Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as the negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Andrew Benintendi.
2019 in one sentence
Andrew Benintendi took a step back in just about every area this year, settling in with a fine season rather than taking the step forward towards stardom most of us were looking for.
We’ll look back at 2019 as either a blip on the radar in an otherwise strong career or as the beginning of a downturn in perception around the former top prospect. In other words, it was a disappointing year. That said, Benintendi did do some things well, and that is led first and foremost by his ability to make good contact and consistently turn balls in play into hits. The hit tool has always been the most impressive part of his game, and he’s now had batting averages on balls in play well above .300 in three of his four seasons in the majors, with a .333 mark in 2019. That wasn’t really fluky, either, as he sprayed the ball all over the field, hit the ball on a line about a quarter of the time and never really made weak contact. It’s not enough to just hit a bunch of singles, as we’ll get to more below, but the hit tool was mostly still there when he was making contact.
Benintendi was also much better against left-handed pitching than he had been earlier in his career. It was kind of hard to notice given how bad things got as the season went on overall, but the outfielder making himself into a guy who doesn’t have to be platooned is somewhat sneakily a big development for this team moving forward. In 2017 and 2018, Benintendi posted wRC+’s of just 70 and 84, respectively, against left-handed pitching. This past year, he was a bit better than league-average with a mark of 107. That’s not superstar level, but it’s more than playable and makes things much easier on Alex Cora.
Depending on who you ask, one could say Benintendi’s approach was crisper in 2019, too. The numbers didn’t bear it out, which we’ll get to below, but people — including on the coaching staff — have been wanting more aggression from Red Sox hitters and Benintendi came with it. According to Statcast data, he swung at over 77 percent of pitches in the zone in 2019 and at over 51 percent of total pitches, rates that were up seven and five percentage points, respectively, from 2018. The results weren’t what people hoped, but a mechanical tweak combined with jumping on pitches early in counts could theoretically lead to better results.
Compared to expectations, there were certainly more negatives than positives for Benintendi. After putting up a 122 wRC+ in 2018, he regressed back to a perfectly average 100 wRC+ in 2019. The big issue here was the lack of power. Now, we all know the former first round pick is almost certainly never going to be the prototypical slugging left fielder from earlier this century, and he doesn’t have to be. That said, when he’s at his best he is a guy who can hit 20-25 home runs (although those numbers are more meaningless than ever with so many questions about the state of the baseballs now and moving forward) and 35-45 doubles. He had a .174 Isolated Power in 2018, and it seemed reasonable for him to bump that up by 10-15 points consistently as he got older. Combined with his control of the strike zone and BABIP ability, that would be enough for him to be a very productive hitter.
In 2019, though, he actually took ten points off his ISO. That doesn’t seem that major on the surface, but A) at his age you want to see growth and B) the decline was more than that when you factor in the ballooning of power numbers all around baseball. To put that more clearly, in 2018 his ISO was 13 points higher than the league-average. This past year it was 19 points lower. Perhaps for some reason that I am missing he was less suited to take advantage of the juiced ball than other hitters, but unless someone can show me a convincing reason why that is the case the power is the most concerning part of Benintendi’s game moving forward.
I just mentioned his control of the strike zone there, which had always been a calling card of his since he was a draft prospect. That area of his game took a major step back in 2019, a frankly unacceptable development given his disappointing power output. It would be one thing to sell out a bit for more power. To sell out and still produce less power is a disaster. I mentioned the aggressive approach above in the positives, but here is the argument that it was a bad thing. Benintendi is a naturally patient hitter and he has a rhythm to him in that style. With the more aggressive style he struck out 22 percent of the time and walked only nine percent, both regressions from the year before. If he is only going to be an average-at-best power hitter, they can live with that. However, in that scenario he has to be a guy whose K%-BB% has to be around five percent or lower.
Looking at the left fielder’s Baseball Savant page, one thing that stood out to me was his dramatic drop off in performance against offspeed pitches. Now, I’m really not sure there’s a whole lot to take away from this because this was the pitch type he saw the least in 2019, but he had an expected wOBA of just .276 this past season compared to .384 in 2018 with his whiff rate rising to almost 27 percent from 21 percent. This sample is small enough that I wouldn’t necessarily call this a concern at this point, but I’ll definitely see how pitchers attack him with changeups next year and how he adjusts to it.
This also is a nice segue to the final point, which is that he was really bad against right-handed pitching. This plays into those struggles against offspeed pitches since opposite-handed pitchers will lean on changeups to get opponents when the batter has the platoon advantage. Benintendi, as a result, was a slightly worse-than-average pitcher against righties with a 97 wRC+, ten points worse than his performance against lefties and 38 points worse than 2018. The big difference here goes back to that zone control as his strikeout and walk rates were way off from the year before. It also goes back to the struggle against offspeed pitches, as he was chasing changeups out of the zone and either swinging through them or hitting weak grounders that, at best, would sneak through for a single. It’s a lot easier said than done, but he needs to get back to basics against righties.
The Big Question
So, I covered this pretty extensively above. I won’t totally discount an argument from someone with more technical knowledge of hitting that there is more power to be tapped into for Benintendi with this approach. If he can get an ISO up around .200, his strikeout and walk numbers this year would be just fine. I will freely admit mechanical stuff is far from my specialty, though. All I can do is look at the numbers and say he is probably best served being who he is and thriving with that approach. The ceiling is lower here, but with his hit tool, ability to smack doubles at Fenway and the zone control we’ve seen in the past there is a borderline All-Star waiting to consistently come out. I wouldn’t be upset with that.
There has been some speculation that the Red Sox could or should look to trade Benintendi this winter, which seems wild to me. Given his relative lack of service time and the league’s love for service time he’d get a good return, but his value is also about as low as it will be, at least in my mind. If you think 2019 is about what to expect from him moving forward, than I could see trading him. I certainly don’t believe that to be the case, though, and I don’t believe the Red Sox do either. I would be surprised if he’s not in the starting lineup again on Opening Day, preferably back in left field.