FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was just a simple soft toss drill.
Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator and former big leaguer Greg Norton wanted his hitters to work the alleys of the field: left-center, right-center, back to left-center, then back to right-center. The drill helped the minor leaguers stay inside the baseball. It teaches bat control, body control, swinging with a purpose. Power wasn’t a part of the process.
When Sox top prospect Bobby Dalbec stepped in the box and hit one out the ballpark, Norton would use Dalbec as an example: “Guys,” he said. “This isn’t about hitting the homer.” He wanted them to be meticulous about the process, not focused on results.
Dalbec stepped in the box again, another homer. Then another. Then the balls started going over the batter’s eye in center field with ease. Keep in mind, Dalbec did this without a pitcher throwing a 90-mile-per-hour heater. Or a coach throwing batting practice. The power he generated from a simple flip some three feet away was his own.
Norton took a step back in awe. He caught himself and set aside his typical convictions. His coaching instincts kicked in. Dalbec was different. He couldn’t help how far the ball went after each swing. That’s just who he is. It was a case of unique power Norton has rarely seen.
“He’s in that top 1 percent, like a [Mark] McGwire, Frank Thomas or Albert Belle,” Norton said Saturday morning. “He’s up there with the elite power hitters in the game as far as natural power. The ball gets small fast. When he clicks one it’s going to go like the biggest guys in the game.”
It’s hard to miss Dalbec at camp this spring. His 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound frame towers over proven major leaguers inside the Red Sox clubhouse. He’s a player chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said he’s excited to see perform. He’s a physical specimen looking to make an impression. It might not include an Opening Day roster nod just yet, but Dalbec knows the team needs to feel his presence.
“I’m trying to treat it the same way,” Dalbec said. “Obviously, it’s an important year for me, but I’m trying to do the little things and get better at those every day.”
Dalbec is hitting .250 this spring. He was 1 for 2 Saturday against the Yankees with an RBI single to left field. Last season, Dalbec hit .239 with 27 homers between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket. The swing-and-miss tendency is there, and probably always will be, but it’s worth noting that Dalbec cut his strikeouts down to 24.4 percent last season, nearly 13 percent lower than in 2018. Regardless, Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke believes the strikeouts won’t inhibit Dalbec from being a successful big leaguer.
“I’ll just give you an example,” Roenicke said. “[Aaron] Judge when he was in the minor leagues, they were really concerned about the swing-and-miss. Now, it’s not even brought up. He’s really improved his game. Whatever those big guys do to square up more baseballs and put it in play more often, their numbers get huge. Judge now, yeah, he still swings and misses, but he’s a scary guy now.”
Judge had a similar strikeout rate to Dalbec in his final season of Triple A (23.9 percent). When he was called up by the Yankees toward the end of 2016, his strikeout rate increased to 44.2 percent. Yet the next season, he turned into an MVP candidate, finishing second to the Astros’ Jose Altuve. His meteoric rise had much to do with makeup, in addition to adjustments in his swing and his pitch selection. Seeing major league pitching on a consistent basis and understanding how opposing teams are trying to attack you should benefit Dalbec when he reaches the majors, like it did for Judge.
“With him it’s just maturity,” Norton said. “As you go on in this game you learn new little things about what works for you and how you need to prepare or what mind-set you have to have. Each year he’s grown in all aspects of his game. Now, it’s getting that opportunity to really refine his craft.”
Despite his size, Dalbec is athletic. He can cover ground at third base. His range going to his left is underrated. He can play first, which makes him even more valuable in a game that now rewards players for playing multiple positions.
“Having versatility is a big thing in the game,” Dalbec said. “I feel like I’m pretty comfortable at both places. Definitely really comfortable at third. First base, I haven’t had much experience there, but I’m going to continue to try and get better at it.”
Mitch Moreland is at first. A potential budding superstar in Rafael Devers is across the diamond at third. Michael Chavis is somewhere in the mix, too. But Dalbec’s time isn’t too far off. His power leading the way.
“The biggest thing is making sure when we see him,” Roenicke explained, “whether it’s to start the season, whether it’s halfway [or] whether it’s next year, [that] he’s ready when he comes up and he’s confident.”