During their 2018 championship-winning season, the Boston Red Sox featured a lineup that could hit for power (.185 ISO, fourth-best) while also limiting the strikeouts (19.9% K, third-best). There are plenty of ways to score runs, which do include striking out a lot and not putting a ton of balls in play — like the New York Yankees or the Oakland A’s in recent seasons — but the combination of hitting the ball hard and not swinging and missing is a template that yields the most complete offense.
Three years removed from that season, the Red Sox are fourth in runs scored (303) and sixth in ISO (.177) but find themselves in the bottom half of the league with a strikeout percentage of roughly 24%. The change in the guard is best embodied by first-baseman Bobby Dalbec, who in his first 72 games with the Red Sox since last season has hit 14 home runs accompanied by a lovely .227 ISO — and a disastrous 39.2% strikeout rate.
In 2020, Dalbec’s power or nothing approach succeeded, hitting eight home runs with a 152 wRC+, including hitting long balls in five consecutive games. This success came despite striking out in 42.4% of plate appearances, but with a full offseason to make adjustments, there was a lot of promise that the slugger would run away with Boston’s first base job.
However, through the first two months of 2021, Dalbec’s production has fallen precipitously to a 60 wRC+. While his .259 wOBA and .306 xwOBA reflect that there should be positive regression soon, Dalbec’s expected wOBA is still a disaster, and he needs to find a path to success to reclaim his starting role at first base.
That starts with his batted balls, which are still as good as ever.
And using Alex Chamberlain’s leaderboards, we can add a few more figures for our viewing.
Dalbec has made considerable adjustments in his batted ball consistency that have led to good results this season, mostly by popping up fewer times while hitting more balls in the optimal launch angle interval of eight to 32 degrees — Sweet Spot%.
The second table gives us a more in-depth look. Dalbec has been able to keep his impressive Dynamic Hard Hit rate, while also making his launch angle tighter to 25.4° — reflective of hitting fewer pop-ups while increasing his Sweet Spot%. In total, you get a batted ball profile that compares awfully well to the game’s best in Mike Trout. Additionally, it means that Dalbec’s .264 BABIP this season is definitely due for positive correction considering he’s consistently hitting balls in the optimal ranges for success.
But let’s circle back to the barrels per plate appearance figure. For Dalbec, he’s hit fewer barrels per batted ball event this season yet still kept relatively the same barrel per plate appearance percentage. How? It comes from the denominators. and since Dalbec is striking out and walking in fewer plate appearances this season, it means that the figures are similar.
Normally, putting the ball in play more often is a good thing. However, both his walks and strikeouts are trending in the wrong direction, where he is striking out currently in over 50% of his plate appearances in his last 15 games. There are several reasons we can go as to why. Dalbec’s chase rate at 29.7% is in the 32nd percentile in Baseball Savant. He swings and misses on one of every five pitches seen. He’s also taking more called strikes (18.0% to 14.7%). There’s plenty more, but those figures are more than enough to show why Dalbec’s strikeout to walk ratio is among the league’s worst.
The swing and approach seemingly work hand in hand. Your approach at the plate is defined as the pitches you choose to swing at and the ones you take. That can change depending on the pitcher or situation but for the most part, you make those choices based on your own skillset. What does your swing look like? Which pitches do I hit well? Which ones give me fits? Having an internal analysis of what you do right and wrong for a particular task is inherently important for any person seeking improvement, and that is no different for a hitter.
Now, we know that Dalbec hits the ball well when he does put it in play, or even make contact as evidenced by a .467 xwOBAcon. Of course, Dalbec does not make a ton of contact, so our goal should be to find some sort of approach that will help the 24-year-old put more balls in play.
Dalbec has swung at roughly league average rates in every distinct attack region, so it doesn’t give us a glaring fault for what he’s struggled with. If we were nitpicking, we’d say his elevated number of swings on pitches in the chase region has not helped his cause. But we need more in this exercise.
The easiest way to do this is to find a player who exhibits similar traits to Dalbec who has already found success. We saw earlier that Trout has similar batted ball results to the 24-year-old, so let’s run with it. As arguably the best hitter in baseball since being called up a decade ago, Trout has been great by being the most efficient version of himself — this is different than just being the most efficient hitter possible, which is Trout is this season but that’s not the point. He’s sticking to what he does best.
Notice how Trout swings often in the middle thirds of the plate — vertically and horizontally — which has yielded him the best results. And if you’re wondering whether this is just a season-long trend, a short sample given that Trout’s currently on the Injured List, you can see that Trout has consistently kept his swing patterns consistent since the start of 2016, to similar results.
Furthermore, Trout has swung few times at pitches that are up and into him because he’s not produced well against them.
Now, we see Dalbec this season.
Here, Dalbec swings often at pitches in the bottom four-ninths of the zone, which have yielded him positive results. The issue here is the swing heavy approach in the upper third, particularly up and in, which has done nothing for him. This is definitely a case of not having a defined plan at the plate, rather swinging at pitches trying to cover the whole zone. Hitting is incredibly difficult and with pitchers at the height of their powers, covering the whole zone effectively is near impossible — so keep it small!
We can further break this down by looking at four-seamers and sliders, the pitches that Dalbec and Trout have seen most often in the Statcast era against right-handed pitchers — the reasoning for handedness will come shortly.
The Angels’ star center fielder has succeeded on both pitches since 2015 because of how he’s attacking each pitch.
What it looks like is that Trout is hunting a particular tunnel of pitches. For fastballs, that means it’s in the middle, slightly elevated specifically. When sliders are thrown out of this tunnel from the right-handed pitcher, you would expect them to fall away from the future Hall of Famer and towards the bottom part of the zone. As proof, Trout has a .729 wOBA (.642 xwOBA) on fastballs right down the middle and a .415 wOBA (.415 xwOBA) on sliders from righties down and away.
In Dalbec’s case, we again see a more cluttered approach.
While Trout’s had many more swings in these heatmaps, we can see that he has honed in his swings to heaters that are denser relative to Dalbec’s heatmap of swings against the four-seamer, which covers most of the upper two-thirds of the zone. The slider somewhat follows the tunnel we’re talking about, but we can’t definitively say that because Dalbec is swinging at so many fastballs, and pitches in general, making applying the ‘tunnel hunting’ concept difficult.
As a disclaimer, Dalbec is not this particular fix away from becoming the next Mike Trout — that would be ridiculous. The former University of Arizona standout still struggles with fastballs, swinging and missing at 19% of all four-seamers faced this season. On fastballs in the upper third? That figure skyrockets to 31.1% (19/61). Fixing this issue is also at the top of the list so that he doesn’t end up being exploited like teammates Franchy Cordero and Michael Chavis have.
But tightening his zone should help Dalbec have better success going forward. Just look at this clutch blast off Yankees’ reliever Chad Green this past weekend.
A fastball located middle-in, right in his wheelhouse and he crushed it. Bobby Dalbec has the power to become a foundation in Boston’s offense for years to come, but it’ll just take a little time for him to find his most efficient self. For that, we should stay patient.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)