Bobby Dalbec is a prospect for our times.
The 22-year-old is off to a start that spans extremes in High A Salem. Through 19 games, the 6-foot-4-inch third baseman leads Red Sox minor leaguers in homers (5), extra-base hits (10), RBIs (16), and walks (12). He has cleared the fences to left, center, and right on a variety of pitches.
“His power is pretty incredible,” said Salem manager Joe Oliver. “Dalbec has an approach where he is trying to hit the ball up in the air. When he does drive the ball, he’s hitting balls where the elite, elite guys are able to drive the ball out of the ballpark. . . . It’s insane how far he can hit a ball and how much air he gets underneath it and drives it out of the ballpark.”
Yet while his power isn’t in question, it remains to be seen whether he’s an all-or-nothing prototype. Dalbec has more homers than singles (three). He’s launching the ball in the air, with 69 percent of the balls he’s put in play registering as a line drive or fly ball. He’s second in the organization in strikeouts (27) and he’s struck out in a whopping 34.6 percent of his plate appearances.
Though the game is in some ways downplaying the significance of batting average relative to OBP and slugging/power, the .210 average in front of Dalbec’s solid .359 OBP and .532 slugging marks raises questions about whether he can hit enough to claim a big league future.
Dalbec isn’t alone in facing such questions. Strikeouts are soaring throughout the minors.
While full-season strikeout rates remained relatively stable from 2010-15, running between 19.3 and 19.9 percent each season, they’ve surged over the last three years. The 2017 strikeout rate of 21.2 percent was roughly 10 percent higher than the minor league rate of just two years earlier; through Wednesday, that number this season had gone up another 10 percent to 23.2 percent.
“You see a lot of guys throughout this league where it seems like guys are swinging at a lot of different pitches outside of the zone,” noted PawSox manager Kevin Boles.
“I don’t know how it’s going to translate in the next five or 10 years, but it seems the strikeouts are a little bit more accepted right now,” agreed Oliver. “They’re a little bit higher than what I’ve seen in the past. . . . I’m not saying that they’re trying to get away from contact, but you’re seeing a lot more guys having bigger swings consistently throughout the at-bat.”
Evaluators cite a number of factors playing into the development. Minor league pitchers are putting greater emphasis on mixing pitches, meaning fewer fastballs in traditional fastball counts, which in turn results in less contact. There’s also more velocity and power stuff throughout the game.
Offensively, many believe the strikeout has been destigmatized for hitters. Some hitting coaches encourage young hitters to take their most aggressive swings regardless of count or situation — a development described as “mind-boggling” by one National League evaluator.
The Sox continue to emphasize the importance of a sound two-strike approach, but they’ve adjusted their teaching in that regard. Whereas the team in past years had encouraged players to make physical adjustments with two strikes — choking up on the bat and spreading out their stances — they’ve gone to a more individualized two-strike plan this year in which some hitters will focus on adjusting their mental plan of attack rather than their physical setup.
“The reason behind [the adjustment in two-strike approach] is, one, just kind of the landscape of hitting now, where it’s not stressed as much, and two, some guys aren’t as comfortable at the plate with [physical changes],” said Sox minor league hitting coordinator Greg Norton. “With two strikes this year, I’m trying to allow each individual hitter to have their own play that suits them. We’re trying to discuss, ‘OK, we’re going to have a two-strike plan. What are your thoughts? Is it a mental thought? Is it a physical adjustment? Have a plan. Don’t just go up there swinging for the fences all the time.’
“Have I seen it translate overwhelmingly? No. But it’s part of the process. . . . I’m mindful of the landscape of baseball, but still being mindful of two strikes, helping the team, frustrating a pitcher, having a plan that works for you.”
So how does that mesh with Dalbec and his tantalizing power but high strikeout total?
Years ago, when 2006 first-round pick Jason Place was striking out at an alarming pace, the Red Sox explored the question of how many strikeouts were too many, looking for a threshold beyond which a prospect might not be able to emerge as a big leaguer. (Place, who struck out 31 percent of the time in his first pro season, never advanced past Double A.)
In an era where Aaron Judge is an elite hitter despite striking out in 31 percent of his plate appearances, where Joey Gallo can be an above-average regular with a .209 average and 37 percent strikeout rate thanks to his 41 homers last year, the standards for hitting prospects are shifting. That said, the Sox do want to see Dalbec develop into what farm director Ben Crockett calls a “more complete” hitter.
“He’s looking to drive the baseball, and certainly he is trying to do damage through most of the count,” said Crockett. “He’s got elite power and he’s a good defender, someone who profiles at the third base position. He’s certainly someone who has a lot of upside as it is, but for him particularly, being as complete a hitter as he can is only going to help him and allow that power to play more consistently.”
Dalbec has the strength to get the ball out of the park without overswinging. He has hit homers with more compact swings in two-strike counts.
Oliver notes that, after Dalbec missed a significant chunk of last year due to surgery to remove a broken hamate and then struggled with timing upon his return, he’s still in an early learning stage with regards to his offensive approach. The Sox believe that Dalbec has a chance to do a better job of identifying the right pitches in the right zones early in his at-bats and then battling in two-strike counts to take even fuller advantage of his power.
“With Bobby, with Judge, guys like that, you don’t have to add on to get power because it’s already there,” said Norton. “I still want him to be aggressive and try to drive the ball, but he has the luxury that he can mis-hit the ball and it can go out.
“He’s going to strike out,” continued Norton. “It’s not that we’re saying we want you to cut down your strikeouts to 50 a year. That would be changing a swing and maybe hindering his progression. Right now, if he can just be in a good hitting position, on time, stick with being selectively aggressive and getting good pitches to drive, I think that’s a step in the right direction.”
■ Lefthander Jalen Beeks has struck out 26 batters in 14 innings while posting a 0.64 ERA in three starts for Pawtucket. His 89-93-mile-per-hour fastball up in the zone, cutter that gets in on righthanders, and curveball have allowed him to get swings and misses in different parts of the strike zone, though the Sox would like to see more development in his changeup.
■ In Portland, lefthander Daniel McGrath, in his first full season as a reliever, has been dominating lefties now that he’s moved his arm slot down to a low three-quarters delivery. Lefties are 0 for 15 with 9 strikeouts in 18 plate appearances against the 23-year-old Australian.
■ Though he recently missed a week because of a shoulder impingement and is currently serving as DH, shortstop C.J. Chatham — after missing nearly all of 2017 — is off to a strong start in Single A Greenville, hitting .356/.388/.444.
■ After a late start to the year due to a minor hamstring injury, Portland first baseman Josh Ockimey has yet to find his timing, hitting .219/.286/.313 with 12 strikeouts in 35 plate appearances and an uncharacteristically low walks total (3).
■ In High A Salem, righthander Bryan Mata has walked 13 batters in 13⅓ innings, uncharacteristic control problems for a pitcher who walked more than two batters just once last year in Greenville. Even so, the 18-year-old has the stuff to handle Carolina League opponents when working in the strike zone, as he’s held older hitters to a .205 average while working to a 2.03 ERA in three starts.
■ Center fielder Cole Brannen, 19, has a discerning eye that has sometimes crossed over into an overly passive approach en route to a .167/.277/.236 line with a 27.7 percent strikeout rate in Greenville. Brannen was taken by the Sox in the second round last year for tools that showed top-of-the-order/middle-of-the-field potential, but strength gains and a greater willingness to take chances in the batter’s box are likely necessary for him to fulfill such projections.
■ Righthander Travis Lakins (elbow) pitched Tuesday for Portland, his first outing for an affiliate since a stress fracture in his elbow ended his 2017 season last July.
■ Lefthander Jay Groome is throwing on flat ground and is expected to progress to throwing off a mound soon.
■ Roldani Baldwin, the organization’s top catching prospect, was scheduled to join Salem Thursday. He’d been sidelined in spring training by a broken right thumb.