Evaluating Bobby Dalbec and MLB's shifting definition of luck

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John Tomase
·3 min read
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Tomase: Dalbec and MLB's shifting definition of luck originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Pre-Statcast evaluations of Bobby Dalbec's start might actually consider him lucky.

After all, that .368 batting average on balls in play is about 85 points higher than league average. It suggests that when he doesn't strike out or homer, Dalbec has benefited from either lackluster opposing defense or some good fortune hitting them where they ain't. Either way, it would make sense to forecast a regression.

At least that's what we used to think. Statcast has changed everything, including the numbers that really matter as Dalbec tries to get untracked in his first full season.

In Tuesday's 2-1 victory over the Mets, Dalbec launched his first home run of the season, a 390-foot shot to right-center that called to mind a number of his opposite-field blasts last year, when he homered eight times in just 80 at-bats, transforming himself from prospect to incumbent starter.

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It has taken Dalbec a while to find his footing, however. Projected as power threat out of the eight or nine hole, Dalbec has instead found himself frustratingly contained, at least until Tuesday. He's hitting just .246 with a .696 OPS, hardly numbers that suggest a looming breakout.

But the numbers beyond the numbers tell a different story. Given his launch angles and exit velocities, Statcast pegs Dalbec for an expected batting average of .309 and slugging percentage of .614. He ranks in the 91st percentile of baseball in barrel rate, which means he's hitting the sweet spot. He's in the 62nd percentile in hard-hit percentage, too.

"I feel like I've been hitting the ball pretty well most of the season," Dalbec said Tuesday. "Obviously a couple rough patches like two, three games in a row, but other than that, I feel like I've been barreling balls, some bad luck and then I found some holes, so you just have to ride the wave."

Dig inside some of Dalbec's unluckiest at-bats, and you see a number of balls that didn't carry as well as they presumably would in July or August, when the weather improves. On a cold day in Minnesota, for instance, he launched a line drive to right field at over 107 mph with an expected batting average of .917. Right fielder Nick Cave instead hauled it in at the wall.

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That was just one of five outs that Dalbec has made this year with expected batting averages of at least .500. Four of those had expected averages of at least .600, and only Rafael Devers (5) has more among his teammates.

Maybe that streak is coming to an end and Dalbec is about to embark on a home run binge, no luck required.

"That's what Fred McGriff used to say, they come in bunches," said manager Alex Cora. "So hopefully that happens."

Dalbec will take it.

"Just got to keep trying to get good pitches to hit and put good swings on them," he said. "The homers take care of themselves."