Andrew Benintendi is finally going to be leading off for the Red Sox in 2019 and I could not be happier. Entering his third full professional season, I think the 24-year-old is poised for a breakout year. To this point, it definitely feels like Benny has already done a lot of the right things — like decreasing his strikeout percentage, drawing more walks and getting on-base more often. He’s done all of this while managing to navigate Fenway Park’s left field conundrum pretty seamlessly. And who can forget those two spit-your-coffee-out catches he made in Boston’s World Series run — with the game-saving snag of Alex Bregman’s sinking liner in Game 4 of the ALCS being one of more memorable October moments.
As the leadoff man for what could end up being the best offense in baseball, the stage is set for Benintendi to continue establishing himself as a fixture in the Red Sox’ outfield plans for years to come. Let’s not forget the extension talks with a certain mystery “core player” this offseason that some believed was Benintendi. No deal was ever announced, but the thought of one could be a great motivator for someone who knows money might be about to get tight. (I don’t necessarily consider extending Benny to be a priority right now but might as well lock someone up if you can I guess.)
It doesn’t seem fair to compare anyone to Mookie Betts — so we should try our best not to do that — but I think this minor lineup tweak could help arguably the league’s best offense already reach new heights. I have been dreaming of this day for so so long now and I am glad that Alex Cora clearly started reading my blogs. Benintendi filled in for an injured Betts in the No. 1 spot in 21 games last season, compiling a .322/.381/.598 slash line and five home runs to boot. In 120 games in the No. 2 spot, he hit .285/.364/.445 with 11 home runs. Benintendi has already proven to be more than serviceable in the leadoff role and I have faith in him to continue building on that.
As with any leadoff hitter, Benny’s No. 1 priority will be to get on-base. Making the opposing pitcher face Betts, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts with a runner on in the first inning seems like a cheat code to an early lead and I have a feeling it will result in one more often than it won’t. Benintendi drew a career-high 71 walks last season and his walk rate of 10.1 percen was the 12th best in the American League among qualified batters. He also held the second-lowest strikeout rate on the Red Sox with 16.0 — behind only Betts (14.8%).
Benintendi won’t just be expected to get on base via the walk. He’s going to see plenty of quality pitches with Betts and Martinez looming. Opposing teams will see him as the easiest out of the three and their strategy may reflect that. With David Ortiz in the No. 3 spot in 2016, 47.6% of the pitches Betts saw were in the strike zone, compared to 43.9% the year after Ortiz retired, according to Fangraphs. Benintendi has always been a good contact hitter who should be able to capitalize on that in his new role.
I know I am not the only person hoping that the progress he made from 2017 to 2018 was a sign of things to come, more than a flash in the pan. I mean, he was the seventh overall pick in 2015 so this is probably about where the Sox expected him to be at 24, but we’ve seen enough top prospects flame out to know that his success this far is still impressive. There have certainly been bumps along the way — like that 0-for-26 skid during his rookie season in 2017 — but his ability to rebound from that proves he has the short-term memory mindset that every great baseball player needs. Since then, he’s really been the definition of consistent and that might be what inspired Cora to flip things around up top. At the very least, I think the switch shows how much confidence Cora has in the young star.
The area I think Benintendi lacks the most in comparison to Betts is baserunning — but I won’t count that against him considering the reigning MVP is … well, the reigning MVP. Mookie joined the prestigious 30-30 club last season (32 HR, 30 SB) after just missing it in 2016. Per Statcast, Benintendi (27.8 feet per second) is just a few ticks slower than Betts (28.1), but he seems much more prone to frustrating base running errors — which can probably be attributed to youth to some degree. Regardless, Benny is fast and smart and he’s going to score plenty of runs, especially considering the lineup he has behind him. Everyone just needs to be prepared for a mental mistake every once in awhile and we’ll do our best to get through it together. This could end up being one of the best Boston lineups of my lifetime and I am determined to enjoy it. You in?