By the time the season finally rolled around, there was no player on the Red Sox I was more excited about than Andrew Benintendi. It was kind of weird, since I usually don’t get that excited about young players. I tend to prefer the guys who have shown it a bit more. In other words, I should’ve been more excited by Mookie Betts and Chris Sale, among others. There’s just something about Benintendi that is so enthralling, and it’s not just the hair. Although, ya know, just look at the picture above if you don’t think that’s good, too. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that his hit tool looks like it might be legitimately great — like, among the best in the game at his peak. It could be that he was completely fearless in his first major-league experience, a run that included a postseason during which he continued to look unfazed. Even when he was being touted as the best prospect in baseball this spring and proclaimed the runaway favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year, it didn’t appear to affect him.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Benintendi impresses me in a way that not many young players have. I was expecting to be disappointed in him this year, because my expectations were for him to be great from the jump. In the extremely early going, he hasn’t really been disappointing.
The former top-ten draft pick has come to the plate 73 times this season and is hitting .317/.397/.429 for a 133 wRC+. If you’re looking for context, Kyle Seager and Ryan Braun were the two major-league players to post 133 wRC+’s in 2016. It’s a really, really good mark. What’s even more amazing is that it seems pretty sustainable, particularly when you consider he’s joining the rest of his teammates in completely lacking a power stroke early on in 2017. Despite the lack of extra-base hits, he’s been a marvel to watch so far this month.
What’s most amazing about Benintendi is his insane ability to control the strike zone. He’s like the hitting version of Koji Uehara. Early on this season, he has nine strikeouts to seven walks, giving him rates of 12.3 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively. Remember, this is a guy who has all of 191 plate appearances against major-league pitching who is coming up in an era in which pitchers are more equipped to strike you out than ever before. What he’s doing is amazing. Digging a little deeper, you can see how he’s doing it.
Benintendi’s strategy at the plate this season has been pretty fascinating, and it’s one that should be able to work for the entire season. In short, he’s incredibly patient. There are 109 hitters who have seen at least 200 pitches this season*, and according to Baseball Prospectus only 22 have swung more often than Boston’s young outfielder. This is particularly interesting because he’s seeing more pitches in the strike zone than all but two of those 109 hitters. As long as he’s hitting second in the Red Sox lineup ahead of Betts and Hanley Ramirez, he’s going to continue to see strikes.
*Through Wednesday’s action
You would think that someone who sees a bunch of strikes and doesn’t swing at them would strikeout more, but that’s not the case for someone with a hit tool like Benintendi. When he does decide to swing, he makes contact. In fact, he’s made contact more often than all but two of those 109 hitters. A lot of that is because he has the highest contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone, but he’s also in the top-22 on pitches in the zone. To put it simply, Benintendi will make the pitcher throw plenty of pitches, but when he sees one he thinks he can make contact with, he will swing and he will make contact.
Speaking of which, he’s pretty good at doing damage with said contact. Part of Benintendi’s great hit tool is his ability to control the strike zone and limit his strikeouts, but that’s not everything. He’s also tremendous at turning that contact into hits. This has been evident in the early season with his .352 batting average on balls in play, a mark that may seem unsustainable but might not come down as much as one may think. Benintendi hits a good number of line drives (he’s in the top third of the league so far this year, per Fangraphs) and generally hits the ball hard. His hard-hit rate since coming into the league last year is right in line with guys like George Springer and Anthony Rizzo.
Perhaps more importantly than how he’s hitting the ball is where he’s hitting it. We’ve seen early in this season that some teams have taken to shifting Benintendi, which makes some sense. During his stint in the majors last season, he pulled 44 percent of the balls he put in play including 65 percent of his grounders. So far this year, he’s made the adjustment. Early on, he’s hitting the ball all over the field with 32 percent of balls in play being pulled, the same number of balls in play being hit up the middle and 36 percent going the other way. On grounders, just 47 percent are being pulled. It’s still early, but it’s amazing to see this kind of adjustment by a player with such little experience. If he can stop teams from shifting him, he’s just going to continue to turn balls in play into hits.
Eventually, the power will come for Benintendi. It won’t come like it will for some others in this lineup, but some of his doubles will turn to home runs and some singles will turn to doubles. Meanwhile, you can expect him to keep controlling the strike zone and continue turning balls in play into hits. Benintendi is a marvel to watch, and he’s only just getting starting.