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One Big Question: Can Andrew Benintendi get back to putting the ball in play?

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Start with the basics, and then go from there.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Andrew Benintendi.

The Question: Can Andrew Benintendi start making more contact?

One of the big storylines for the Red Sox through this whole winter has been what they will do with Andrew Benintendi. Entering the winter it was all speculation, but talk of trading him made some sense as the market was flush with potential replacements and if they could get pitching help it was worth at least exploring. Then, as we got deeper into the winter that speculation turned into bona fide rumors, with about a week or so where it really looked like a trade was imminent. Those rumors have since slowed down, though, and it’s been a while since we’ve heard anything of substance. That’s not to say a trade can’t still happen, of course. These kinds of talks can pick back up at the drop of a hat.

But still, for now the assumption has to be that he is on the roster, which itself isn’t a terrible outcome. It always made sense to see what was out there, but it never made sense to make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. There is still some hope for Benintendi, even though things have been brutal of late. Last season in particular he looked totally lost when he finished with a 44 wRC+, meaning he was a whopping 56 percent worse than league-average. On the other hand, it was 12 games. Rafael Devers was just as bad through two weeks, but he remained healthy and took advantage of the opportunity turn it around. Given the tiny sample, I’m willing to mostly toss aside any concerns from Benintendi last season.

That’s not the end of the issues, though. The Red Sox left fielder has really been trending in the wrong direction since midway through 2018, albeit not nearly to the extent of last season. Instead, he’s just been mostly average in that stretch, and as his athleticism keeps escaping him and playing center field becomes less and less of a possibility, a league-average hitter simply isn’t a difference maker. And there have been issues all over the place for Benintendi, with improvements being available in just about every area possible. But to me, it makes sense to start with the basics and then work his way back up from there. And that means just starting with putting the ball back in play.

Coming up as the top prospect in baseball, the hit tool was the part of Benintendi’s game that made so many scouts fall in love with the potential. The athleticism and power potential were there as well, but it was the plus hit tool that allowed to many to buy in at a high degree. And early in his career, the former first rounder showed it off. Benintendi struck out at a rate of 17 percent in his first full season and then 16 percent the following year in 2018. In today’s era, that’s very good. In the last two seasons, though, that rate has jumped to 23 percent in 2019 and 33 percent last summer. Again, your mileage may vary on how much you’d like to read into the 2020 rate, but things were trending poorly the summer before as well.

As one might expect, the increased strikeout rate was accompanied by a swinging strike rate heading in the wrong direction as well. Similarly to the strikeout rate, the now-26-year-old’s whiff rate per Baseball Savant went from 19 percent in both 2017 and 2018 to 25 percent in 2019 and 33 percent in 2020. And given the big jump, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that he has been making less contact on pitches both in and out of the zone. However, it is the contact in the zone that is much more concerning, both because the drop is more noticeable and also because these are obviously the pitches you want a hit tool-oriented player to be making contact on.

When I see a player start to make significantly less contact on pitches in the zone — Benintendi’s contact rate in the zone peaked at 87 percent in 2017 and was down to 79 percent in 2019, again per Baseball Savant — the natural next question is: Where in the zone is he struggling? Sometimes that question can be a little murky with small whiff rate increases all over the place. Benintendi did see some increases throughout the zone, but the inner third of the zone stood out like a sore thumb in comparing his 2018 and 2019 seasons. (The sample in 2020 is small enough that he only swung at 16 pitches total in the inner third, making this kind of analysis meaningless for that season.)

via Baseball Savant
via Baseball Savant

Again, the inner third wasn’t the only portion of the zone that saw a jump in swinging strikes. Middle-away in particular sticks out as well with a ten-point jump. However, all three zones in the inner-third saw fairly significant increases here. And failing to make contact on these pitches doesn’t just affect the strikeout rate. These are also pitches that a hitter who is at his best should be turning on and hitting with authority.

Benintendi has been struggling with power as well as contact rate. He’s actually hitting the ball fairly well in terms of exit velocity, but his Isolated Power fell to .165 in 2019. And remember, that was a season with a juiced ball and big power numbers across the league. But it makes sense if Benintendi is moving his contact away from the inner half, as it’s much more difficult to hit the ball the other way for power than it is on pitches on the inner half.

But as I said at the top, we are talking about a player who really just needs to get back to basics. The power needs to be addressed, but that’s step two. To start, he needs to get back to who he was early in his career and what made him such an exciting prospect. He’ll be 26 for half of this season, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill. But he’s getting to the point where he’s no longer really considered young. This is a big season for Benintendi, and the Red Sox need him to get on track to take this lineup to another level. If he can start by just putting the ball in play like he once did, the rest should hopefully follow quickly after that.