Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Andrew Benintendi.
The Question: Can Andrew Benintendi possibly live up to the hype?
By this point, we all know the story of Andrew Benintendi. We all know how he went from a forgotten college player to NCAA Player of the Year to top ten pick to mashing in his first pro season to making his major-league debut in his first full professional season. We all know he immediately made an impact at the major-league level and was even able to contribute meaningfully in a short postseason stint. Most importantly, we all know about the hair.
All of this (well, except for maybe the hair) has led to the young outfielder being the near-unanimous number one prospect in all of baseball. Obviously, that title is a little strange in this case, since Benintendi would not have qualified as a prospect if not for an injury that held him out late in the year. Either way, the hype train is fully loaded and isn’t stopping for anyone. The expectations for his “rookie” year are high and it’s hard to see them coming down in any meaningful way. Can he possibly live up to them?
Well, to start things off, he’s certainly earned the praise and the high expectations. Benintendi, as I said, was impressive in his debut. On the back of solid plate discipline and strong bat-to-ball skills, he hit .295/.359/.476 in 118 plate appearances, good for a 120 wRC+. To go along with that, he was a strong base runner and looked quite good out in left field.
For whatever it’s worth, the scouting reports essentially match what he brought to the table last season. His carrying tool is the hit tool, which he showed off with a plethora of line drives and overall solid contact. He’s a good athlete as well, which is represented by his prowess on the base paths and with the glove. He’s also a smart hitter, which we saw by him not being overwhelmed against the most advanced pitching he’s ever seen.
Now, the bad news. For as much as Benintendi’s season matched the profile many expected, he’s still likely to come down in a couple of areas. The first of which is in power, as he posted a .181 Isolated Power in his major-league stint last year. Most scouts agree that he doesn’t have huge over-the-fence power potential, instead relying on line drives and speed to hit plenty of doubles and triples. These add up, of course, but likely result in something closer to average power rather than what he showed last year. In 2016, the average outfielder posted a .165 ISO, which seems about in line with what to expect from Benintendi. It’s a decrease, but not at all a major one.
The other area in which he’ll come down is also his biggest strength: The hit tool. As a major leaguer, the now-22-year-old put up a .367 batting average on balls in play last season, which is quite high. If he had done so over enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, he’d have ranked right above Joey Votto, who is the personification of hit tools.
Benintendi has an innate ability to get good wood on the ball and has the speed to add to it. In other words, he has the profile of someone whose true-talent is well above a .300 BABIP. However, there’s really no one whose true-talent is a .367 BABIP. Over the last three seasons, only Paul Goldschmidt has a collective mark above Benintendi’s 2016 mark. Essentially, if Benintendi can maintain this pace he’ll be the best BABIP hitter in baseball. I think he can keep a .320-ish mark on a consistent basis, but that’s still a minor downgrade from last season.
There’s also the vague concept of a sophomore slump to worry about. This is sort of an intangible worry, but there’s merit to it. Pitchers, coaches and scouts have had a full winter to prepare for Benintendi, and he’s going to have to make his own adjustments throughout the year. Not everyone can do that, which is why we see second-year players struggle so often. As the Providence Journal beats have pointed out a bunch this winter, there are some real similarities between Benintendi and Mets outfielder Michael Conforto.
So, there are areas in which Benintendi will get worse, which means he won’t be able to meet expectations, right? Since I’m asking, you probably know the answer is no. Why would I ask if the answer was yes? That’d be weird. No, there is plenty of reason for optimism that can offset the reasons for worry. On the Conforto front, to start, there is the difference in organizations. Conforto certainly deserves a good chunk of the blame for his issues -- he had a bad season, of course — but the Mets have also been strange with their young outfielder and haven’t really given him a real chance to succeed. I really can’t see the Red Sox doing that with Benintendi.
Additionally, Boston’s young outfielder should be able to improve on the plate discipline front, assuming he can make the proper adjustments. Given how quickly he adjusted to pro ball and to every level to which he was promoted, it’s safe to be confident in this happening. In
216 2016, he was merely average in both walk and strikeout rates. His profile suggests he should be better than average in both areas, and if he can achieve that this year that would more than counteract the negatives discussed above.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a sure thing in baseball. So-called “can’t miss” prospects miss all the time, and young players fall off quickly fairly quickly. If Benintendi were to really struggle this year, it wouldn’t be the most shocking development we’ve ever seen, to say the least. However, there’s just too many positives in his game to make that the expectations. Some people are probably running too far with his top prospect status — he’s unlikely to be an MVP or anything like that — but reasonable expectations for him to be around the same guy he was in 2016 over a full season aren’t really out of whack.