After terrorizing opposing pitching staffs throughout the 2016, the Red Sox offense should be right back towards the top of the leaderboards in 2017. Obviously, losing David Ortiz’s production in the middle of the lineup will be a major blow, but they should be able to find a competent enough replacement to make up for a good chunk of the offense.
On top of that, they should see some steady progression from their young players, or at least something close enough to the status quo to keep the lineup more than afloat. Part of that will be getting a full season from Andrew Benintendi, who showed that he was capable of hitting major-league pitching in a small sample last year. After building that solid base, just how much can we expect the young outfielder to grow in 2017?
Before we get into his future, though, I think it’s fair to look at how we viewed Benintendi before this past season started. We can often let what happened in a most recent campaign shape too much of what we think about the future, and it’s worth noting how a prospect was viewed before he reached the majors. That’s not to say his major-league performance doesn’t matter — in this case it will take up the majority of the post — but his past matters too.
For Benintendi, I think the majority of analysts thought it was far-fetched that he’d see any significant time in the majors in 2016. I know I was among that group, at least. That obviously looked more and more silly as the year went on. It was also widely believed that he was more of the high-floor, low(er)-ceiling prospect, at least compared to someone like Moncada. Although I still believe that to be true (again, compared to Moncada), that doesn’t mean there’s no room for growth.
On the year, Benintendi accrued just 118 plate appearances, due to his relatively late call-up in early August and a late-season injury. To say he impressed in that time would be an understatement, though. He finished the regular season with a .295/.359/.476 line, good for a 120 wRC+. In other words, he was 20 percent better than a league-average hitter. Pretty good for a kid for who was in college during the spring of 2015. Of course, with such a small sample his numbers are bound to fluctuate. So, let’s go over each portion of his game at the plate and try to figure out what to expect.
Among everything I saw from Benintendi this year, there was nothing more impressive to me than his ability to control the strike zone. The jumps to Double-A and the majors — both of which he made this year — include having to adjust to much more advanced pitching. He passed both tests. In the majors, he walked 8.5 percent of the time and struck out 21.2 percent of the time, staying right at league average in both areas. The operative description for Benintendi at the plate would be “patient.” Of the 422 players who saw at least 450 pitches this year, just 22 percent swung less often than Benintendi. This is despite the fact that, of the same group of players, just 14 percent saw more pitches in the zone.
He was able to get away with watching all of these strikes go by because pitchers challenged him with a lot of fastballs. As his opponents begin to adjust, he’ll have to start jumping on early fastballs in the count. If he doesn’t he’ll watch that strikeout rate rise, even as a hitter who doesn’t struggle any more than one should expect against breaking balls. However, if he does make this adjustment, he should be able to keep his plate discipline at the league-average, if not improve upon it.
Beyond the plate discipline, I think many people will point to Benintendi’s batting average on balls in play as an unsustainable part of his game. Technically speaking, they are correct. He finished 2016 with a .367 mark, which shouldn’t be expected by anyone but the truly elite hitters around the game. With that being said, he has a game built towards high BABIPs. Simply put, he barrels the ball on a consistent basis.
According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, he hits the ball hard 32 percent of the time, a number that puts him on par with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Adam Jones and just behind Mookie Betts. Going over to Baseball Prospectus, they have his line drive rate at 29.3 percent. By that rate, Benintendi is within a single percentage point of guys like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Betts and Ortiz. This ability, combined with his above-average speed, could put keep his true-talent BABIP in the .320 range.
Finally, we have his power. Benintendi finished his time in the majors with a .181 Isolated Power, which is about 20 points higher than the league-average hitter. He did this despite hitting just two home runs. Of course, he hit 11 doubles, which would put him on an huge 55-double pace over 600 plate appearances. As I said in the last section, he has speed and the ability to barrel up balls, which should lead to high double totals throughout his career.
This was always the expectation even before he reached the majors. This double pace can’t be expected on a yearly basis, though. On the other hand, Benintendi had just 6.5 percent of his fly balls leave the yard, per Fangraphs. The league-average was 12.8 percent in 2016. Even if you think his home run power is lower than the league-average player, which is probably fair, he still should’ve been able to put more balls over the fence. Looking to next year, I’d expect many of the doubles he loses to turn into homers, limiting any regression one would see on his ISO.
In the end, I’d expect a largely similar Benintendi in 2017, at least in terms of overall production. His BABIP will likely regress, but he’ll make up for it in other areas. As pitchers adjust by throwing him fewer fastballs, he should be able to make that adjustment back, something we’ve seen him do shooting across multiple levels of professional baseball in such a short time. Additionally, he should be able to retain his power numbers by making up for a loss of doubles with a gain in home runs. The Red Sox are going to have trouble replacing all of Ortiz’s production at the plate, but having Benintendi in the lineup every day is a nice start.