FORT MYERS, Fla. —You could tell this meant something to Bobby Dalbec early on this spring. Sweat saturated from his blue Red Sox T-shirt. It equally trickled from underneath his blue fitted Sox cap.
The sweltering heat at Fenway South left no room to hide. But Dalbec had no interest in doing so.
Despite working out at a new position in second base, Dalbec made sure to claim center stage.
It caught the attention of just a few observers. He engaged his legs during his prep step. On contact, Dalbec ranged to his left but not before the bunny hop. You can’t forget that. That’s what triggers the initial movement. The prep step into the bunny hop is key.
Dalbec burst to his left, funneling the ball inward. He pivoted, shifted his body a quarter turn, staying low, keeping the arm angle on that same plane, too, and then delivering a strike to second.
Next play: Prep step into a bunny hop. Right over left was his first movement. This time the ball was more up the middle, testing Dalbec’s range and creativity.
If he stopped to field it cleanly, funneling the ball into his body, that would take too much time, likely leaving no chance at a double play in a real game. So, Dalbec kept moving at a controlled pace. He didn’t want to stop his momentum, per se, but more so, go with it, allowing gravity to take him as it pleased. Dalbec worked his way into a backhand flip, never taking the ball out his glove.
The round was over. Dalbec, picking up the baseballs that were spread throughout the infield grass, turned to those few observers standing in the third base dugout
“Do I still look unathletic?” Dalbec asked.
The question was lighthearted in tone. A joke, in fact. But the best jokes can often make you think.
This one made you think about Dalbec, the athlete.
Athleticism takes on different connotations. Yet in the public eye, it can often get boxed in as just one of a few characteristics. Can you jump high? Athlete. Are you a plus runner? Athlete. Can you run, jump, throw, hit, and field? Five-tool player. Certainly an athlete.
But what about the Dalbecs of the world. The one who the Red Sox were willing to play at second base before signing Trevor Story? The one who the Red Sox had taking some reps in the outfield, too? The one who can play third (his natural position), shortstop, learn first base on a fly for a team in contention? The one who caught manager Alex Cora’s eye during his college eyes not as a position player, but a pitcher?
“Bobby is one of our best athletes,” Cora said. " I still believe that Bobby can be a good pitcher. And he can run. He moves.”
That, in fact, is an athlete. But if you Google “Bobby Dalbec,” much of what has been documented has to do with his light-tower power.
“I don’t blame anyone,” Dalbec said. “They see me and see a big power guy, it’s easy to be like, ‘He’s a non-athlete.’ I work really hard to be agile and quick. I had one of the top sprint speeds on the team last year.”
Indeed, he did. Dalbec ranked No. 4 on the Red Sox in sprint speed last season at 28.2 feet per second. For context, Franchy Cordero — widely known as a freak athlete — ranked second for the Red Sox at 28.6. Dalbec noted that he played basketball, too, alongside Celtics guard Derrick White at Legend High School in Parker, Colo. White was a year ahead of Dalbec. The pair played together for two seasons on varsity when Dalbec was a freshman and sophomore. It wasn’t until Dalbec’s junior year that he decided to just focus on baseball.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m a freak or explosive athlete in the sense of sprinting and jumping and stuff, but I’m more athletic than people think,” Dalbec said.
But, again, athleticism goes beyond just sprinting and jumping or body type.
“No matter what the body build is, I mean, you’re still making athletic movements exceptionally well,” Jackie Bradley Jr. said on the topic.
Still, the notion around the 26-year-old not being an athlete can be associated to his play at first base last year. Dalbec did look unathletic at the position. Rigid. He didn’t show the same range to his left that he showed when he played on the left side of the infield. But much of that had to do with Dalbec being unsure at a new position.
“I was learning a position and didn’t quite grasp what I needed to do footwork-wise and where to be and how to get to the bag,” Dalbec said.
The angles differ from that of third base. At times, he looked as if he was playing in a straitjacket. Whereas at third or shortstop, you saw the freedom in his movements.
With roughly two months left in the season, the Sox finally told Dalbec to play first base like he played third. Dalbec had an epiphany of a sort: play aggressively under control.
“I guess my tempo keeps me into it and quick. Instead of being at first base and just waiting for it to come to me and then being late,” Dalbec said.
On a back field, Dalbec had one more round of grounders at second. His metal cleats sliced through the dirt after each movement. Like the blade of an ice skater sweeping through the frigid surface before attempting a jump, the marks in the dirt from Dalbec’s spikes were his latest example of his sudden, quick bursts even at 6 feet 4 inches, 227 pounds.
Dalbec again engaged his legs during his prep step. Then the bunny hop. Left over right was once again his first move. He went with the momentum while gathering the ball, but this time he stuck his landing, cementing his right foot into the infield dirt. His chest exposed and his eyes geared toward second base, Dalbec flicked what seemed like a 99-mile-per-hour fastball to second for the forceout.
Bobby Dalbec, the athlete.
Julian McWilliams can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.