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One Big Question: Are Andrew Benintendi’s 2019 strikeouts here to stay?

I sure hope not!

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Andrew Benintendi.

The Big Question: Is Andrew Benintendi’s 2019 strikeout rate the new normal?

For the last few years, the thing with Andrew Benintendi has been his power. What I mean by “the thing,” of course, is the thing that we have most complained about. Benintendi was the top prospect in baseball before he got to the majors, and with that obviously comes with huge expectations. He has been good for two of his four years in the majors and about average in the other two. A consistent factor hanging over said performance has been the lack of standout power, particularly in his good years where it’s held him back from being great.

At this point, though, I think I’m kind of coming to terms with the fact that Benintendi might just not develop that power. That’s not to say he can’t — I certainly think he can be a 20-homer hitter, at least — but that it’s not worth focusing on that and only that year in and year out. Benintendi, at his best, has enough skills to be a very good hitter without hitting the ball over the fence. In 2018, for example, he finished with a 122 wRC+ with only 16 homers.

Last year, though, that wRC+ fell to just an exactly average 100, which is both not great for a left fielder nor for someone with his pedigree. The power was part of that, too, as he hit only 13 homers and put up a .165 Isolated Power in a year when power was booming across baseball. What stands out more to me than the power, however, is the plate discipline.

This has long been the best part of Benintendi’s game at the plate, as he’s been able to control the strike zone and use that to his advantage to get good pitches to hit and spray line drives all over the field. Last year, his walk rate fell to 9.6 percent, a good rate but a full percentage point below his previous two seasons. His strikeout rate, meanwhile, jumped up to 22.8 percent, about seven percentage points higher than 2018 and about six higher than 2017. It’s that that I want to focus on today.

I said above that Benintendi can be good even without standout power, and it’s the ability to make contact that makes it possible. He was able to stay afloat at times in 2019 because his hit tool is good enough and he can turn batted balls into hits very well, but the ceiling is severely limited if he’s striking out like this unless there is more power. Last year at this time, I wondered about what Benintendi would look like if he sold out for more power. I don’t know if that’s what he was doing, but if it is, A) it didn’t work and B) I hated it.

Looking into the issues a little more, there were a few interesting points I want to touch on, starting with the obvious. Benintendi swung and missed a lot more. In fact, he swung a lot more, which may lend some credence to that idea of selling out for power. Per Baseball Savant, his swing rate jumped from 46 percent to 51 percent while the rate of pitches he saw in the zone fell from 48 percent to 46 percent. Predictably, a big part of his increased swinging strike rate came on pitches out of the zone.

Also predictably, after his good 2018 he also saw fewer fastballs, which makes sense. Pitchers aren’t going to be eager to feed a good hitter a bunch of fastballs. Also, it’s a lot harder to lay off breaking ball or offspeed pitch than a fastball. At least, that is what one would think. Interestingly, the swing charts don’t really reflect that with Benintendi. Look at the pitches he was chasing in 2019 compared to 2018.

2019; via Baseball Savant
2018; via Baseball Savant

There was a big jump in pitches down and in, which certainly would apply to breaking balls and offspeed pitches. The bigger jump, though, was up and away. Some of those were probably poorly located non-fastballs, but for the most part he was chasing fastballs. A similar trend is seen with the whiff rates.

2019; via Baseball Savant
2018; Baseball Savant

Again, there are jumps everywhere, but the big one is up and away. This would suggest he had trouble with fastballs out of the zone more than any other pitch. The overall numbers don’t totally bear this out — his whiff rate (per Baseball Savant) against all three types of pitches jumped by roughly the same amount — but in terms of the pitches out of the zone it sure seems like the fastball was the big issue.

On top of all that, what was most interesting to me was the issue Benintendi had after falling behind early. In 2018, he struck out only 20 percent of the time after seeing a first-pitch strike. Among the 279 hitters who had at least 150 0-1 counts, that ranked 40th. Then, in 2019, that rate jumped up to 32 percent, ranking 183rd among 280 hitters. That is a massive jump in the wrong direction. Weirdly enough, as far as I could tell there was no substantial change in approach from pitchers after getting ahead 0-1. This was just Benintendi being a totally different, and worse, hitter under the same circumstances.

So, what does all of this mean? I get the impression — and this is total speculation — that Benintendi got a little into his own head, first trying to take a leap at the start of the year then pressing when things didn’t go well. That played out on a macro level judging by his end-of-year numbers and also on a more granular level with the numbers on 0-1 counts. Before Alex Cora left the Red Sox, he mentioned that Benintendi had come in last season in different shape. Not out of shape, but bigger. The way I read that was that he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. Tim Hyers said more recently that Benintendi has dropped weight ahead of this year, which seems like a good sign to me. To answer the question, I think Benintendi should cut down that strikeout rate, and the biggest factor just seems to be accepting who he is and being the best possible version of that, which is a very good player. Even if it’s short of being a great one.