In the Patriot’s Day 11:10am game against the White Sox, Bobby Dalbec quietly had the 2nd-best plate appearance by a Red Sox player this season (the first being Alex Verdugo’s 10-pitch, 3-run, game tying double off Taylor Rogers in the series finale against the Twins). It was easy for the plate appearance to get lost in the shuffle of things, as it came towards the end of a 6-run inning that set the team up for 11 runs on the day. Dalbec worked a 14-pitch walk against Lucas Giolito. It’s the longest plate appearance in the majors to this point in the season. The rookie fouled off 8 pitches after getting to 2 strikes. The plate appearance showed promise of a more refined plate approach that could make Bobby Dalbec one of the league’s premier sluggers.
Yet, he isn’t one of the premier sluggers a couple of weeks into the season. The first baseman has zero home runs and is slugging just .388 after the the two-game set against the Blue Jays. He has significantly more strikeouts than hits (18 and 13, respectively). This is a far cry from the 8 home runs in 80 at bats we saw in 2020 or the grapefruit-leading 7 home runs we saw in Spring Training. Is it time to push the panic button on Bobby Dalbec?
Pushing the panic button on anyone a few weeks into the season is always going to be premature, but a .708 OPS (.597 before his 4 hits in 2 games against the Blue Jays) and 34% strikeout rate are underwhelming to say the least. Yet, if anything, Red Sox fans should be encouraged by Dalbec’s performance so far. As far as strikeouts go, while there have been a lot of them, that shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve known for a long time that Dalbec is always going to strike out a lot. Anyone surprised by this hasn’t been paying attention. It’s certainly reasonable to hope that he can get that rate down from 34%. For comparison’s sake, in Aaron Judge’s 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign, Judge struck out 30.7% of the time. That is a large gap between the two, but just a few weeks into the season, Dalbec has plenty of time to bring that number down. If he is able to bring it down into the neighborhood of 30%, 2021 should be a special year for Bobby.
Baseball is a game of luck. Sometimes you sting a line drive at 115 mph off the bat, only for it to end up in a glove for an out. Other times you reach base on a swinging bunt that didn’t travel more than 40 feet. Thanks to Statcast, we can quantify this luck, and pick out potential breakout candidates. A good way of doing this is looking at the difference between a player’s expected stats, and their actual stats. Expected stats take into account a batter’s batted ball profile, made up of launch angle and exit velocity, as well as their strikeout and walk rates, and other factors to produce an “expected” number. This is meant to normalize the aforementioned batted ball luck that comes naturally within baseball. First, we’ll take a look at slugging. It is important to note that the new baseball MLB introduced in 2021 is having an effect on expected stats. Exactly what that effect is can’t really be stated at this point, so take these with a small grain of salt. Entering Tuesday’s night contest, the difference in Bobby’s expected and actual slugging is massive. Dalbec was slugging .378 with a .669 xSLG, a difference of .291, good enough for fifth-unluckiest hitter in all of baseball. Savant also provides an xOBP, which for Bobby owned a very good .381. All together, Dalbec has an expected slash line of .326/.381/.669, which gives us an xOPS of 1.050. Finally, we can take a look at wOBA and xwOBA, perhaps the most telling of these. Dalbec’s marks of .301 and .434, respectively put him as the fifth unluckiest hitter in baseball once again. Dalbec managed to have luck goes his way on Tuesday night. Both of his hits came on weak groundballs to infielders that could have been scored errors, but the official scorer ultimately ruled them hits. These have helped tip the scales a bit back towards Bobby’s favor, but he is still underperforming this particular peripherals on the season.
These all point to one thing, that Bobby Dalbec is a premier hitter who is running into a lot of hard outs. He has four batted ball events over 100 mph that resulted in outs, and 3 more above 90 mph exit velocity. It’s important to note that these are not stats that ignore strikeouts. He is performing this well (or should be, at least), while striking out 34% of the time. For fun, we can take a look at some stats that ignore his strikeouts. He’s currently sporting an xwOBAcon (xwOBA on contact) of .607, which ranks 7th in all of baseball, with a minimum of 25 PA. His actual wOBAcon, while good, doesn’t rank as high. His mark of .444 is 77th of 324 qualified players. So when Bobby has made contact, his batted ball metrics suggest he’s been one of the very best hitters in the league, but luck is bringing him down to being better than just about 76% of players. This means that if he is able to keep his strikeouts under control, which seems possible given that he is around league average in chase rate (47th percentile) and still improving as a hitter, then he will be one of the best hitters in the league. If he doesn’t bring it down, well, he’ll still be good.
So while Bobby hasn’t gotten off to the blistering start that his spring training led us to hope for, nobody should be panicking. Bobby Dalbec is going to be just fine. He is swinging the bat very well, and the homers will start coming soon.
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