Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec’s game lives on the fringe of success and failure.
Duality defines it. It can be hot and cold, or night and day.
One American League scout and executive once saw Dalbec strike out in seven straight plate appearances on the minimum number of pitches. That’s seven consecutive strikeouts on three pitches. The scout left that game scratching his head.
The following week, Dalbec got hot, cementing the scout’s initial view of the power-hitting corner infielder. Dalbec can carry an offense for a while, another scout said, but you have to stick with him through the lows.
It’s a complex situation that has left many wondering exactly what the Red Sox have in Dalbec.
On June 3 against the Astros and June 22 against the Rays, for instance, Dalbec struck out four times. The strikeout is a part of the Dalbec package. But even when you take that into account, it doesn’t negate the optics of just how overwhelmed Dalbec can look when the strikeouts rack up.
In the June 3 game, it took seven pitches in each of two at-bats to put away Dalbec, followed by five pitches and then four. Of the 23 pitches he saw, 16 were four-seam fastballs, something Dalbec had problems catching up to.
In 133 games last season, Dalbec fanned at least once in 95 of them.
“I think early on, he was fouling off balls that he should have been putting in play, swinging and missing more than he is now,” former Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said last season. “So, I think what does help is when you’re looking in that area, you get a pitch in that area, square it up and put it in play.”
In the first half of the season, Dalbec hit just .219 with a .673 OPS. But then the dominant Dalbec emerged, the one who can carry a team. He batted .269 with a .955 OPS in the second half of the season.
In the end, Dalbec hit .240 with 25 homers and 78 RBIs in his first full year in the big leagues. What was once a tumultuous rookie campaign, on paper at least, turned into a promising one.
Nevertheless, the Red Sox steered away from Dalbec once the playoffs rolled around in large part due to his struggles against high velocity. Hitters face better pitching in the playoffs. Thus hitting the mistakes and not fouling them off or swinging through them becomes a crucial part of winning.
“You have to look for it a little bit more,” Hyers said regarding Dalbec and fastballs. “Not getting caught in between, like sitting on a breaking-ball changeup and not expecting you’re going to get a heater. We call that sitting in the middle of speeds and that gets you in trouble.”
What was a promising end to the regular season was then stamped with just 12 postseason plate appearances.
“There’s a lot of Bobby Dalbec’s story yet to be written,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said toward the end of the year.
But will the upcoming chapters remain a redundant story of the hot-and-cold player and can the Red Sox accept that as part of their future? Those questions should certainly be at the top of the Sox’ bulletin board.
There wasn’t any type of awakening that changed Dalbec’s season. Dalbec had a leg kick to initiate his load during the first half of the season last year. He kept the leg kick in the second half.
“I didn’t want to try to make a swing change,” Dalbec said in September. “Swing changes during the season, that’s something I’ve done before, and it’s not easy, and hard to build trust. Earlier in the season, I was trying to get [my front foot] up and time it perfectly. Now I’m just trying to get my front foot under the center of my body early, get in a good spot, and then whatever happens with it happens with it. I don’t really know what’s going on with my front foot after I take it off the ground.”
Manager Alex Cora noticed a change in Dalbec’s decision-making
“He was more aggressive in the at-bat,” Cora said. “For every adjustment, I think mentally he understood what 162 [games] really meant. He learned a lot last year.”
Said designated hitter J.D. Martinez: “He’s growing. He made an adjustment. The kid’s got power. He’s got tools. Hungry. He’s got the tools and the makeup.”
Dalbec gives the Red Sox flexibility in a number of ways moving forward.
Despite coming up as a solid third baseman, Dalbec’s only line toward making a consistent impact with the Red Sox is through first base. If Rafael Devers doesn’t end up as a long-term option at third base, Xander Bogaerts could be. The chance of Bogaerts sticking at shortstop for the remainder of his career is slim, which is why the club has, at least, kept tabs on free agent shortstops throughout the offseason.
First base prospect Triston Casas should make a big league impact at some point next season, too. If Casas ends up being a long-term plan, then trading Dalbec, pushing him as a third baseman — his natural and better position — shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the Red Sox.
Still, there’s some pause for Bloom when trying to put a timeline on Casas, knowing he’s played in just nine Triple A games and has more to prove. Dalbec does, too. But unlike Casas, Dalbec has seen big league experience and success.
What is written is the contrast of the player in Dalbec. The one who looks like an All-Star one month and overwhelmed the next. The one who can deliver the blow, but equally endure it, amid lingering questions if that could ever change.
“I’m so pumped for him and proud of him for keeping his head up even through some struggles,” Bloom said. “That’s the beauty of this game.”
Whether the Red Sox can get that long-term consistency from Dalbec remains a large part of his untold story.