Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 15, 2018 – Source: Bob Levey/Getty Images North America)
When Alex Cora made his MLB debut on June 7th, 1998, the legendary Gary Sheffield was hitting third for his Los Angeles Dodgers. The opposing Seattle Mariners had future HOF outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. hitting third in their lineup that day.
Rafael Devers was still a few months shy of his second birthday when Alex Cora first took the field as a Major League Baseball player. He’ll be just 22 years old when manager Alex Cora faces the Seattle Mariners once again on Opening Day 2019, and if the Red Sox hope to repeat the success they experienced during Cora’s first season as an MLB manager, they should strongly consider hitting the Sox’s youngest player in the same 3-hole that Sheffield and Griffey occupied on June 7th, 1998.
The third spot in the batting order is often reserved for a team’s biggest offensive threat. On a roster highlighted by Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi, it’s difficult to argue that Rafael “Babyface” Devers has the best bat on the Red Sox. However, strategically placing him in the middle of these other talented hitters could yield the best results for the Red Sox as well as bring out the young third baseman’s full potential at the plate.
We all know that Benintendi and Betts will regularly occupy the leadoff and number 2 spots in the lineup. Alex Cora has already confirmed this. J.D. Martinez did some of his best work in 2018 while hitting cleanup, and having a consistent bat like Bogaerts behind Martinez protects him from an assortment of finicky pitching tactics. Some fans may argue that the aforementioned players should comprise the first four positions in the batting order, but the flip side of this philosophy is that the 5-9 portion of the order becomes much more manageable for opposing teams if all the best hitters are stacked at the top. Why not stick a powerful left-handed bat (with room to grow) right in the middle of those first four, and shrink the “worse” part of the lineup in the process?
Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that Devers has the power tool to hit third, without question. He might actually be able to hit the ball harder/further than anyone else on Boston’s roster, when he barrels up the ball. It’s the “when” part of that previous sentence that’s the issue. The biggest knock against Devers and his offense at this point seems to be his relative lack of plate discipline. At his age, it’s understandable why he still needs to make strides in this area. One way that Alex Cora can help Devers and his development is by surrounding him with intimidating bats. It’s reasonable to assume that Devers might see better pitches to hit if he’s following the reigning AL MVP, with Triple-Crown-threat J.D. Martinez on deck, than if he’s sandwiched in between the first baseman of the day and Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Put yourself in the shoes of an opposing pitcher for a moment. If Benintendi and/or Betts find a way on base, who are you subsequently going to attack most aggressively: the 22-year-old with a reputation for swinging freely, or the two silver sluggers waiting next? Even if the bases are empty, having just survived the Benintendi/Betts combo with Martinez/Bogaerts lurking around the corner could cause pitchers to overlook the pop Devers possesses. At the very least, opposing pitchers should view Devers as the “easiest” out in the top half of the lineup, and attack the strike zone accordingly. The point I’m making is that the approach pitchers take with Devers could be altered, depending on who’s hitting before and after him. If so, the adjusted approach could benefit Devers.
With just 12 position players, there are only so many possible variations of this lineup. We should expect to see several of them throughout the year. After all, Alex Cora won’t send out the same 9 guys in the same exact order for 162 consecutive games. However, every team needs to have at least some consistency in their lineup, and I personally believe that Devers hitting third should be part of that model. My full template lineup is below:
- Benintendi, LF
- Betts, RF
- Devers, 3B
- Martinez, DH
- Bogaerts, SS
- Moreland/Pearce, 1B
- Bradley, CF
- Vazquez/Swihart, C
- Pedroia, 2B (I understand this may raise some eyebrows, but if the team really wants to save his legs, this is one way to do it. He would also serve as a nice table setter for the top of the lineup, if he’d be willing to accept such a role.)
Reasonable minds can disagree on where Devers belongs in the batting order. Chances are we’ll see him move up and down the lineup more than most of his teammates. I simply hope that Alex Cora considers putting the youngster towards the top of the lineup, where his chances of thriving will almost certainly increase.