No 2021 Miami Marlin so plainly illustrated the demands of Major League Baseball like José Devers. With just 41 plate appearances by the rookie, he sketched out the difficulty of hitting at the highest level.
Now, prior to 2021 you might’ve known José as a prospect. Part of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, the 6’0” Devers profiled like a throwback middle infielder who lacks over-the-fence power (the anti-Dan Uggla). Cousin of Boston Red Sox standout Rafael Devers, he had limited experience against mature competition entering his age-21 season—he previously played exhibition games in the Grapefruit League and Dominican Winter League, but had yet to advance above High-A during the regular season.
A lot can be said for the talent at the Major League Level. Its best are unquestionably among the best in the world. As best shown on Opening Day, perhaps the most talented Marlins hitter, Starling Marte, wore a Golden Sombrero against Tyler Glasnow and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The problem on offense would eventually define Miami’s season. The club ended 2021 tied Milwaukee with the lowest batting average in the National League, while just the Chicago Cubs posted a higher SO%. The bats weren’t connecting with anything close to authority and even before accounting for injuries to key contributors, the issue had shown itself.
In late April, Brian Anderson went out with an oblique injury and José Devers got the call. Christina De Nicola got Manager Don Mattingly’s view on the decision:
“José’s going to be fine and give us good at-bats when he’s in there, He knows how to play. I know he’s a young kid, but young kids that have played winter ball and things like that for the Dominican, they’re not afraid of anything over here, and they don’t seem to be too nervous. So José’s a baseball player, he’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a good player.”
In his first at-bat, he was on the strikes and held off the balls, showing a disciplined eye, but a bat not quite ready for Kevin Gausman. Pitching one of his best games en route to a National League All-Star selection, Gausman got José’s bat caught between his fastball and splitter in a way rarely seen outside the big leagues.
The pitch-by-pitch of José Devers' first career plate appearance (strikeout swinging) pic.twitter.com/HLpAabuh8E— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) April 25, 2021
Even if you assume José Devers knows everything his cousin does about hitting and really understands how he might be pitched, even if he has reached an appropriate point of physical development to face Gausman-like heat, and even if he has the ability to hit most pitches with authority, putting it all together without the runway of playing in the upper minors is a lot to ask.
Devers’ ability to make adjustments was tested immediately. It was in the 1st inning on April 26, when Jazz Chisholm Jr. went down with a hamstring injury and was bound for the injured list. That forced Devers to enter the game against starter Adrian Houser of the Milwaukee Brewers. Facing 15 pitches—11 for strikes—he was again held hitless.
On May 2, facing Hall of Fame-bound Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals, Devers finally beat out an infield single for his first Major League hit. José can run.
On May 7, José Devers joined the crowded Miami Marlins IL with a shoulder impingement. Upon returning later that month, he was regularly in the lineup and showed encouraging signs of adjusting to the bright lights. The time away from the batter’s box to process, assess and recalibrate from his first MLB stint helped him find better results at the plate and grow as a hitter.
Prior to his injury, Devers had 2 hits (singles) in 13 plate appearances with 5 strikeouts, 0 walks and a single RBI produced via sacrifice. His bat just hadn’t gotten through to the box score. But over his next 33 PAs for the Marlins, he slashed .276/.364/.379 while garnering 3 BB and 6 K.
It was poised to be an interesting summer for José Devers...until the injury big bit him again. Out since June 14, Devers underwent surgery on August 10 to repair a posterior labrum tear. It’s another setback for a player whose durability had also been an issue in previous seasons.
The Marlins are well-stocked with middle infielders on their projected 2022 active roster (Miguel Rojas, Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Joey Wendle, with Jon Berti potentially squeezing into the playing time equation as well). That affords Devers ample time to develop with Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Jacksonville. By the end of his age-22 campaign—health permitting—he could resurface in Miami.