Note: This post is being written before Tuesday night’s game because it is very late and I have to work my day job in the morning and I would prefer not to be up until 3:00 AM writing this. As such, all of the numbers below do not reflect this game. If Andrew Benintendi goes 6-6 with six home runs and 24 RBI, that will not be mentioned here, except for this sentence. It was pretty rad, though.
The Red Sox offense is something between a mess and a disaster right now, and while there probably is a light at the end of the tunnel it’s not visible right now. There have been some bad stretches throughout 2017, but this one that the team has been through since the All-Star break certainly seems like the worst of the season. With the trade deadline right around the corner, there are avenues through which the organization could improve the offense from the outside. However, the best and most likely way to improve things would be for the players who are already here to play like we expect them to. Honestly, I could probably write about every player in this lineup outside of Dustin Pedroia and how they could/should/need to improve at the plate. Hell, if they struggle for long enough I might be able to! For today, though, I’m going to focus on Andrew Benintendi and try not to mention the hair.
Overall, it has been a roller coaster season for the rookie outfielder. Benintendi was outstanding in April to start the season, then struggled mightily in May before getting back on his game for the month of June. Since the calendar has flipped over to July, things have gone downhill again. Obviously, the peaks and valleys haven’t quite so neatly gone with the beginnings and ends of months, but it’s been close enough that this is the easiest way to describe his season. Of course, considering it is his first full season against major-league pitching, these kinds of intermittent struggles aren’t completely unexpected. His recent struggles in the month of July haven’t been quite as bad as his performance in May, at least on the surface. Despite that, it’s actually been a little more discouraging than his first slump of 2017.
First, the overall numbers. In the month of May, Benintendi hit .204/.296/.306 for a wRC+ of 51. In other words, he was 49 percent worse than the league-average hitter. Meanwhile, in the month of July, Benintendi is hitting .222/.325/.347 for a wRC+ of 77. So, just based on his overall production he’s been much better in July than he was in May, even if he’s been quite poor in both months. There has been a large difference in batting average on balls in play, though. Whereas he suffered through a .217 BABIP in May, he has struggled despite a .280 mark this month. It’s always too easy to simply write off BABIP as good or bad luck — it’s much more complex than that — but in smaller samples there is inherently more noise. If you look a little deeper than the overall line, there are a couple disturbing trends for Benintendi in the month of July.
The first is with his plate discipline. Or, more specifically, it’s with the 23-year-old’s strikeout rate. Always known for making contact, Benintendi has seen a sharp rise in his strikeout rate this month as it has climbed all the way up to 24 percent. Obviously, this is a small sample considering the month isn’t even over yet and it was already shortened by an All-Star break. Still, the outfielder is striking out more than he has at any point this season.
Where Benintendi appears to be having the most trouble is on breaking balls, which is unsurprising. As we’ve seen with young players before — most notably Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley — major-league breaking balls have a way of causing slumps for inexperienced players. Benintendi is swinging at more than half of the breaking balls he’s seen this year, per Brooks Baseball, after swinging at fewer than 40 percent of them in each previous month. Because of that, more breaking balls are resulting in whiffs against him than at any other point of the year.
In addition to the strikeouts, there are also a couple of troubling trends in Benintendi’s batted ball profile. For one thing, he is pounding everything into the ground of late. Heading into Tuesday night’s action, the lefty was hitting half of his batted balls on the ground in the month of July and 60 percent of his batted balls were grounders since the All-Star break. In the two months he has put up good numbers, that rate was in the 30’s.
Benintendi also has a tendency to stop utilizing the opposite field when he’s struggled, and that’s been on full display of late. In July, he has hit the ball to left field just 19 percent of the time, and that rate is just under 17 percent since the All-Star break. For context, he was using the opposite field about 30 percent of the time in the first half and when he’s at his best he uses all three fields at a roughly equal rate.
The good news for Benintendi and Red Sox fans is that we’ve seen him struggle before and we’ve seen that he’s able to get himself out of slumps. That’s one of the staples of good players, being able to get themselves out of slumps, and Benintendi fits the bill. The Red Sox need that to happen soon. Watch for how often he is giving in to breaking balls, as well as how often he’s yanking the ball to his pull side. If he’s not doing either of these things, he’s likely about to go on another tear.