Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Andrew Benintendi.
The Season in a Sentence
Andrew Benintendi was a bit overshadowed by his superstar teammates and suffered from a second-half power slump, but on the whole this was a positive step forward for the budding Red Sox star.
Benintendi came into 2018 looking to rebound after a somewhat disappointing 2017. He wasn’t bad during his rookie season, but after what he showed in limited major-league time in 2016, the adjustment period was a bit of a downer. That made this past year a somewhat big one for him as he tried to prove that he was still the player we all believed he could be and he simply needed a year in the majors under his belt. He did that with a weirdly quiet good year in which he hit .290/.366/.465, good for a 122 wRC+. There’s still growth to be had, but overall that’s a good year.
The number one carrying tool for Benintendi is his fantastic plate discipline. To put it simply, he seems to have a plan every time he comes to the plate, and more often than not he executes it. I do think he can get a little passive at times and maybe looks to drive pitch counts rather than do damage, but for the most part his plate discipline does much more good than harm. He strikes out well below the league-average (16 percent compared to 22 percent) while also walking more than the league-average (11 percent compared to 8.5 percent). Overall, he made contact much more than the league-average hitter, swung at more pitches in the zone and fewer out of the zone. Throw in that he was one of the best two-strike hitters in the game, and you have a guy who thrives due to a phenomenal plate approach.
It’s not just the approach that makes the 24-year-old one of the top young hitters in the game, though. Approach is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t do anything with hittable pitchers. This is where Benintendi could most use some strides, but he does a great job of making the most of the balls he puts into play. The lefty hits a lot of line drives and does a solid job of using the entire field (though he did get pull-happy at times), and that helped lead him to a .328 batting average on balls in play in 2018. That doesn’t seem like a particularly unsustainable number given his athleticism and ability to make solid contact, and when you throw in the plate discipline you have a .366 OBP that certainly has the potential to grow as Benintendi gets into his prime.
Finally, there is the all-around aspect of Benintendi’s game. His bat is certainly the biggest reason to be excited, and it’s why he’s a former top ten pick, number one prospect and projected future star. He’s an all-around player at the core, though. His baserunning has to improve, but he is a good base stealer and that alone has value. He swiped 21 bags this year, his second straight year with at least 20 steals, and he only got caught three times. When Benintendi is standing at first, the pitcher has to think a little more than that can lead to big results for those at the plate, to say nothing of the value of the steals themselves. His overall baserunning value depends on who you ask. The defense is also a boon. Benintendi is the third best defensive outfielder in the starting lineup, but that obviously says more about the other guys than it does about him. He’s not great when he has to slide over to center field, but he’s wonderful in the corner and at Fenway in particular he has mastered the strange dimensions in front of the Monster.
Benintendi had an overwhelmingly positive year, but there is still room for growth and that mainly comes down to one area: Power. Now, he did show off the power stroke for stretches this year. We know it’s in him. By the end of the year, however, he had an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of just .174. In today’s game, that’s barely more than an average mark and isn’t really what you’re looking for from a potential star in left field. Now, the rest of Benintendi’s game gives him enough of a floor that he can still be vey good with average power, but the next step is there for the taking.
Really, most of the power struggles came in the second half of the year and they continued into the postseason. In fact, he was a good power hitter in the first half, posting an ISO of .220. If he kept that up all year, he’d be in the MVP conversation right alongside Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. (Insofar as anyone besides Betts is in the conversation, of course.) He, well, he didn’t keep that up to put it nicely. Benintendi ended up posting an ISO of just .105 in the second half, managing just two homers after the All-Star break with 16 doubles and a triple. The issue? He was pounding the ball into the ground. After hitting ground balls just 38 percent of the time in the first half, that rate shot up to 45 percent in the second half. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, that gain came entirely at the cost of fly balls rather than line drives, though it’s worth noting the line between fly balls and line drives is somewhat arbitrary. Either way, if Benintendi is to take the next step into stardom he needs to get that first-half power back on a consistent basis.
The Big Question
This is a somewhat complicated answer. The consistency of his power is a major factor to watch as his career progresses, but if he is to be a true star he also needs to be someone his team can feel comfortable starting every day. Heading into 2018, he was not a good hitter against lefties. Obviously, there were small sample concerns, so this was a big year to prove he can handle himself against same-handed pitching. Whether or not he turned it around depends on how much leeway you’re willing to give him.
On the one hand, he was still much worse against southpaws. While he posted a 135 wRC+ against righties this past season, that number fell to 84 against lefties. For context, that 84 mark would have tied for 128th among the 140 qualified hitters in baseball this year. Not great! However, it is still a step forward after he posted a 70 wRC+ against lefties the year before. So, this is probably marked as an incomplete. Benintendi took a step forward, which is certainly a positive sign. There’s still work to be done, though.
The Year Ahead
There’s not much of a secret of what the expectations are for Benintendi in the upcoming year. The Red Sox are a team full of stars, and while Benintendi is probably number four in the lineup, he is going to be a massive part of this team. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets significant (fifth place or better) MVP votes in 2019, and I fully expect him to be one of the better top-of-the-lineup hitters in the game next year.