Bobby Dalbec is a hitter. That’s what he’s always believed, anyway, steadfastly and without reservation. And any player who hit 8 home runs in his first 23 games and then, the next season, had a month like the one Bobby Dalbac had in August 2021 — another 7 home runs accompanying a ridiculous .339/.431/.774 slash line — would probably believe the same.
But it’s also hard to believe that Bobby Dalbec isn’t starting to face some doubt. Sandwiched around that hot start and that one hot month, has been nothing but pain. For the first four months of the 2021 season before that August, he was, by many statistical measures, one of the very worst hitters in baseball, near the bottom of the league in both on-base percentage and batting average, and dead last in the league in strikeout rate. The next year, the hot month never came at all. He finished the 2022 season with an OPS+ of just 80, which would have been the fifth-worst in all of baseball had he qualified; his 33.4% strikeout percentage would have been second-worst.
And moreover, it seems like Bobby Dalbec might not be the type of athlete who can so easily bury doubt in the bottom of his mental closet. Rather, he seems particularly attuned to the human condition. He’s talked openly about his struggles to silence negativity; he says he’s had to to stop reading anything written about him; his philanthropy centers around mental health advocacy. It’s easy to imagine that Bobby Dalbec is preparing for the 2023 season as a desperate man — desperate to prove he belongs, desperate to win a job, desperate to hold onto his dream.
Desperate men do desperate things. When faced with a “damp, drizzly November of the soul,” Herman Melville (a man who, BTW, wrote his masterpiece in the birthplace of baseball— shoutout to the Berkshires) would take to the sea. But Bobby Dalbec doesn’t need to green hand his way from New Bedford to the Pacific. He’s got another option: Bobby Dalbec can pitch.
The first time Alex Cora ever saw Bobby Dalbec on a baseball field was in the 2016 College World Series, when Cora was in the booth for ESPN. Dalbec, playing for Arizona against Oklahoma State, was the player of the game. He achieved this despite the fact that he didn’t make a single plate appearance, because what he did instead, was strike out 12 batters over 8 innings, while allowing just a single run. Dalbec the college pitcher had a complete arsenal, with a fastball in the mid-90s and a change-up that, according his manager, was already a Major League caliber pitch. And Cora said on the air that very day, that he saw Dalbec as a pitcher.
But Bobby Dalbec was a hitter, or so he believed. “I knew I always wanted to hit,” he would say later. “I knew I could hit and believed in myself being a position player.” The belief is admirable. But while he may still think of himself as an everyday player, opposition big league pitchers seem to think otherwise.
Could he even make the switch back to the mound at this point? The idea of heading back to the lower minors to reinvent himself at age 28 probably isn’t very appealing. The man currently tied with Roger Clemens on top of the all-time Red Sox wins list famously made the switch to pitching after failing as a hitter, but he did so when he was just 22 years old—not, as Bobby Dalbec is now, someone in his late-20s who’s already tasted big league success. Dalbec’s path of least resistance back to the 26-man roster seems more likely to involve closing the holes in his swing than spending a few years teaching himself to become a starting pitcher.
But maybe there’s a third option. Maybe Bobby Dalbec can become a two-way player, specifically a DH/relief pitcher.
One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a modern revival of two-way players is simply juggling the logistics of it all. For potential starting pitchers, the issue is balancing rest between starts with time in the field and at the plate. For two-way relievers who play the field like Michael Lorenzen, the logistical issue is finding time to warm up in the bullpen in the midst of a game. If it ever could be possible (let alone optimal) for a two-way player to regularly hit and pitch in the same game, doing so as a DH/late-inning reliever is the likeliest path.
From the Red Sox perspective, this plan probably looks like an unlikely long shot. And to be clear: it is. But it’s also true that Bobby Dalbec doesn’t really have a place on the Red Sox right now, either in 2023 or going forward. If there is to be a next great Red Sox team sometime in the next three-to-four years, the two positions Dalbec plays — first base and third — will be occupied by Triston Casas and Rafael Devers, respectively. And Dalbec’s near-complete inability to hit righties rules him out as a full-time DH, even if he does figure things out against lefties. But if he could spend the bulk of his time in the bullpen, while also DHing against lefties and being available to pitch in relief, he might be worth a roster spot. The Sox have nothing to lose.
From Dalbec’s perspective, taking on the added stress of trying to pitch while also fixing his swing probably appears too daunting of a task — particularly in light of the fact that he’s been clear that he prefers to hit. Unlike the Red Sox, Dalbec does have something to lose in attempting this, at least in the sense that he probably still believes it’s possible to regain his form at the plate and might fear that pitching will take him away from that.
But maybe Bobby Dalbec needs what Melville needed: a metaphorical trip to sea if not a literal one. Maybe taking on this new challenge could serve as a reset on his baseball life. For now, he still has something to lose, but he might not for much longer.