Historically, the ninth spot in the batting order has been little more than a black hole. Major League Baseball has legislated that in the National League by refusing to adopt a universal designated hitter. Even with the DH, American League teams typically have modest expectations for the spot, which will have the fewest plate appearances over the course of the season.
And then there are the 2021 Red Sox. When they take the field for Opening Day Friday, rookie Bobby Dalbec will be in the last spot of the order. Ordinarily, such a position attests to limited expectations.
Not with Dalbec.
“I think he can be one of the most impactful power hitters in Major League Baseball,” said Red Sox vice president of scouting Mike Rikard.
The suggestion is offered matter-of-factly, not as hyperbole, and it does come with caveats. In his debut last year, Dalbec displayed plenty of power in blasting eight homers in 92 plate appearances, but he also struck out an unsettling 42.4 percent of the time — the fifth-highest rate in the big leagues among players with 80 PAs.
Yet Dalbec’s power is exceptional in a way that creates the possibility of reducing those strikeouts and unlocking the sort of production that belongs not in the ninth spot, but in the middle of the order.
Dalbec can destroy baseballs to the opposite field — particularly right-center — in a fashion rivaled by few in the game. Last year, in just 23 games, the 25-year-old Dalbec hit four opposite-field homers.
He was one of 20 players to hit at least that many, and he had the second-fewest plate appearances of those players. Of that group, 17 had an OPS of .800 or better, and 13 (including Dalbec) had at least .900.
The ability to obliterate pitches was not a misleading element of a compressed season. Red Sox area scout Vaughn Williams recalled a jaw-dropping demonstration of that ability when Dalbec played at the University of Arizona.
“I can tell you exactly what light pole he hit,” said Williams. “That right-center light pole, up there at the very top, near the lights. He took a fastball on the outer half of the plate and hit it up near the light pole. It was up at the very top of the lights. I don’t want to embellish, but that was 475 [feet], easy — maybe even longer.”
Had Williams ever seen a homer to the opposite field like that?
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Nothing to that magnitude.”
It is not an accident. Dalbec understands that he has the strength to drive the ball out of the park even when his bat catches it deep in the strike zone, before it’s fully accelerated. If he can remain patient enough to drive fastballs to the opposite field, it positions him not only to have extra milliseconds to recognize a pitch but also to demolish off-speed pitches to the pull side, making him a line-to-line power threat.
“I’m comfortable [letting pitches get] deep because I know I can hit the ball hard the other way,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have to sell out pull side or get that extra giddy-up to do damage.
“If my default in my head is right-center, and I know I can do damage there, it makes hitting a lot less stressful. I can do damage to heaters to the big part of the field and let off-speed take care of itself, I think we’re in a pretty good spot.”
Dalbec remained in that spot throughout the spring. He led the big leagues with seven spring training homers — four of which went to the opposite field.
“It just shows his raw power,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “It shows what he’s capable of doing.
“He’s hitting the ball to all fields. That’s where he has to stay. I think when he gets too pull-happy, I think that’s when the strikeouts will pile up. But he’s confident, seeing the baseball deep, using all fields. He’s capable of hitting it out of any ballpark anywhere.”
Often, players who are able to generate power without forcing it — particularly those who feel comfortable doing so to the opposite field, rather than rushing their swings — prove capable of controlling their strikeouts enough to become significant contributors.
Dalbec has managed to do that as he’s worked through his professional career. In his first full pro season, 2017, he struck out at a 37.4 percent clip with Single A Greenville. Then, questions were raised about whether he would make enough contact to allow his power to play as he moved up the ladder.
Yet even as he faced steadily higher-quality competition, he cut his strikeout rate at every level, whittling it to 23.6 percent in Triple A at the end of 2019.
That track record, in combination with the elite all-fields power that makes it possible, allows the Red Sox to imagine rare production from the No. 9 spot — or the type that would ensure Dalbec’s departure from it. They know he will endure hot and cold streaks as he continues to adjust to the big leagues and opposing pitchers continue to dissect him.
Last year was instructive. Dalbec became just the seventh position player ever to strike out multiple times in each of his first four games. Undeterred after he went 0 for 3 with one strikeout in his fifth game, he homered in each of the next five contests.
“He kept swinging,” said Williams. “He kept doing what Bobby does. He’s going to fight at the plate and if you make a mistake, punish it.
“Keeping in mind that first full season there’s going to be some ups and downs, the sky is the limit with this young man. He’s shown that he can do it. He’s shown he can make adjustments. And he’s shown he can rebound.
“He’s got a lot to prove, don’t get me wrong. But the ingredients to prove it are all there.”
Ingredients alone do not make a meal. But as the Red Sox imagine scenarios that would permit them to surpass expectations, the sense of Dalbec’s potential — even from the bottom of the order — can nourish such visions.
|Player||Opposite-field homers||Plate appearances||OPS|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||5||257||.937|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||4||202||.987|