't finish high school compared to their American counterparts, routinely signing on their 16th birthday, before they can establish strong routines and study habits. When players make more of an effort to speak English, Barkett said, they often begin picking up on other things important for success.

"His brain is really starting to develop," Barkett said. "He's learning English. He's really game planning. He's learning himself. He's learning how to carry himself as an adult in the big leagues. I'm happy and I feel blessed. I feel like Alex and our staff can be a part of this journey for him and help him along because we all care about him and love the kid very much."

Teammates noted that Devers, while well-liked in the clubhouse in 2018, has begun putting himself out there more. He has started making jokes in English with his teammates, listens to country music while hitting in the cage, and is beginning to pick up on the lyrics and often talks hitting with veterans like Pearce and Mitch Moreland, reviewing video together and talking about their approach at the plate. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts says he has seen a more curious, inquisitive Devers this season.

"He's more open to listening now, not that he didn't want to listen, but sometimes you're young and you try to block out a lot of noise," Bogaerts said. "We're all here to help him. Now he's really understanding information better and knowing what to do with the information he's receiving. Before, he felt it was maybe too much information and blocked out a lot, but this year he's been much different. It all comes with growing up and I'm so happy for him."

The results have shown on the field. Teammates are noticing Devers carries himself differently this year. Sure, the wide smile is still always on his face, but they've seen a calmer demeanor at the plate.

"You see it night in and night out, and you see how he's able to slow the game down a little bit more. There's been a little bit made of him taking a deep breath and relaxing more," Moreland said. "He's got a good game plan going into each game and he's able to stick with it."

Devers has been pleased with the improvement so far this year, but there are 109 games left in the Red Sox season and being more than an everyday player in the big leagues requires a level of consistent excellence he hasn't shown yet, though many on the Red Sox coaching staff are more than confident that day will come. Devers is also making a concerted effort to speak more English, but it's coming slowly.

"It's really easy when you go to visit their countries, it's easy to be standoffish and quiet," Barkett said. "Why can't you learn English? Why can't you learn English? It's not an easy thing to do."

Devers has begun taking questions from the media in English, usually not requiring an interpreter before responding in Spanish.

"I practice my English every time to Mitch and [Eduardo Nunez] and my friends, like [Andrew Benintendi]," Devers told ESPN in English. "I'm trying to learn more every day. I need to learn English."

He paused, hoping to better express himself.

"I need to learn English because it's the main language in the United States," Devers said in Spanish. "And for baseball, I need to learn English."

He paused again, before switching back to English.

"I try to learn every day with Cora," Devers said. "They talk to me in English, and I learn more and more."