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Bobby Dalbec is earning his playing time

He’s been one of the team’s best hitters in the 2nd half.

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In the days preceding the trade deadline, it seemed like it was a foregone conclusion that the Red Sox would have a new first baseman. Bobby Dalbec had struggled immensely throughout the first half, and rumors were swirling about the Sox dealing for Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana, or a bevy of other candidates. Especially at a position like first base, where the offensive demands are higher than any other position, Dalbec was not getting the job done with a .673 OPS, 36.8 percent strikeout, and 4.7 percent BB-rate.

To everyone’s surprise, the Sox did not end up bringing in a first baseman (no, Kyle Schwarber doesn’t count), and hedged their bets on Bobby Dalbec breaking out after the All-Star break. Those bets are certainly paying off, as Dalbec has been one of the team’s best hitters of late. So what has been fueling Bobby Dalbec’s recent breakout?

First and foremost, swings-and-misses were the main culprit for the rookie’s poor start, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise; strikeouts have long been a major issue for him. At the end of the 2020 season, I wrote about Dalbec’s strikeout issues and how he would need to really cut down to stay productive at the plate. Having a strikeout rate over 30 percent creates a slim margin for a player to consistently produce, especially given the production demands at his position.

The thing is, when Dalbec makes contact, he demolishes the ball. His barrel rate puts him among the top four percent of players in the league, and his average exit velocity is a stellar 91.7 mph, putting him in the top 12 percent in the league. Cutting down on swings-and-misses even slightly would allow more of his massive power and general hard contact to seep through. The key to Dalbec’s success is limiting swinging strikes and making contact as often as possible. As you can see in the graph below, his Contact% is trending in the right direction since the trade deadline (which occurred around Game 85).

Another worrisome pre-break trend for Dalbec was just how little he was walking. Strikeouts are one thing, but if you know the zone like someone like Joey Gallo (who has a walk rate above 18%), you can compensate for frequent swings-and-misses. In the minors, Dalbec showed a propensity for taking ball four, often approaching walk rates of 15 percent, but this hasn’t yet translated to the majors.

However, in more recent games, Dalbec’s plate discipline has been much better. O-Swing rate, which measures a player’s percentage of swings outside the strike zone, gives a good idea of a player’s plate discipline and correlates well with BB%. Again, in the graph below, you can see Dalbec’s eye at the plate has been improving since the deadline.

Thanks to these adjustments, Dalbec’s second half walk rate is up over seven percent, and likewise his second half strikeout rate is down five percentage points to a much more manageable 31 percent. Those aren’t eye-popping improvements, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction and they’ve given Dalbec more opportunities to channel his power. His ISO (Isolated Power, or SLG – AVG) has increased from .190 in the first half to .295 in the second half.

Additionally, it’s looking more and more like the Sox made the correct decision in being passive at the deadline at first base. Below are some some second half numbers from Dalbec and two other popular Red Sox trade targets.

  • Bobby Dalbec – .937 OPS, 147 wRC+
  • Anthony Rizzo – .791 OPS, 117 wRC+
  • Carlos Santana – .501 OPS, 38 wRC+

Keep in mind we’re dealing with a small sample size with these second half numbers (roughly 100 PA’s) and there’s plenty of baseball left to play. Still, things are trending upward for Bobby Dalbec. It was looking like he was out of a job a few weeks ago, but he’s earned himself more playing time for the time being. If he continues to progress at the plate, he’ll continue to earn at-bats.