Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Andrew Benintendi.
The Question: Should Andrew Benintendi sell out for more consistent power?
The Red Sox lineup was very good, especially at the top, in 2018, and Andrew Benintendi was an underrated part of that. Granted, I think if you asked pretty much any Red Sox fan about the left fielder they’d tell you he is, in fact, very good, but he was simply overshadowed. That’s going to happen when you play in a lineup with a pair of MVP candidates like Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez as well as Xander Bogaerts at his peak. Benintendi just doesn’t pop like those guys do when they’re at their best, which is certainly not a knock on the young outfielder. Most, if not all, recognize his importance to this lineup, and it’s already easy to forget the guy is only going to be in his age-24 season in the coming season. He’s still growing as a player, and it’s more than fair to expect strides to continue to be made in the next year or two. The thing is, if Benintendi is to indeed take another step forward, he is going to basically be on the cusp of stardom if he’s not already on that cusp. It’s never smart to 100 percent expect that kind of jump, but Benintendi is certainly good enough to get there.
What’s interesting about Benintendi’s season, and something I’m not really sure I noticed while it was happening, is that it was a tale of two halves for the outfielder. Benintendi was outstanding in the first half, heading into the All-Star break with a 139 wRC+, meaning he was 39 percent better than the league-average hitter. Over the full season, that would have been 11th in baseball, right behind Anthony Rendon. In the second half, however, he fell down to a 96 wRC+, meaning he was four percent worse than the league-average hitter. That would have put him tied for 103rd among the 140 qualified hitters, tied with Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara.
There were a bunch of differences for Benintendi between the two halves, but the one that stands out the most to me was the power. Over the first half of the season, the Red Sox left fielder hit 14 home runs and posted a .220 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). In the second half, the power fell off a cliff as he hit just two balls over the fence and put up an ISO of just .105. In all, it evened out to a .174 ISO, which is solid but unspectacular in today’s game. I think it’s fair to think he has the tools to be a good power hitter on a more consistent basis, even if that .220 ISO was probably a bit over his head. Still, with some slight tweaks he can probably sit in the .190-.210 ISO range. The question is whether or not it’d be worth it for him.
Before we get into whether or not adding more power to his game would be worth it, we have to get into the cost. Obviously, if Benintendi could just snap his fingers and hit for more power without changing anything else we would all say yes do it and move on with our lives. However, it’s really, really hard for players to do that. There are some who can do it, but it’s unfair to expect it from anyone. If he is going to get the ball over the fence more and just generally hit more extra-base hits, he’s going to have to change some things. The biggest issue in the second half for Benintendi was that he was just pounding the ball in the ground more often. This was obviously an extreme example and things didn’t go exactly according to plan, but he did make more contact in the process as well and continued to hit singles. This was a different approach, whether it was intentional or not. If he is to hit for more power, he’s going to need to hit more fly balls and in turn that is going to lead to more strikeouts.
The arguments for Benintendi making these changes are pretty straightforward, and basically come down to him being a more productive hitter when he’s hitting for power. That’s true! He’s different, but as long as he doesn’t start striking out at rates he never has before he’ll almost certainly be at least a little better at the plate. Keep in mind that he has a career 17 percent strikeout rate and struck out just 16 percent of the time in 2018, so there’s plenty of room between where he is now and too high. When he was hitting for power in the first half, he struck out 17.5 percent of the time.
The argument against this would be two-fold. For one, Benintendi has always been a contact-oriented hitter. He’s talented enough to get some power out of his current approach at times, but there is a ceiling with that kind of approach that we’ve possibly already seen from him. That certainly doesn’t mean he’s bad, of course, but it’s not the kind of hitter the current league is trending towards. Asking him to be a different guy is always risky. Additionally, Benintendi is going to undertake a new role in 2019 as the team’s leadoff hitter, with he and Betts swapping spots from last year’s lineup. Hitting in front of Betts, Martinez and Bogaerts, one could certainly argue that he should simply care about getting on base and letting those mashers do the work. It’s hard to argue against that, too. Added power would be great, but adding more strikeouts and fly balls will have negative effects on his batting average, which obviously takes away from his on-base percentage.
Ultimately, it’s hard to give a convincing answer on this, largely because we don’t know exactly what a full season of power-Benintendi would look like. Maybe he is the rare player who can add big power to his game without having to change his swing so much that it significantly alters his profile. In that case, great! Everyone wins. If that’s not the case, it becomes more difficult. Assuming he wouldn’t have to change so much that he’s almost unrecognizable, in which case all bets are off, I probably lean towards saying yes. Sell out a bit for some more power. It almost certainly makes him more productive, and at the end of the day that’s what matters. Give me the most production possible and we’ll figure the rest out. That said, there would be real risk in him screwing up his swing — again, this isn’t something he’s ever really done — and the fact that he’s hitting in front of the mashers isn’t nothing. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’ll be fascinating to see what side Benintendi toes in 2019.