Bobby Dalbec: The Next Big Swing

Photo via NESN.com

Are you familiar with the 3 true outcomes for batters?  It’s the idea that the only 3 things a batter has control over is strikeouts, walks and home runs without involving the defense behind the pitcher.  In other words, once the ball is hit (and it’s not a home run) the batter has no control over the fielders making a play on it.  This is because batters can’t control shifts or how good the defensive player is (better hit it towards Marcell Ozuna and not JBJ).  Now you can make the argument that batters can “hit it where they ain’t”, but even trying to just hit it down the 3B line on a huge pull shift can still lead to easy ground balls to the 3B who’s standing at the shortstop position.  If you are familiar with the 3 true outcomes, good for you! If not, you’re about to get very familiar because Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec is one of the most perfect examples in Major League Baseball today.  

Perhaps no example is more perfect than Bobby Dalbec’s current Spring Training Line.  He is 5 for 16 with 4 homeruns, 2 walks, and 9 strikeouts.  That means he has had a walk, strikeout, or home run in 15 of his 18 plate appearances so far this Spring.  His 2020 line was less obvious, but he had 39 strikeouts, 10 walks, and 8 home runs in 92 plate appearances.  That works out to about 62% of his plate appearances being one of the 3 true outcomes.  Considering the league average is around 34%, he’s well above average compared to the rest of MLB hitters.  But let’s break down each of the true outcomes and see how Dalbec has done, and what reasonable expectations would be. 

Home Runs

Might as well start with the fun topic right? Dalbec has shown well above average power since being drafted out of Arizona in the 4th round of the 2016 draft.  He averaged about 28 home runs per 500 at bats in his 4 years rising through the minor league ranks, including an impressive 32 dingers between High-A Salem and AA Portland in 2018.  He continued to show that easy power in his first big league season lifting 8 jacks in only 80 at bats (a 50 HR season pace!).  Now while some of those home runs may be attributed to MLB pitchers not being familiar with him, it’s still impressive.  So what can we realistically project going forward?  As long as he gets playing time Dalbec definitely has some 40 HR seasons in his future.  Probably a more realistic total will be more along the lines of somewhere in the 30ish range per season, and that’s of course dependent on how many at bats he gets per season.  But we’ll get to that later.

Walks

One side product of being a formidable power hitter in the big leagues, is you get pitched around quite a bit.   The savvy sluggers know to take those free bases when they come, as trying to do too much with bad pitches usually leads to a bad outcome.  For his minor league career, Dalbec had an 11.7% walk rate in 1609 plate appearances in the minors.  This means that in those 1600ish PA’s, he walked about 11.7% of the time.  As for the big leagues, consistency was the name of the game because in his 92 plate appearances he put up a 10.9% walk rate.  Going forward a 10% walk rate would be above average, and if he can get it to 12% or more you’re talking “elite” (https://library.fangraphs.com/offense/rate-stats/).  

Photo via fangraphs.com

Walks also will boost Dalbec’s on base percentage, which is important because it will be important for him to get on base to support his questionable hit tool.  While he was able to put up a .261 batting average in his 4 season in the minors, that includes an exceptional .386 batting in Short Season Lowell in his first year of pro-ball.  Take that out and you’re left with a .248 avg, which would probably be closer to what to expect from him going forward.  The biggest question for Dalbec is whether he can hit and walk enough to carry his power and strikeout numbers.  If he can hit .230-.260 in the big leagues and provide avg or better defense at 1B, he’ll be able to find regular at bats in the majors.  (On a side note, if his defense at 3B can be league average or better, the thresholds drop a little as 3B is a much weaker offensive position than 1B).

Strikeouts

That leads us to the last of the 3 true outcomes, strikeouts.  This is the one part of the game that Dalbec has struggled with in the past, and will probably be one of the more defining stats to tell whether he can be an MLB regular or not.  The league average strikeout rate was 23.4% last year, a number that has been steadily rising for the last 10-15 seasons.  In his 4 minor league seasons Dalbec posted a 29.8% strikeout rate, which is WAY above the league average and likely not sustainable.  On the plus side, he did cut it down to just 24.9% in 2019 in AA and AAA, which is a considerable improvement over his numbers in the low minors and a sign of progression in pitch recognition.  However in his 92 plate appearance in the majors last year, he struck out 39 times in 92 plate appearances for a 40.2% K rate.  Again, this is a very small sample size, plus the fact it was his first experience with big league pitching.  While  his performance in 2020 doesn’t completely overshadow the improvements shown in 2019, it does mean that this upcoming season his strikeouts will be closely monitored.

So what does this all mean? Should you be excited for “Throbby D” to play his first full big league season?  Absolutely!  His raw power is unlike anything that has come up through the Red Sox minor league system probably since Mo Vaughn.  The biggest question will (and has been for while), will Dalbec hit enough to stay as an everyday player?  The threshold isn’t that high considering how impressive the power numbers could be, so if he can pull off about 90 other hits to go along with about 40 HR’s and 75 walks, we could be looking at .235/.329/.490 solid middle of the order hitter. But to be honest as we watch those baseballs fly majestically over Fenway Park’s Green Monster, let’s face it, we’ll all probably forget about the “terrifying truth” of those strikeouts anyways.

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