CHICAGO — It would not have come as a surprise had the Red Sox demoted Bobby Dalbec to Triple A in late July.
The rookie first baseman was overmatched, his batting average plunging to .213 with a .647 OPS after he went 0 for 5 and struck out four times in a doubleheader against the Blue Jays on July 28.
Dalbec had struck out in 38 percent of his plate appearances to that point.
The Sox then traded for outfielder Kyle Schwarber just before the deadline hit on July 30 and said their intention was to play him at first base.
That Schwarber was on the injured list at the time may have been what kept Dalbec on the roster.
Whether it was a second chance or not, he’s run with the opportunity.
Dalbec had hit .320 with a 1.136 OPS, 19 extra-base hits, and 34 RBIs in 36 games since the trade deadline. He was 1 for 5 with an RBI in Saturday’s 9-8, 10-inning victory against the White Sox.
For major league players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, only Bryce Harper has had a higher OPS (1.180) during that time.
Dalbec also has trimmed his strikeout rate to 29.7 percent.
There’s no single explanation for his resurgence. Young hitters often need time to get accustomed to the majors. The threat of losing playing time to Schwarber had to have played a role, too.
Dalbec points to the mental and physical adjustments he made at the plate, specifically the idea of treating every pitch like it’s the best one he’s going to get.
“If I do that, I’m not chasing guys around the [strike] zone and hitting the pitches they want me to swing at,” Dalbec said. “I’m comfortable taking strikes in the zone knowing that’s not the pitch I want. Then just battle with two strikes.”
Dalbec’s well-honed patience at the plate served him well in the minors. It betrayed him in the majors as more experienced pitchers got ahead in the count and took command of the at-bat.
Even if Dalbec made contact, it was often weak after a defensive swing.
“He drove the ball to right-center last season. This season there were a lot of empty fly balls to right field,” manager Alex Cora said. “Little by little he’s been making adjustments.”
Cora sees better timing at the plate.
“That’s the bottom line,” the manager said. “When you do that, you recognize pitches, your swing decisions are a lot better and you’re not late.
“When you’re late you make every pitch look the same. The fastball, the breaking ball, the changeup, everything looks the same. Now there’s separation.
“You can see it, he lands [his foot], he sees the pitch, and he reacts. He’s able to pull the ball with power. The quality of the at-bats are much, much better.
“There’s not as many swings and misses in the strike zone. You can see the ball and recognize spin. Swing decision-wise, it’s very tough when you’re late. It’s great to watch.”
Meanwhile, Schwarber has played only 27 innings at first base. Isn’t that a factor? The Sox traded for somebody to play first base. That had to be motivation.
“Probably,” Cora said. “If being competitive put him on time, thank God … I’m very happy for him. It’s been a grind.”
Dalbec is one of 11 Red Sox rookies to hit 21 or more home runs in a season. The last was Brian Daubach, who had 21 in 1999. The record of 34 belongs to Walt Dropo in 1950.
As Cora said, Dalbec didn’t take a straight path to this point, but his numbers now are essentially what the Sox hoped for when the season started. He’s hitting .245 with a .793 OPS, 44 extra-base hits, and 70 RBIs.
Dalbec even leads the team with five triples, a career best at any level.
“I’ve never been a triples counter,” he said, grinning at the idea.
Dalbec also has improved his play at first base. He’s more aggressive and moving more confidently to his right.
Dalbec made one of his best plays of the season to end Saturday’s game. With runners on first and third and two outs, Brian Goodwin grounded a ball to the right side.
Dalbec dove, but the ball was by him. However, Kiké Hernández scooped it up and threw on the run. Dalbec scrambled back to the bag and snared a low throw as he collapsed in the dirt. He managed to keep his right foot on the base.
“A hell of a play,” said Josh Taylor, who thought the ball was going through but instead got his first career save.
For now, all that matters is finding a route to the postseason. But how the Sox manage their roster going forward will be interesting.
Dalbec is 26. First baseman Triston Casas, the team’s top prospect, turns 22 in January. Dalbec often looks more comfortable at third base (where he played at the University of Arizona) than he does at first base.
But the Sox have Rafael Devers there and his defense has improved in the second half. He turns 25 in October.
Casas should be major league-ready at some point next season. Perhaps Dalbec fits in left field.
It’s never a problem having too many good young hitters. If what we’re seeing now is the player Dalbec is, he’s going to have a spot.