For college players, part of the beauty of the summer Cape Cod League is the opportunity it presents to play baseball without having to worry about academic responsibilities. Yet when Red Sox prospect Bobby Dalbec played for the Orleans Firebirds, he and his teammates formed a reading club of sorts.
“We all did it on our own. We wanted to learn it,” said Dalbec. “It was like a homework project almost. It was really cool.”
So what was the literary undertaking that so motivated Dalbec and his teammates? It wasn’t exactly typical summer beach reading.
Benny Craig, who was the Orleans hitting coach when Dalbec played for the Firebirds in 2014-15, following his freshman and sophomore seasons at Arizona, preached the gospel of Ted Williams. Craig didn’t make the Red Sox legend’s seminal “The Science of Hitting” (co-written with John Underwood) required reading, but he did convey a number of the book’s concepts to his players.
“A lot of these younger guys, I don’t think they’re big readers,” said Craig. “So if they’re not going to read it, I’ve got to give them the Cliffs Notes, not cram it down their throat or force-feed it, but try to get them to think about how great a hitter Ted Williams was.”
Craig emphasized many concepts that Williams embraced, many of which have come into fashion more than half a century after Williams’s retirement. He discussed matching the plane of the swing to that of the pitch with a slight uppercut, something that gives a batter more margin for error to generate hard contact. He discussed the generation of power from the hips and body, two-strike approaches, inside-out swings.
Though Craig didn’t tell the players to read the book, he did make copies available to them.
“It’s all in there,” Craig said. “I look at these guys and say, ‘There are a lot of books you’re going to read in your life. This is a 100-page book with pictures by the last guy to hit .400.’ ”
Dalbec and several teammates were convinced, so they made a project of reading the book over the summer. And now, when Dalbec speaks of what he’s trying to do as a hitter, he employs language that echoes concepts of the Red Sox great.
“I try to match planes, basically, figuring out what that pitcher is going to do, see his plane as much as I can, then match that,” said Dalbec, who crushed a homer well over the center-field fence in Friday’s exhibition game against Northeastern.
The approach worked spectacularly in Orleans, particularly in the summer after Dalbec’s sophomore season, when he hit .315/.432/.738 with a staggering 12 homers in 27 games — a schedule limited by time Dalbec spent that summer with Team USA. Since then, the 6-foot-4-inch third baseman has remained a devotee of both Williams and Craig, having worked with the latter in Indiana each of the last four winters.
Dalbec, rated by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox system this winter (disclaimer: I assembled the rankings), is coming off a 2018 season in which he resembled the player who looked in 2015 like a sure-fire first-rounder. (A struggle as a college junior led to a slide to the fourth round.) With High A Salem and Double A Portland, he hit .257/.361/.558 with 32 homers, 70 extra-base hits, and 109 RBIs in 129 games while also providing strong defense at third.
Dalbec’s 32.4 percent strikeout rate creates caution about his profile as a potential middle-of-the-order slugger, but it’s worth noting that he trimmed his punchout rate from 37.4 percent in 2017, and that he’s shown the ability to adapt his approach to circumstances, recognizing the increased value of contact with runners on base (30.0 percent strikeout rate in 2018) as opposed to with the bases empty (35.0 percent).
“I’m never going to sell out for contact, especially with nobody on base,” he said. “I was hitting around .300 with runners on base and in scoring position [in 2018], which is more important.
“Obviously, nobody likes to strike out, but I see a strikeout as the same as me putting my butt out and selling out for contact. I’d rather take a good swing on a pitch that can result in damage. If I miss it, I miss it.
“The more at-bats I have, the more experience I get, the more contact I’ll make.”
That outlook is part of a cerebral offensive approach that seems like a good fit for the current Red Sox. As Peter Abraham relayed in his notebook, manager Alex Cora has asked J.D. Martinez to spend some time with Dalbec this spring, an opportunity that the corner infielder seems eager to embrace given the all-fields power that serves as a defining element of both hitters’ games.
“I watch J.D. a lot. It’s hard not to,” said Dalbec. “Right-center is kind of where my power is, center field. I’ve got a good spray on my home runs. I like watching him. We have different swings but similar elements to it.”
They also employ a similar language when discussing hitting, thanks in part to the fact that both have relied on mentors — Dalbec with Craig, Martinez with Craig Wallenbrock — whose teachings rely heavily on Williams.
“It’s pretty neat to see Bobby in that organization,” said Craig. “Hopefully he gets around J.D. Martinez and Big Papi when he’s around. I’m hoping Bobby doesn’t want an autograph with them — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m hoping he’s ready to pick their brains.”
In all likelihood, that’s a homework assignment that Dalbec will welcome.