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Don’t overlook Bobby Dalbec’s gains on defense

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He still needs to hit, but he’s providing value in the field.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Heading into this season, one of the biggest wildcards for the Red Sox’s success in 2021 was going to be Bobby Dalbec. He is the epitome of modern baseball’s three true outcome approach, which we saw in his brief introduction to major-league action last summer. He’ll slug homers and draw walks, but also strike out at one of the highest rates in the game. The amount of power he showed off in that cup of coffee last September, combined with his red-hot start to spring training this year, led to some optimistic views of what he could provide. In a Red Sox lineup with a whole lot of variance in the bottom portion, Dalbec arguably holds the most.

The early returns this season have not been positive, as he has been one of the few hitters that has failed to get it going at any point over the first week. We’re obviously dealing with some small sample sizes here, but to this point in the year Dalbec has gone just 2-21 with two walka and both hits being singles. He’s also struck out nine times already, bringing that rate up to a concerning 39 percent.

But again, the sample sizes we’re dealing with at this point are bordering on meaningless, particularly for a hitter like Dalbec whose strikeout issues are inevitably going to lead to periods of streakiness on both sides. As he’s been sorting through at the issues at the plate, though, his defense has somewhat quietly been making major strides. If we rewind to this past winter, one of the moves I thought made all the sense in the world and was an advocate for was bringing in Mitch Moreland as something of a mentor for Dalbec at the cold corner. The early returns are suggesting that he didn’t need it.

Dalbec has had a lot of chances to show off his grasp of what is still a relatively new position this year, and he’s passed on a variety of opportunities. He’s done a great job picking balls out of the dirt on short throws. He’s shown an ability to lead his pitchers to the bag well on balls he needs to assist. He’s shown much improved footwork around the base, probably the most underrated part of first base defense.

In fact, I would argue that having a strong defensive first baseman is one of the more underrated aspects of team building in general. Obviously this is the position that carries arguably the least amount of defensive value in terms of modern metrics, but having strong defense over there can alter so much for a team’s overall defense. In this era of shifting and increased emphasis on versatility in order to keep bench sizes down and bullpen sizes up, players are playing in spots they are not used to more than ever. Over the large sample of a season the effects could be minimal, but on a game-to-game basis there are plays that could decide the outcome of a game. Having a sure-handed first baseman who will hide more mistakes than not can help not only keep errors off the board, but in some cases runs and in other situations it helps to prevent a pitcher’s pitch count from driving up too far.

And for the Red Sox in particular, having that kind of strong first base defense is particularly important. Even as they play great baseball right now, having won their fifth game in a row on Sunday, the strengths and flaws with this roster remain clear from prior to the season. They can hit, and the pitching can be solid, but likely will need help from the defense at times. Boston’s infield defense, particularly on the left side, does not grade out quite well and can be prone to errors, particularly with Rafael Devers at third.

This was part of the concern of having Dalbec at first base this season with no true first baseman behind him as an insurance policy. Dalbec, of course, came up as a third baseman and while he’s moving down the defensive spectrum it’s still an entirely new position with new techniques to learn. It was a reasonable worry that having him over there would only serve to exacerbate other issues with the infield defense.

Instead, he is taking to the position quite well. Dalbec was always a solid defensive third baseman coming up through the minors, particularly considering his size. The scouting reports were trending in the wrong direction towards the end, but the athleticism was still enough that you could see him developing into a strong first baseman. But it’s still easier said than done, and learning the footwork and all the other aspects of the position can take some time. For Dalbec, though, the learning curve has been smoother than I think many could have expected.

At the end of the day, his value on this roster is still going to come down to his bat. While first base defense may be underrated in my opinion, it is still a position that relies heavily on the bat. All of the questions with Dalbec’s swing and miss remain. But if those questions are questions, the Red Sox can have comfort that they also have a sure-handed first baseman to help save their pitching staff and mask some of the deficiencies elsewhere on the dirt.