Andrew Benintendi had what turned out to be the winning hit in Sunday’s amazing comeback versus the Rays, golfing a ball just short of the Green Monster that flummoxed Mallex Smith and brought Mookie Betts around to score. He did it, notably, on a 1-1 count, having watched strike one, a 94-mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner.
Alex Cora has stressed the importance of swinging at hittable pitches early and often, an approach favored by his former team, the World Series champion Houston Astros. As of this writing, the Sox have swung at 71.7 percent of strikes, the highest rate in the league. For what it’s worth, thats 22 spots ahead of Houston, but these things can change fast. A few days ago, the Sox themselves were in the middle of the pack, but as they’ve attacked more, they’ve scored more runs and moved into the top spot.
Back to Benintendi. In the same game in which he played hero, he came up to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning. He worked a full count and fouled off two hittable pitches before looking at strike three, an 87 MPH cutter low and away that just barely nipped the corner. It was a perfect pitch, and if the result was disappointing, taking the strike was very much in historical character for the man with the golden eye.
As the Sox have gotten more slap-happy, Benintendi has perhaps moved in the opposite direction. He’s an obvious throwback to the Moneyball, wait-it-out era, and you don’t need more than your eyes to tell you that. He’s as patient as Job. He’s tied for the American League lead with 9 walks, and while the rest of the team is unloading on good pitches, it’s possible that he’s not. It’s honestly unclear what’s happening the rest of the time.
At first glance, all is well: Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers have him swinging at a gaudy 72.1 percent of strikes in the zone and only 27.2 percent of pitches outside of it, well in line with the rest of the newly aggressive team’s numbers. But when you look at Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers powered by Pitch Info, a separate set of measurements, the reason for his relative struggles might be a bit clearer. Per those numbers, he’s swinging at fewer strikes (58.7 percent) and way, way more balls (36.2 percent) than ever before, and by this measurement, if there is a team-wide trend in play, he’s the outlier.
On top of that, the pitches he’s seeing have changed. He’s seeing more cutters and far more changeups than ever before, and this likely represents a new challenge for the young outfielder. The pitchers have adjusted, and he is slowly adjusting back in the early season, we hope.
Cora has stressed his appreciation for Benintendi’s approach, likely because there are far worse things in this world than having runners on base for hot-hitting Hanley Ramirez, J.D. Martinez and, before Sunday, Xander Bogaerts. Meanwhile, Beni’s sporting a .161/.350/.194 line that’s will improve to silly OBP levels with an appreciable number of hits, which will come as his BABIP rises above .185 no matter what his approach is.
Of the two trends potentially in play by the batted-ball metrics, I’m more concerned with Benintendi’s bad swings than his general passivity at the plate. He can probably learn to be a better good-ball hitter earlier in counts, i.e. to swing at more strikes, but it’s hard to change one’s lifelong approach over the course of two weeks, and, at age 23, he’s got ample time to learn. As long as he’s getting on base, there’s no reason to worry too much.
At the same time... what gives with these numbers? First, of course, “bad swings” are extremely relative if they’re showing up as good by one measure and poor by another. Second, slumping players often get out of rhythm, by definition: It’s why they’re slumping! Third, and this is just a theory, the Sox played so many close games recently that it stands to reason Benintendi (and maybe others too) was trying to get one big hit at the expense of a good approach. Fourth, although we’ve busted on the Rays a lot recently, perhaps their pitching is better than we’ve given them credit for, especially because ‘Johnny Wholestaff’ is fresh in the early going. The bullpen-all-the-time approach isn’t necessarily a problem for a few days at a time -- it’s problematic as players wear down over the season.
Going forward, I’m interested to see if Benintendi can square the competing measurements of his plate discipline, because I still truly believe there’s an MVP-caliber player in there somewhere. He may never find it, of course -- we rarely find the MVP versions of ourselves, but we rarely have this much help. Beni has a nation behind him. If the pitchers are changing up their approach to him, it’s time for him to return the favor if he isn’t already. If he’s already doing it, we’ll know soon enough. When his bat is going, it’s not quiet.