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2021 in Review: Bobby Dalbec’s Streaky Rookie Campaign

The first baseman struggled early before surging in the second half.

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Bobby Dalbec’s 2021 campaign.

2021 in one sentence

Bobby Dalbec finished his rookie campaign in fine fashion, though his uneven season ended with him on the bench for essentially all of the postseason run.

The Positives

Power! Power! Power! Bobby Dalbec and his 6’4” frame is pure power, and to all fields at that. The first baseman finished 2021 in the top two percent of the league in barrels and top nine percent in exit velocity, per Baseball Savant. To put it in simpler terms, when the slugger connects with a baseball he hits it on point, with power, and he usually musters enough pop to leave the ballpark. Dalbec was also in the 87th percentile in xSLG, 85th percentile in hard-hit percentage, and 78th percentile in sprint speed in 2021. All of the listed above are the makings for a truly above-average major league hitter.

The Red Sox traded for Kyle Schwarber at the deadline to play first base at least part of the time, a position he’d had no actual major-league experience with. That threatened a then-struggling Dalbec’s playing time. But the former was on the injured at the time of the trade and did not make his Red Sox debut until August 13 against the Baltimore Orioles. The trade seemed to motivate Dalbec, as he quite literally turned his season around after the trade deadline.

American League Championship Series Game 5: Houston Astros v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In 195 plate appearances in the second half of the season, Dalbec slashed .269/.344/.611 with a .955 OPS and a 149 wRC+. Compared to the .219/.264/.409, .673 OPS, and 76 wRC+ of the first half of 2021, Dalbec’s second-half numbers were simply astounding. All together, Dalbec hit .240/.298/.494, with a 107 wRC+ and 25 home runs in 453 plate appearances during the 2021 season. There are undoubtedly areas of Dalbec’s game that need improvement, but the second half of 2021 should be of great encouragement heading into 2022. The notion of Dalbec being able to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs on a relatively consistent basis is not out of the realm of possibility.

The Negatives

The power that Dalbec possesses is as real as the holes in his swing. Dalbec ranked in just the second percentile in whiff percentage, second percentile in strikeout percentage, 15th percentile in walk percentage, and 44th percentile in chase rate. Dalbec simply wasn’t getting on base via the walk in 2021, walking at a 6.2 percent rate to go along with his 34.4 percent strikeout rate. In 417 at-bats Dalbec struck out 156 times.

It should be noted, though, that in today’s game a player can strike out a lot and still be of great value. Aaron Judge’s 2017 season is the perfect example. That year, the Yankees slugger walked 127 times to his 208 strikeouts, nearly going home with the MVP. Judge may have had a 30.7 percent K rate in 2017, but he also had an 18.7 percentage walk rate. More walks equal more time on base, which in turn of course means a greater opportunity to score. If Dalbec wants to become an elite, Judge-type hitter, he needs to be more patient, draw more walks and cut down on strikeouts.

Another negative for Dalbec in 2021 was a lack of a true feel for his position at first base. In 123 games played at first base in 2021 Dalbec had 11 errors, a .988 fielding percentage, and a -12.3 defensive WAR. By Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, he was way down in the third percentile. Dalbec came up playing across the diamond at third base, and it is never more apparent than when he actually plays third base. As long as Rafael Devers is manning the hot corner there is zero chance Dalbec gets many starts at third, hence the move to first. Dalbec and his large physique even look the part of a first baseman, but right now it’s clear he needs more refinement at the position.

The Big Question

Can Bobby Dalbec hold his own against secondaries?

This truly is the biggest question. The swing and miss is, and will most likely always be, the biggest issue in Dalbec’s profile as an offensive player. A larger frame does make reaching for the low and away off-speed pitches more of a difficulty for Dalbec. Compared to his 2020 numbers, Dalbec did improve with regard to breaking and offspeed pitches in 2021. In 2020 Dalbec had a .214 BA, .231 xBA, .429 SLG, .599 xSLG and whiffed 55.7 percent, compared to a .219 BA, .206 xBA, .523 SLG, .461 xSLG and whiffed 43.6 percent of the time on breaking pitches. In 2020, on offspeed pitches, Dalbec had a .167 BA, .159 xBA, .500 SLG, .491 xSLG and whiffed at a 54.5 percentage. The numbers greatly improved for Dalbec in 2021, where he had a .293 BA, .264 xBA, .603 SLG, .598 xSLG, and a 47.2 whiff percentage. Dalbec proved that yes, he can improve on how he handles secondary pitches.

2022 and Beyond

Who’s on first? Maybe Bobby Dalbec. If Dalbec wants to force the Red Sox to do something regarding prospect Triston Casas knocking on the door at first base, he simply needs to get on base at a higher rate. A sub .300 OBP simply is not going to cut it if Dalbec is going to be the everyday first basemen for the Boston Red Sox. As stated previously, his barrel percentage, hard-hit percentage, max, and average exit velocity, and xSLG are all at an elite level. He has the tools to be a very good hitter, but it all comes down to whether or not Dalbec has the discipline to actually transform into the hitter he is capable of becoming.

Many major league teams should be champing at the bit to trade for Dalbec if the Red Sox believe that Triston Casas is the future at first base with the Boston Red Sox. Dalbec being available on the trade block would not be of any major surprise, especially if the team is really considering bringing Schwarber back to have him play a majority of first base in 2022.

The Red Sox can trade Dalbec, given his value, or they can keep him, and allow him the opportunity to prove to be invaluable. If he walks at a higher rate, and slightly cuts down on the strikeouts, hits 30 bombs, and drives in over 100, the Red Sox organization has a cost-effective, power-hitting, potential superstar at first base. Dalbec is the designer of his own future. Only he can force the Red Sox to make some tough decisions, and quite frankly, it’s a wonderful problem to have.