Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Bobby Dalbec.
2020 in one sentence
Bobby Dalbec got his chance in the majors for the final month of the year, and all in all it was a success despite some worrying signs.
It was a really interesting first taste of the majors for Dalbec, who got his shot at the highest level as soon as Mitch Moreland was traded away at the deadline. There were some aspects of his play that cast a bit of doubt regarding his ability to stick as a starter long-term, but looking just at the small sample performance in 2020, it’s hard to complain. Over his 92 plate appearances, Dalbec hit .263/.359/.600 for a very impressive 152 wRC+. Obviously there is a large grain of salt with which one should take any number over 92 plate appearances, but it’s all we have to judge on and it was good.
The biggest positive takeaway, to the surprise of no one who followed Dalbec through his time in the minors, was the power. Dalbec, quite simply, can destroy the baseball on a regular basis. His first career hit was fittingly a home run, and he ended up hitting eight of them on the year. Over 600 plate appearances, for whatever it’s worth, that works out to 52 homers.
Perhaps we should not be counting on that many homers from the first baseman, but there is very little doubt the power in general is real. It has been apparent since the moment he was drafted out of the University of Arizona, and it wasn’t just the home run numbers that reinforced it in 2020. Dalbec did also smack a few doubles to bring his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) up to .338. Again, small samples can kind of cast some doubt on the validity of that number moving forward as well.
If you are looking for a bit more to be excited about, though, consider that Dalbec simply crushed the ball on a regular basis. His hard-hit rate of 44 percent was seven percentage points higher than the league average. Furthermore, he barreled (the best type of batted ball; a measure of exit velocity combined with launch angle) a crazy 22 percent of his batted balls, compared to a league-average rate of just above seven percent.
So, when Dalbec did put balls in play he typically did so with authority, which showed up in his power numbers above all else. That’s not to say he only had success when the ball was put into play though. The rookie is a clear example of a three true outcome player, meaning a large share of his plate appearances end with either a homer, a strikeout or a walk. It is that third part that is probably the most underrated aspect of his game. There were some inconsistencies with his walk rate in the upper minors as it took him a bit to adjust to new levels with his patience, but for the most part he drew walks at least 10 percent of the time.
He didn’t continue the trend in the majors of struggling to draw walks immediately upon promotion, finishing the season with a walk rate just under 11 percent. A big part of the reason Dalbec was able to draw so many walks is largely because he simply didn’t see a lot of strikes. His 36 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone was five percentage points worse than league-average, but that was canceled out by the fact that he saw strikes only 38 percent of the time. The league-average zone rate in 2020 was a shade above 41 percent, per FanGraphs. Dalbec’s inability to make contact on these pitches out of the zone — 36 percent contact rate compared to a league-average rate of 61 percent — also helped keep at bats going long enough for a walk to occur while also helping avoid weak contact.
Dalbec likely needs to clean up his swing rate on bad pitches a bit, but given the amount of power in his bat I wouldn’t expect a major uptick in zone rate as pitchers won’t want to give him too many good pitches to hit.
There really was only one true negative for Dalbec in 2020, but it was the one that has long threatened to prevent him from reaching his ceiling. That would be his strikeout rate. Since the day he entered the organization Dalbec was a guy who could crush the ball when he made contact, but had some questions about the ability to make that contact. Through his time in the minors, he consistently carried strikeout rates around or above 30 percent.
In the small sample that was his major-league debut in 2020, he struck out a whopping 42 percent of the time. Even in this era of increased strikeout rates all around the league, one can’t really have success if they’re striking out quite that much. Granted, the sample size issues matter here just as they did with the positives, but there are concerning signs. Dalbec struggled to make contact against all pitches, but non-fastballs gave him the most trouble as he whiffed on more than half of his swings against both breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He also had major issues putting the ball in play against pitches away from him in the zone.
This is ultimately what will decide Dalbec’s fate as a major-league hitter. If he can cut this rate down by at least 12 percentage points, he should be able to survive and make it as a solid starter in this league for a long time. That’s not a small improvement to make, though.
The Big Question
The strikeouts were always seen as a given, as was the power, which made Dalbec’s aforementioned walk rate the key to his success as a major-league hitter. There are different levels of strikeout issues, of course, and as I said the rate needs to come down from 42 percent. However, the conclusion I made in the linked season preview was that he needs to get his walk rate to double digits to be an impact bat. He got there, and while the power was more than enough to make an impact either way, looking long-term he’ll likely have to maintain something close to that 11 percent walk rate on a consistent basis.
Looking ahead to 2021
Dalbec is set up to be one of the most interesting players on the Red Sox next year. In a lineup with some big names there won’t be a ton of pressure on him in terms of team performance, but the looming presence of Triston Casas could make up for that. I’d expect the Red Sox to bring in some insurance, but for the most part first base will be Dalbec’s to lose. How much can he cut down on his strikeout rate? And how much of that power can carry into a full season?