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One Big Question: How much does Bobby Dalbec need to walk to be productive?

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Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Strikeouts are the long-term question, but for 2020, I’m more interested in the walks.

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Bobby Dalbec.

The Question: How much does Bobby Dalbec have to walk?

I suppose you thought I was going to talk about strikeouts here, eh? That is, obviously, the question that hangs over Dalbec’s career and has ever since he was drafted and the team decided to keep him at third base full-time rather than on the mound. I will readily admit that is the bigger question, but I feel like it is more of a big-picture one rather than specifically for 2020. That’s not off-limits here, but for Dalbec in particular I am more curious about the upcoming year.

To me, it just seems like he is going to strike out a good amount in his first taste of the majors, because that’s what rookies with swing and miss do. That’s not to say it’s totally out of the question that he maintains a strikeouts rate in the low-to-mid 20s in 2020, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on that. It seems far, far more likely that he will be up around 30 percent, if not over it. Again, this is just for his first year. Young players can and do make adjustments, and we saw Dalbec do it in the minors last year. How he develops in the future depends on how he adjusts for his strikeout rate, but in 2020, to me at least, it’s more about how he works around the strikeouts.

Because, to be clear, Dalbec can still make an impact if he’s striking out. Obviously a rate around 30 percent limits the ceiling and he can’t go much higher than that if he’s going to succeed, but the skillset is there for him to contribute. For one thing, defensively he has the chops to be a net positive. There is some learning to do at first base — this is the biggest reason I don’t think he should be a consideration for the Opening Day roster unless there are injuries — but he was a very good third baseman and should be able to master the other corner. It goes without saying that first base defense only brings you so far, but it’s something.

More important, of course, is the power. Even with the hit tool questions, Dalbec is going to hit for power. This is a guy coming off a year in which he put up a .220 Isolated Power (SLG – AVG) in Double-A and a .221 mark in Triple-A. Two years ago he finished with a .317 ISO at High-A, which is even more impressive considering how hard it can be to hit homers in Salem. Scouts pretty much unanimously agree he has plus-plus raw power, and even with the hit tool questions the game power should still at least be plus.

Altoona Curve v Portland Sea Dogs Photo by Zachary Roy/Getty Images

Throw in a contact profile that, while not Joey Votto-esque, should lead to solid batting averages on balls in play. His BABIP was high in the low minors but fell off a bit last year, which makes sense considering he was facing more competent defenses. I think it’s fair, at this point, to expect BABIPs around .300 until/unless we get more information.

So, with all of that, even with a strikeout rate around 30 percent he can be about a .240-ish hitter with an ISO of, let’s say, .210-.220. Those aren’t floor numbers, of course, but I think it’s a reasonable expectation for his first year in the majors. The question then becomes, what does he have to do on top of that to get up to a wRC+ in the 105-115 range? That, of course, comes down to the walk rate.

In the minors, Dalbec has generally walked a ton, though it hasn’t been entirely consistent. In 2017, he walked 11 percent of the time in A-Ball. In 2018, he walked 14 percent of the time in High-A, but then only five percent of the time in a short stint at Double-A. Similarly last year, he walked at a rate of nearly 16 percent at Double-A before watching that drop to four percent in an end-of-year stint at Triple-A. So, just generally, he has walked a bunch when he’s spent more time at a level, but when facing new pitchers the rate has fallen off.

This is important for two reasons. For one thing, he’ll be facing new pitchers in the majors. The adjustment here is clearly the biggest he’ll have had to make in his entire career. Furthermore, one has to wonder how much of the walk rates were because of a good eye and strong patience on his part and how much of it was simply that pitchers were afraid of his power. If it’s the latter, it should go without saying that Dalbec — or anyone, really — won’t be as intimidating to major-league arms as they may be to those down in the minors. Combine that with just simply better pitchers with more refined control, and there are questions.

To look for answers, one could go to the scouting reports. Sox Prospects, for example, points to some aggression on his end and pitch recognition issues. However, FanGraphs acknowledges improved patience at the plate while Baseball America calls his plate discipline a strength. One could also look to what the projections think, and they seem to feel similarly. Depth Charts, ZiPs and PECOTA project him for walk rates of 8.7 percent, 8.8 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively.

That is probably a fair expectation, but also one that makes him a solid player rather than an impact one. Think Michael Chavis a year ago. For example, Depth Charts, which can be seen on Dalbec’s FanGraphs player page, has him with the aforementioned 8.7 percent walk rate, a 30 percent strikeout rate and a .209 ISO, which puts him at a 94 wRC+. If he can get that walk rate up into double digits, he can be a legitimate impact bat, but that’s probably the upper-tier of what our projections for the rookie should be in 2020. The strikeouts will be the question for years to come, but in 2020 I’ll be looking to see how much he can counteract that by getting on base.

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