One of Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson’s mantras is “stay in the moment.” Win the next pitch. Win the next game. Don’t fret about the future, which will take care of itself if you take care of the day-to-day.
Johnson’s philosophy is especially applicable to Wildcats junior third baseman/pitcher Bobby Dalbec, who appears on every preseason watch list and All-America team you can imagine. Dalbec is Arizona’s highest-rated pro prospect, a projected first-round draft pick.
With his prodigious power, Dalbec could be the next Kris Bryant. So says the man who would know: Johnson, who coached the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year when he was at the University of San Diego.
Johnson waited until … his very first news conference of 2016 to compare the two, saying: “I’ve probably seen only one player, that being Kris Bryant, that has as much or more power” as Dalbec possesses.
The first-year UA coach later expanded upon those comments.
“There’s some comparables in terms of skill set, size, measurables, bat speed, raw power,” said Johnson, whose team opens the 2016 season at Rice on Friday. “Bobby has a great baseball mind too, and that is very similar to Kris. He’s very passionate about trying to be as good as he can be.”
That Johnson didn’t hesitate to link Dalbec to Bryant shows how much confidence he has in the junior’s ability — not only to play the game but to handle the hype, which swells with every preseason accolade. How Dalbec continues to deal with the increased attention, higher expectations and his growing fame will determine his baseball trajectory. Not that he should spend any time worrying about that now.
“You can’t tell them not to pay attention to it because of the society we live in today with social media, the Internet. It’s just there,” Johnson said. “(But) it doesn’t have anything to do with the play. The play is what we’re focused on.”
The coach and his star player seem to be in lockstep on that front. Regarding all of his recent honors — which include being named to at least five prominent preseason All-America teams, as well as the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award — Dalbec said: “I see them. It’s cool. It’s awesome to receive those kind of acknowledgments. But I’m really focused on what I can do to help the team get better and help the team win. I’m not worried about the draft or what preseason team I’m put on. Those don’t really matter, honestly.”
Dalbec displayed an aptitude for baseball at a very early age. When he was 2, he could hit plastic balls over the fence in the family’s backyard in Bellevue, Washington. By age 4, he was smacking baseballs over an 8-foot-tall shrub. The Dalbecs called it “The Green Monster.”
Dalbec inherited his ball-playing skills from his mother, Liz, who played softball for a high school state championship team in Washington. His father, Tim, played rec-league softball, and they would take young Bobby to games, positioning his playpen in the dugout.
Once Bobby began playing, it didn’t take long to realize he had a gift for the sport. His parents tried to aid him in any way they could. They bought Tom House’s book, “The Pitching Edge,” to make sure Bobby used the proper mechanics and wouldn’t hurt his arm. They read Tony Gwynn’s book, “The Art of Hitting,” to help Bobby fine-tune his swing.
The family moved from Bellevue to Oak Park, California, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles, when Bobby was 5. They moved to Parker, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, when he was 12. He’d travel back to Southern California and the Phoenix area to play in tournaments. One time, a Jay Buhner-coached Pony League team intentionally walked Dalbec after he had hit two home runs in the previous game, including a walk-off shot.
The Dalbecs have a batting tunnel in their garage. When he returns home, Dalbec spends as much time there as he does at Bardo’s Diamond Sports, a baseball training facility in Parker.
“He’s a junkie,” Tim Dalbec said. “If he’s not at home he’s at Bardo’s, working on hitting, infielding, working out with guys he went to high school with.”
It’s the same story in Tucson. Here’s how a typical conversation might go between Bobby Dalbec and teammate JJ Matijevic:
Dalbec: “You want to go hit at the field?”
Matijevic: “Of course!”
The two regularly stay after practice for extra BP. Is that work or fun?
“It’s both,” Dalbec said. “The day that baseball becomes (strictly) work is the day I don’t want to play anymore.”
Tim Dalbec says Bobby constantly is striving to improve — that “he always feels like there’s an opportunity to get better.” As much as anything, that’s what this season is all about.
Dalbec led the Cape Cod League in home runs last summer, launching 12 in 27 games. He also played for the USA collegiate national team.
While working on his game, Dalbec also worked on his body. He altered his weightlifting regimen, stopped drinking soda and ate more healthily. Dalbec reduced his body-fat percentage from 25 to 10. He has become quicker and faster, cutting about a half-second off his 60-yard dash time. At 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, Dalbec looks like a linebacker.
“He’s really developed defensively,” Johnson said. “He’s done a lot on his own as far as improving his foot speed, first step. He’s a big guy. He’s 6-4, 6-5. It’s a lot harder for a guy that size to get low and play low to the ground.”
At the plate, Dalbec has been working on keeping his hands back and generating more backspin, which helps the ball carry farther. Johnson sees the Bryant-like power but wants Dalbec to make more consistent contact. Last season he led Arizona in homers (15), RBIs (53) and slugging percentage (.601) and tied for the team lead in walks (32). He also paced the Wildcats in strikeouts (60).
“Being selectively aggressive is a good way to put it,” Dalbec said. “Just trying to hit the best pitch in every at-bat.”
Dalbec’s power is rare — he would have hit more than 15 home runs in a more hitter-friendly ballpark than Hi Corbett Field — so the strikeouts are a somewhat acceptable byproduct in today’s baseball. The player Dalbec models his game after, Alex Rodriguez, is fourth in career home runs and fifth in strikeouts. Dalbec’s all-time favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr., is sixth in homers and 18th in strikeouts. (The Dalbecs still have a life-size cardboard cutout of Griffey in their basement.)
Bryant, whose build and profile mirror Dalbec’s — 6-5, 215, right-handed-hitting third baseman — struck out 199 times during his award-winning rookie campaign last year. That tied for the eighth-most in major-league history.
Bryant was the second pick in the 2013 MLB draft. Dalbec is No. 18 on Baseball America’s list of the top collegiate big-league prospects and No. 15 on MLB.com’s 2016 Prospect Watch.
He’s fully aware of what lies ahead if he continues to progress. For now, though, Dalbec is worried only about what lies immediately ahead: Winning Game 1 against Rice. Winning his next at-bat.
• Dalbec made 21 pitching appearances last season, including seven starts. He led the Wildcats with five saves and could serve as the team’s closer this season, Johnson said.
• Junior college transfer JC Cloney will start the opener. Cloney, a left-hander, went 7-4 with a 2.40 ERA last year at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California.
• Rice has advanced to the NCAA tournament 21 years in a row. “It’s a great opportunity,” Johnson said. “It’s a great place to set the bar.”