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One Big Question: Can Andrew Benintendi turn it around against left-handed pitching?

It’s the next step for the young outfielder

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Andrew Benintendi.

The Question: Can Andrew Benintendi start to perform up to his talent-level against left-handed pitchers?

Although the Red Sox are currently in a pretty intense win-now window, they are also fairly well set up for the future with a young core in their lineup. They’ll have to do some work to keep everyone around for as long as possible, but the talent is there for this team to contend for a while. Obviously, Mookie Betts is the best of this group and hopefully the face of the next decade for this organization. Xander Bogaerts arguably has the most untapped potential of anyone in this group and could take a leap forward to true superstardom if everything goes according to plan. Rafael Devers is the next big thing and has already shown he can handle major-league pitching. Then, there’s Andrew Benintendi, who’s obviously outstanding, but doesn’t have Betts’ talent or Bogaerts’ untapped potential (he’s already tapped into his) or Devers’ recent arrival. He’s just a super talented player who is a major key for the future of this Red Sox franchise. Even in a relatively disappointing rookie year in 2017 he was one of the better hitters on the team and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Now, with a full season under his belt, Benintendi will look to take the next step forward.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are a few things the young outfielder needs to do if he’s going to make the most out of his career and become the core piece that most of us believe he can and will be. Benintendi needs to find a way to more consistently tap into his power. He won’t be a consistent presence atop the home run leaderboard or anything, but he certainly has more potential than the .154 Isolated Power he put up in 2017. He also needs to do better on the bases. Benintendi is plenty athletic and was a positive player on the base paths according to Fangraphs, but he also made a lot of mental mistakes that hurt the team. Fortunately, that’s the type of issue that should improve with experience. The issue we’re going to talk about today, though, are his struggles against left-handed pitching early in his career.

Obviously, the goal and expectation for Benintendi is that he is going to be a true everyday player for a long time. Someone with his talent and pedigree should absolutely be in that role, and it’s way too early to talk about him as anything other than that. However, he has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in the first year-plus of his major-league career. In his entire career the lefty has hit just .221/.319/.264 against southpaws for a 60 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 40 percent worse than the league-average hitter in these situations. The good news is that we are only dealing with a sample size of 164 plate appearances, so this is far from a damning issue. Furthermore, this wasn’t a major issue in the minors. He performed better against righties at those levels as well, but he still hit reasonably well against lefties.

While this is certainly a small-sample problem and not something to panic about just yet, it doesn’t mean that Benintendi and the Red Sox should just sit on their hands and hope that things just improve on their own. Any problem like this needs some active problem solving before it snowballs and potentially turns into a mental issue. For the young outfielder, the issue has not been plate discipline, which is good news. Benintendi has drawn plenty of walks against lefties and his contact rate is not significantly worse. The issue comes with his power and just general quality of contact. Over his career, the lefty has posted an ISO of just .043 (the worst qualified ISO in 2017 was .066, for what it’s worth) against southpaws with a .283 batting average on balls in play. Unsurprisingly, his batted ball profile tells the story. Although Benintendi hits just 37 percent of balls against righties on the ground and has 12 percent of fly balls leave the yard (according to Fangraphs’ batted ball data), he has posted a 50 percent ground ball rate against lefties. Benintendi has also seen more fly balls fail to leave the infield against lefties than fly balls that have left the yard for a home run. That’s....well, that’s not great.

Looking at how opposing pitchers are attacking Benintendi, the issue becomes fairly clear, with two specific pitches giving him issues against same-handed pitchers. Compared to their right-handed counterparts, lefties have leaned on sinkers and sliders against Benintendi, to great success. He’s hit almost 70 percent of batted balls against sinkers on the ground and whiffs on exactly half of his swings against sliders. Looking at his zone plots against lefties, he’s failed to square up good pitches to hit. Below is Benintendi’s line drive rate against all pitches from southpaws, and you’ll see a whole lot of blue in the middle-in section of the zone. That’s not ideal.

So, Benintendi needs to do better against lefties. In the short-term, the Red Sox have a contingency plan in case this does not happen, as J.D. Martinez will presumably slide into left field against some tougher lefties and that role will only expand if Benintendi doesn’t improve in this area. That being said, the expectation should be that he can improve. He’s just too talented to not make the proper adjustments to at least become a league-average hitter against lefties. He just needs to get some opportunities to prove that he can turn things around and square up and lift hittable pitches from southpaws.