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One Big Question: Can Bobby Dalbec hold his own against secondaries?

He’s going to swing and miss. But if he’s just bad instead of exceptionally bad, he should be okay overall.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Bobby Dalbec.

The Question: Can Bobby Dalbec make passable contact against secondaries?

Heading into the 2021 season, it seems like Bobby Dalbec is strangely flying under the radar, all things considered. It makes sense, in a way. There are still stars on this roster with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez. There are a lot of new faces to learn. The pitching is still the focus. And even in terms of rookies who showed exciting flashes in a small sample size last summer, Tanner Houck seems to have him beat. All of that is totally fair, but at the same time Bobby Dalbec is a top prospect in the organization who got his first taste of big-league ball in 2020 and more than held his own. He’s going to be an important part of the roster in 2021.

And so it’s worth looking back at what he did last season, because it was easy to miss for some. Dalbec didn’t get called up until September, at which point many people had tuned out of the season. So in case you missed it, the big corner infielder finished the year hitting .263/.359/.600 for a 152 wRC+. That’s really good!

Of course, on the other hand we have to temper that a bit because it was a very small sample size with plenty of underlying issues. It was exciting, but it was 92 plate appearances, and in those 92 plate appearances Dalbec struck out a whopping 42 percent of the time. That is, to put it simply, untenable over a normal sample.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Now, this isn’t a huge surprise as swing and miss has always been the biggest risk in his profile. To bring back the Houck comparison, just as the lack of a third pitch is still a concern with him despite the strong showing in 2020, the strikeouts are still a glaring issue for Dalbec despite the fact that his power (.338 Isolated Power) and patience (11 percent walk rate) was able to overcome it in the small sample. Since the day he was drafted and officially turned into a full-time position player, this was the thing that was always going to hold him back. And, in the matter of fairness, if we’re going to point to the small sample as a reason to hold back excitement on the positives, we also have to recognize that this rate could very well come back down in a larger sample.

And it’s beyond obvious that Dalbec needs that rate to come down. He’s almost certainly not going to put up a .338 ISO moving forward, not to mention a .394 batting average on balls in play. Strikeouts are acceptable for power hitters, but even the best power hitters who draw walks can’t really float above the 33 to 35 percent range, which is a fairly significant drop from 42 percent. And so as we watch to see what’s next for Dalbec, the biggest key is going to be how he performs against opposing pitchers’ secondaries.

There are a lot of easy comparisons to be drawn between Michael Chavis and Dalbec, what with both being relatively recent top(ish) prospects in the organization who play corner infield spots with swing and miss issues. However, with Chavis the biggest issue has been velocity, particularly when it’s up in the zone. That’s not as much of a concern with Dalbec. He’ll whiff through those some, but for the most part he can punish big velocity if he’s ready for it.

Instead, the issues start to come up when he falls behind in a count and pitchers start to throw more junk. Dalbec has shown some trouble in adjusting to breaking and offspeed pitches, particularly when they are low and away. This has been an issue for his entire pro career, and it makes sense. Dalbec is a large human, so it’s obviously harder to cover that portion of the plate. Last year’s numbers aren’t necessary a baseline moving forward due to the sample, but it’s worth pointing out that per Baseball Savant he whiffed on more than half of his swings against both breaking balls and offspeed pitches. And to dig down even more, among hitters who saw at least 10 of each pitch, Dalbec sixth highest whiff rate against curveballs, ninth highest against changeups and 17th highest against sliders, again per Baseball Savant. Against major-league pitchers who can throw those types of offerings in any count, that is asking for trouble.

Now, here is the part where we can make room for some optimism. As I said above, the sample was small. And not only are we dealing with fewer than 100 plate appearances, but we’re also talking about a guy who was facing major-league pitching for the first time while also playing in front of zero (0) fans while also playing in the midst of a pandemic. It’s not hard to find reasons to toss these numbers aside. And on top of that, Dalbec has made the necessary adjustments before. Prior to being called up he had worked extremely hard to get his strikeout rates down to an acceptable level in the minors. That’s a much easier process to do there than in the big leagues, but he’s shown an ability to make the proper adjustments on the fly, and perhaps just as importantly to make those adjustments without sacrificing power.

And for more good news on this front, Dalbec shouldn’t feel a ton of pressure this year. There will be some just because there’s always pressure and also as the year goes on he may feel that Triston Casas heat coming from below on the depth chart, but in the context of the 2021 Red Sox he will not be among the most important hitters. He’ll be towards the bottom of the lineup where he can figure out the adjustments he needs to make. That said, looking forward to the rest of his career he needs to make more contact, and that starts with when pitchers go away from the fastball. We know Dalbec can hit homers, and we know he can draw walks. Now, the only step left is to take that strikeout rate from terribad and bring it down to simply being bad, or maybe even just worse-than-average.