If you follow the minor leagues at all it is very weird to think that Andrew Benintendi was once the number one prospect in baseball. Obviously being the number one ranked anything is subjective to year-over-year fluctuations in the overall talent pool, but I cannot imagine rating out a surging Beni over at least 7-8 of the top prospects in the game today. Perhaps for that reason I should not be disappointed in him, along with many other reasons, but I kind of am.
I am not generally disappointed. Generally I am pretty happy, because Beni was an integral part of the 2018 World Series team insofar as he made The Catch and also did a ton of other stuff very competently, especially for a very young player. He turned 26 on Monday and the best is very likely still ahead, even if 2019 was a down year. Especially if he reads this column which, out of embarrassment, I hope he doesn’t.
A thing I noticed very early about Benintendi is that he likes to game his at-bats to the point that every one risks becoming belabored. For someone with such good on-base skills, it never seems to come easy. His pitch recognition skills seem pretty good, but they seem honed toward the pitch he thinks he’s coming, and only that pitch. He is very good at this game, but he is less good at adjusting when he’s wrong, or so goes my thesis here for which I have a smattering of data. That thesis is that Benintendi should hit balls that are thrown down the fat, honking middle of the plate more often than he currently does.
In a nice case of anecdotal data matching the truth, I was poking around Benintendi’s Brooks Baseball page and found that, except in rare instances, he was in fact subpar in the damn bullseye relative to the rest of the grid, and sometimes just subpar overall. I have always found this weird because Benintendi is a good hitter, and I can’t recall the last good hitter I saw who just whiffed on so many spicy meatballs in the service of lacing weird-looking doubles down the line.
The only conclusion I can draw is that he’s guessing on every pitch, except maybe the first one, at which he is clearly sometimes going for no matter what. There was a lot of that last year across the league, of course, and generally it’s understood to be good practice, so I like it. It’s the other pitches that actively frustrate me except when it works out. Those times I also like, I just would like to conjure them more often.
I see this approach manifesting itself not merely through occasional, conspicuous whiffs on batting practice-level fastballs, but in his power. Beni is strong, and when he gets ahold of one it’s clear exactly just how strong, but he’s not a power hitter, and this seems to partially be why. He leans on his brain, not his brawn, and to his credit this is what we usually tell people to do inside of baseball and out, all the way down to kindergarten, usually to weed out bullies.
Beni could stand to be a bully. As he enters his fifth season, he has watched his home run totals fall since he hit 20 in 2017, but even then his slugging percentage was .424, the lowest mark of his career. Last year it was .431. In a league where the ball has led to a great many “happy accident” dingers, he’s somehow cutting against the tide.
All I want is for him to sail with it. The natural advantages of the live-ball era should supplement his game, not constrict it, and after a disappointing 2019 I wouldn’t be surprised to see a step forward in his power game. It’s overdue, frankly, and it starts down the heart of the plate.