Ed. Note: This is being written before last night’s game was played, because on this particular night the game is simply past my bedtime. Andrew Benintendi is not in the starting lineup, so these numbers shouldn’t change, but it’s possible he gets in later. If so, well, those numbers won’t be included in what follows.
Early in the season, while the team’s offense was inconsistent at best, Andrew Benintendi was one of the few players you could count on to do something at the plate on a near-daily basis. Despite his youth and relative lack of experience, the outfielder was taking the city by storm with his early-season performance. As of late, things have taken a bit of a downward turn for the former seventh overall pick. It’s only about a week of bad performances, but they’ve been bad enough that it’s impossible not to notice. It’s a stretch in which Benintendi’s batting average has fallen from .339 to .280 and his OPS from .916 to .781. The question is: Is it something that we should be worried about?
Like I said, it’s a small sample. Just eight games ago, Benintendi went 3-4 in what was his fourth consecutive multi-hit game. A slump for the preseason Rookie of the Year favorite was the last thing on anyone’s minds at this point. Over the last seven games, he doesn’t have a hit in 32 plate appearances. It’s been startling to watch, and for such a young player you have to wonder if the league has made some big adjustment to cause this turnaround.
The first thing you’ll notice about this slump, and the thing that everyone will point out right away, is that Benintendi hasn’t suddenly lost his ability to control the strike zone. This isn’t a case of a young player suddenly being unable to make consistent contact. Over these 32 plate appearances, he has struck out four times while walking the same number of times. That’s a rate of 12.5 percent for both, which is well above-average in both categories. It goes without saying that this is a good thing, as his plate discipline has been one of his calling cards since turning pro.
On the other hand, it’s not as simple as looking at his strikeouts and walks and saying that everything is okay. While these are the most predictive part of a player’s games, more often than not a player like Benintendi puts the ball in play. It’s worth looking at what’s happening there as well.
Before we get there, though, let’s go back to pitchers making an adjustment. Like I said, whenever a young player struggles the assumption is that the league has made some big adjustment. That seems to be the case here, although it’s not the adjustment I usually think of. To me, when I think of pitchers adjusting to young players, I picture them peppering the opponent with offspeed pitches and breaking balls. We’ve seen it happen with recent Red Sox prospects like Xander Bogaerts and Yoan Moncada. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite for Benintendi. According to Brooks Baseball, Benintendi is seeing “hard pitches” 66 percent of the time during this seven-game stretch. Prior to that, he was seeing them at a rate of 57 percent. Even in the week before the slump the rate was at just 57 percent, so this is certainly a recent trend from opposing pitchers.
The result has been noticeable, to say the least. He is having trouble squaring up these fastballs, and it shows in his recent batted ball data, particularly on these hard pitches. In this small stretch, he is hitting line drives on just over five percent of the balls he has put into play. Similarly, his ground ball rate on these balls is 44 percent.
It’s worth noting, though, that both of these rates are much worse than they were before this little slump, even against hard pitches. So, that would suggest there’s something more than just pitch usage that’s changed. Sure enough, there was another change.
The zone plot on the left shows where pitchers were throwing to Benintendi before the slump. On the right, you see the zone plot from during this recent stretch of poor performance. (Or, top/bottom instead of left/right if you are reading this on mobile.) There is one big difference I see: Opponents are throwing in on Benintendi’s hands more often. When you combine that with an increase in fastball usage, you start to see a strategy. He’s proven surprisingly adept for someone with his lack of experience against slow stuff away from the plate, so they’re trying this out. Thus far, Benintendi hasn’t been able to get his hands around quickly enough to make a difference.
So, back to the original question. Should we be worried about this slump? The right answer is probably not, although we’ve seen young players unable to counter-adjust after the league has figured out a weak spot in the swing. The good news for the Red Sox is that Benintendi has showed the ability to quickly adjust in the minors and has shown himself to be a smart enough hitter to get over this trend. It’s been hard to watch for a week or so, but hopefully we’ll see him start to turn on some of these hard, inside pitches and do some damage to break out of this slump.