Red Sox power-hitting prospect Bobby Dalbec looks to impress at spring training
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Alex Cora was an ESPN analyst when he first saw Bobby Dalbec play. It was at the 2016 College World Series when Dalbec was a pitcher and third baseman for the University of Arizona.
Dalbec was one of the stars of the tournament, starting three games on the mound and allowing only two earned runs over 20⅔ innings against high-end competition. He also struck out 26 with a mid-90s fastball, an above-average slider, and a competitive changeup.
At 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds, Dalbec was a classic power righthander any scout could dream on.
There was only one problem: Dalbec didn’t want to pitch professionally; he loved hitting and wanted to play third base.
“I made that very clear to everybody,” he said.
Dalbec lasted until the fourth round of the 2016 draft when the Red Sox took him. The expectation was they would humor his desire to hit for a while, then convert him back into a pitcher.
That’s certainly what Cora expected having watched him.
“I was one of those guys who thought he would hit the first year and after that he was going to be on the mound. He was amazing,” Cora said.
Two and half years later, Dalbec is still playing third base and is one of the nonroster players the Red Sox invited to spring training.
Most analysts rank the 23-year-old among the top prospects in the organization.
“I don’t think I’ve even talked to a pitching coach since I got here,” Dalbec said. “That feels pretty good.”
Dalbec has hit .273 with an .894 OPS in 248 minor league games since joining the Sox. That he has struck out in 38 percent of his at-bats has been mitigated by 52 home runs, many of them rockets.
Dalbec’s power reminds Cora of his former University of Miami teammate Pat Burrell, who went on to hit 292 homers in the majors.
The defense is there, too. Dalbec moves well laterally, is quick to get back on his feet after diving stops, and as you would expect, his arm is strong and precise.
On shifts, something the Red Sox have incorporated more of in the minors, Dalbec handles what amounts to shortstop seamlessly.
There’s plenty of work still to be done refining that powerful swing, but Dalbec finished last season at Double A Portland and now gets a chance to impress in camp.
“It was in July that things really took off,” said Joe Oliver, who managed Dalbec at Single A Salem for 100 games last season. “He really was on time with his swing. His bat placement through the zone improved and he really figured it out.”
Dalbec had a 1.154 OPS in his final 35 games with Salem, then had 15 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs in 29 games for Portland.
“In 2017, I was selling out for home runs, and early in 2018 the same thing,” Dalbec said. “But in the second half of the year I was able to cut my swing down. I made some changes and simplified things. I was able to be more consistent.”
A high strikeout rate is always going to be part of Dalbec’s résumé; it has been since college. At his height, there’s a lot that has to go right to cover the plate. But he’s improving at situational hitting.
“It’s half and half. There are some situations where strikeouts can’t be forgiven. I want to eliminate those as much as I can,” Dalbec said.
Said Oliver: “When you look at the whole package of what he can do offensively and defensively, you can tolerate the strikeouts. I think he’s come to grips with the idea he’s going to swing and miss quite a bit. But he’s going to learn within that at-bat how to make adjustments.”
That’s one of the reasons the Sox invited Dalbec to camp, to get a look at how power hitters such as J.D. Martinez prepare for games.
“Being around such high-caliber players, you want to watch what they do and learn from that. I want to ask them why they do certain things, what they do and when they do it, and implement what works for me,” Dalbec said.
“I’m not a loudmouth. I’ll speak when I’m spoken to. But I want to get to know as many of these guys as I can. I was invited here for a reason. I want to continue what I have been building.”
How Dalbec best fits with the Red Sox isn’t clear. He’s likely to return to Portland — where Oliver will manage — to start the season. The Sox have 22-year-old Rafael Devers at third base, but he is coming off a poor 2018 and needs work defensively.
“I try not to think about it,” Dalbec said. “For however long I’m here, I want to get the most out of it then go start my season. I made progress last year and I just want that continue.”