Let’s start simple. Andrew Benintendi went 1-3 last night against Sean Manaea, which is pretty good for him against a lefty, not to mention one who no-hit the whole dang team last time out. It was an infield hit, sure, and Beni looked predictably lost in his other two at-bats against the southpaw, yes, but: it was a hit. This was progress. Do a little dance.
On team full of young position players, Benintendi is the most interesting and currently confounding. Mookie Betts is the best, Xander Bogaerts is damn close and Rafael Devers the baby prodigy of the bunch, but Benintendi is the biggest mystery. Forget asking what kind of hitter he’ll be beyond this, his age-24 season. A better one is: What kind of hitter is he now?
Earlier this year, I wrote that Beni didn’t seem to be following the aggressive Sox’s approach at the plate, which emphasizes swinging at strikes early in counts in an effort to maximize the chance at hard contact. It’s an approach that has paid obvious dividends for Betts, Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Mitch Moreland, among others, but it’s such an odd fit with Beni’s game that the results have been mixed.
Before I dig in too deep, it’s worth it to take a step back and look at Beni out of context. Remove him from Boston’s embarrassment of riches and what do we see? The former No. 1 prospect in baseball (albeit briefly), a guy who can’t hit a pitch over the middle, or what? At age 23, he’s clearly going to improve. But the guy batting second on a team with championship aspirations has to answer for right now, well, right now.
While I don’t think there’s anything to answer for, let’s start with the bad. He’s not hitting the ball hard. Last year he pounded the ball 34.3 percent of the time -- one-third -- per FanGraphs. This year he’s all the way down to 21.4 percent, or about once every five at-bats and, frankly, it feels even rarer than that. In fairness, he did smoke a ball to center field against a righty after Manaea left the game last night, but it was caught. 1 out of 4. Betts struck out with him on deck to end it, but the numbers tell us a Beni Bomb wasn’t likely either way.
Benintendi has said he was trying to hit a home run all the time last year, which would imply he was set to revert to a different, normal way of doing things. At the same time, he’s publicly talked about changing his swing this year, which suggests the opposite. It sure doesn’t look like he’s trying to hit the ball hard. He makes sure to wave the whole damn bat through the zone, looking for contact, counting on the sheer force of the action to carry the ball where it needs to go. This is why you see so many odd-angled extra base hits -- mishits are features of his game, not bugs-gone-right within them. It’s a trust-the-process type affair.
With this there are downsides, specifically, “not trying to drive the ball.” The numbers suggest he’s not, he has basically said he’s not, and it doesn’t look like he’s doing it, so I’m going to say he’s not necessarily trying to drive the ball a la Hanley Ramirez or J.D. Martinez (Hanley is uniquely single-minded in this). Not enough of Beni’s weight looks like it’s going forward fast enough to really push his swing out, likely because his game still revolves taking pitches, not pounding them, and he has to wait the tiniest fraction of a second to initiate the whole shebeen. He trades off some power for pitch recognition, basically, and trusts the outcome. His seven steals suggest he tries to make it up on the basepaths, if there’s a net loss there at all. If not, the baserunning is just the cherry on top. It sure seems like something’s missing, in aggregate.
It’s not, though. Despite the steep drop in his hard-hit ball percentage, his overall line is virtually identical to last year’s, if not a little bit better depending on the day and trending upward. For the legitimate frustrations with his slow start to the year, it’s his underlying development that presents reasons for optimism not just in the future, but this season. If we can’t see him getting better, imagine how good he’ll be when we can?
Last year, Benintendi hit .271/.352/.424 with a .303 BABIP for a wRC+ of 103. This year, he’s hitting .255/.343/.409 with a .301 BABIP with a wRC+ of 100. Including his extended cup off coffee in 2016, it’s the third straight year his power has fallen (he slugged .476 in limited action that year, mostly against righties). All this has happened as he has consciously bulked up to weather demands of the long season. Beyond changing his swing, what else could be dragging down his numbers?
The simplest explanation is the easiest one, in this case: As an everyday player, he now faces lefties far more often than he ever has. It’s… not a pretty sight. He’s hitting .158/.256/.237 against them and as often as not looks totally lost. Short-term, it’s not great! Long-term, there’s a chance it gets better, and you don’t have to look too far to find a good test case.
When Didi Gregorius took over from Derek Jeter as the Yankees full-time shortstop following the latter’s retirement he was even worse at clipping southpaws than Beni is now. In 2014 with the Diamondbacks, for example, he hit a ghastly .137/.228/.196 against southpaws. The next year, taking over full-time for Jeter in the Bronx, he bounced that up to .247/.311/.315 -- not good, but much better. This year, even after an 0-30 slump (overall), he’s up to .268/.343/.463 against lefties and is a second-tier MVP candidate.
Like a commercial for a drug you don’t need, I’ll note that these results aren’t typical. It’s just good to remember that they’re possible when we’re flailing about over Beni’s “failings,” and his quiet progress in maintaining his baseline while overhauling his approach is something to feel confident about, not worry over. Summer is coming, and Beni has put down a solid floor for himself, both long-term and short-term. Now he just needs to dance. If he’s not gonna do it in the outfield, he might as well do it at the plate.