What Rafael Devers and Ted Williams have in common

Both Boston's rising-star third baseman and the franchise's greatest ever player could've been All-Stars sooner.

Eighty years apart, Rafael Devers and Ted Williams both have cases that they should have been All-Stars before they actually were.
Eighty years apart, Rafael Devers and Ted Williams both have cases that they should have been All-Stars before they actually were. –AP Photos

COMMENTARY

Who should be an All-Star? It can be a simple question. It can be an endless debate.

Such is the compelling and/or maddening thing about baseball arguments, and to a degree arguments in general. They usually don’t have bold-print answers to the degree that hardcore, deeply invested parties — in our case fans, which I remind is short for “fanatic” — want. Who’s the Most Valuable Player? Depends on if that word “valuable” says to you “best stats, independent of team success” or “successful team was most dependent on [X]’s contributions to that success.”

The Hall of Fame’s message to its BBWAA electorate is simply that “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” The balance of those factors? That’s up to the voter, and subject to being excoriated by those whose scales balance differently.

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The All-Star question isn’t as heavy as those two, but considering the way “a [blank]-time All-Star” makes its way into near every post-playing story and career assessment, it does matter. And so, consider: Is the All-Star Game, once again a true exhibition with “this time, it counts” left in 2016, a place where we should emphasize the “Star,” or simply reward those players who had the best first half of the season?

Xander Bogaerts, by fWAR, had the third-best first half of any American League hitter, regardless of position. Alas, it took an injury replacement to get him to Cleveland for this year’s festivities, fans choosing Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco (2.9 fWAR, .882 OPS) to start and the players’ ballot tabbing Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor (2.5, .866) to back him up instead of Bogaerts (3.7, .919). It felt like a significant snub, and Bogaerts was plenty vocal about his displeasure.

And yet, Polanco’s having a really good year, the offensive star on a surprising Twins club that’s captured that region’s attention. (Twins fans were many times more passionate about voting than Red Sox fans, given the ascendant Bogaerts finished fifth.) Lindor, meanwhile, was MLB Network’s No. 4 player in the sport when the year began, a three-time All-Star by 24, and will be a hometown favorite at Progressive Field.

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Bogaerts was absolutely worthy, but those shortstops aren’t indefensible picks for an exhibition staged in Cleveland, even if Bogaerts has a case for AL MVP, Non-Mike Trout division.

The case for Rafael Devers, whose breakout age-22 season wasn’t rewarded with an All-Star nod, is similar. Even after an 0-for-5 Sunday that snapped his 10-game hitting streak, the Red Sox finishing a rote sweep of the Tigers only memorable for Saturday’s four-hour game that followed a four-hour rain delay, Boston’s third baseman had a .324/.377 on-base/.546 slugging line. That’s a Sox-topping .923 OPS, and right there with AL starter Alex Bregman (.927) and player-picked backup Matt Chapman of Oakland (.887).

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By fWAR, the three are essentially a dead heat: Bregman (3.8) the best offensively and a genuine superstar, Chapman (3.6) the best defensively, and Devers (3.4) just behind. The former two have 20-plus homers to Devers’ 16, but he outslugs both thanks to those 25 doubles and leads the majors in hard-hit balls. (Chapman, in his second full season like Devers, might’ve gotten a boost as the lone Oakland representative when the original All-Star rosters were announced.)

Devers, for his part, wasn’t outwardly upset about getting four days off when the Globe asked him last week. J.D. Martinez, part of Boston’s All-Star contingent with Mookie Betts, Bogaerts, and the coaching staff, noted in the story, “He’s one of the best players in the league right now and he’s 22. He doesn’t have to worry about one All-Star Game.”

He’ll have his day, in other words.

Just like Ted Williams did, 17 times over.

Ted Williams Wheaties ad
A 20-year-old Ted Williams in a 1939 Wheaties ad in the Boston Globe. —Boston Globe Archives
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The Splendid Splinter played 19 seasons in the majors and was out of All-Star festivities just twice. One was 1952, when he missed all but six games due to the Korean War. The other was the only full season of Williams’s career in which he wasn’t invited to the Midsummer Classic: 1939, his rookie year.

He pretty clearly should’ve been then, too.

The eight American League managers chose the team for that seventh All-Star Game, with six outfielders making the roster. Williams was certainly worthy of the honor, with a .987 OPS, 42 extra-base hits, and an MLB-leading 70 RBIs in his first 67 games.

He was passed over for two Yankees (Joe DiMaggio, who’d played just 40 games, and George Selkirk), Philadelphia slugger Bob Johnson, and three others whose stats looked far better in an era that highly valued batting average, including Williams’s teammate, singles hitter Doc Cramer.

“More and more, it appears that the American League managers made a mistake,” wrote Gerry Moore in the Globe on July 7, 1939, four days before the game. “The sensational 20-year-old Sox rookie … every day appears more and more a standout in ability and color.”

Williams was at Yankee Stadium for the game, a 3-1 American League victory in which Yankees skipper Joe McCarthy started six of his own, but merely as a spectator in Sox owner Tom Yawkey’s box next to the dugout.

“I’m not the least bit sore they didn’t pick me,” said Williams in the days before, noting he would enjoy watching the various hitters work as much as if he played in the game himself. “Anyway, I wasn’t even hitting .300 when they picked the club.”

Williams was, in fact, hitting a paltry .293 that July 1. (Outfieldmate Cramer was at .333, though he was slugging 150 points lower than Williams.) Of course, Ted was at .302 by July 5, .323 by August, and .327 at year’s end — good enough for fourth in AL MVP voting. And when the 1940 team was chosen, he was one of nine first-time AL All-Stars, his reputation and his legend among his peers well on its way.

Not even the rosiest Red Sox glasses would compare Devers to one of the game’s all-time greats just yet. If he can continue to grow as he has in this first half, however, hammering the ball at the plate and improving his focus and technique on defense — he’s at plus-1 runs saved after being a minus-13 a year ago, and has just three errors in his last 51 games — he’ll have something in common with Ted in short order.

These All-Star selection days will start to take care of themselves, just like they did for No. 9.