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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Bobby Dalbec.
Bobby Dalbec is no longer a prospect, but he’s still very early in his career and therefore still developing as a player. From some perspectives, the Red Sox are in a great spot with the 26-year-old first baseman.
For starters, Dalbec can absolutely obliterate baseballs. After wowing Red Sox fans with eight home runs in 92 plate appearances during the back half of a miserable (for more than one reason) and shortened 2020 season, he launched another 25 dingers in 2021, producing a mark in Isolated Power of .254. Among qualified hitters, that would have ranked 20th in baseball, putting him just a few ticks behind established boppers like Rafael Devers, Pete Alonso and Aaron Judge.
Dalbec’s power wasn’t just a mirage brought on by being able to hit at Fenway Park either. Based on Baseball Savant’s calculations, he ranked above the 90th percentile in barrel rate (98th), maximum exit velocity (96th) and average exit velocity (91st) in 2021, and he was just shy of the distinction in hard hit rate (85th percentile. When you throw in his top prospect pedigree and the fact that he’s entering his age-27 season in 2022, there is real evidence that Dalbec could be a star or at least a comfortably above average hitter. So why did he only produced a 107 wRC+ last season?
Let’s welcome the elephant in the room into the discussion now. The problem is that for as awesome as Dalbec is at punishing baseballs, he doesn’t make nearly enough contact to do it frequently, leading to a staggering number of plate appearances that end with him walking back to the dugout following a strikeout.
Dalbec’s strikeout issues didn’t come out of nowhere in 2021. They were definitely there in 2020 (42.4 percent strikeout rate), and he had a history of elevated marks in strikeout rate during his run through the minors. The hope entering 2021 was that his astronomical number from 2020 would stabilize and that he’d hit enough to make up for the strikeouts. We are in the three true outcomes era of baseball after all. Well, even if Dalbec’s strikeout rate did drop last season, it still came in at an incredible 34.4 percent, putting him far higher than league average and in the second percentile among MLB hitters. In fact, among qualified hitters, Dalbec’s strikeout rate would have tied with Miguel Sanó for the second-highest mark in baseball last year. Dalbec’s whiff rate (38.2 percent) was even worse and also put him near the very bottom of the barrel.
Clearly there are some holes in Dalbec’s swing, with the most obvious ones being high and inside and low and away against righties and low and inside against lefties. He also struggled with pretty much every breaking pitch, particularly curveballs, sliders and changeups, although a well placed heater could often overmatch him as well.
Fixing the issue isn’t just a matter of getting Dalbec to be more patient either. He did swing at 50.4 percent of pitches last season, which was roughly three percent higher than league average, so taking a few more pitches could help, but the real issue is Dalbec just didn’t connect with enough pitches, even when they were hittable. He made contact on 68.9 percent of pitches in the strike zone in 2022, which was a pittance compared with the league average of 82 percent, according to Baseball Savant. (FanGraphs has the league average at 84.6 percent). So really, the fix is simple in description (make more contact) but difficult in execution. (Haven’t I heard something about hitting a baseball being the hardest thing to do in sports?)
Because Dalbec struggled so much to get the bat on the ball, his entire offensive profile suffered last season. In addition to his just above average wRC+, which was largely buoyed by his power, Dalbec had just a 6.2 percent walk rate and a .240 batting average despite a .316 batting average on balls in play, which was above the league average of .292 last year.
Due to his youth and history as a good prospect, Dalbec normally wouldn’t be under immense pressure to turn things around immediately. Obviously the Red Sox wouldn’t be okay with him continuing to struggle forever, but Dalbec’s position puts him in a more precarious, uh, position. A first baseman for the vast majority of his MLB career, Dalbec is currently holding down that spot on the field while the organization's top prospect, Triston Casas, waits in the wings.
With the potential and fervor building around Casas, Dalbec doesn’t have the luxury of taking his time. In addition, Dalbec’s other position (third base) is taken up by Devers and there’s no way on earth he’ll be able to challenge for that position. If Dalbec could play second base or some outfield (and it’s possible the Red Sox will try that), then he would at least have a shot at moving around the field while he figures out his hitting. There’s also designated hitter, which could work, but again would require him to work out his hitting shortcomings to be a long-term solution. As it stands, Dalbec will be under mounting pressure the closer Casas gets to being MLB-ready. That means Dalbec has to improve sooner rather than later and doing so will mean cutting his strikeout numbers down or at least making contact more frequently.