Can the former star outfielder reclaim a key role in the Boston offense?
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
If you’ve followed Red Sox baseball over the past 2 seasons, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the production of Andrew Benintendi at the plate. The former top prospect recorded a line of .266 BA/.343 OBP/.431 SLG in 651 plate appearances in 2019, followed by a dismal .103/.314/.128 showing in 2020 over 52 plate appearances. He did deal with a strained right rib cage in 2020 but overall injury has not seemed to be a factor in his dip in production at the plate. So what are the underlying reasons for Benny’s 2 season slump and is there hope for a rebound in 2021?
As recently as 2018, Benintendi was regarded as one of the better top of the lineup hitters in baseball, registering a line of .290/.366/.465 that season with an above-average 122 wRC+ (100 wRC+ is league average hitting production). He earned a spot on the AL All Star roster that year and was an overall key piece of the 2018 World Series team. At the age of 24 and coming off his best season yet in the Majors, expectations were high for Benny to become a star in a dynamic Sox offense that also featured Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and the rapidly ascending Rafael Devers. However, signs of decline started to show in 2019 when Benny’s wRC+ fell to 103 in the first half of the season and then 96 in the second half. Essentially Benny went from being a star outfielder to roughly league-average, not necessarily cause for panic but certainly concerning given his age and performance up to that point. A 2020 rebound would have put minds at ease, however he was abysmal in a small showing then, registering just a 43 wRC+ in those 52 plate appearances before a strained rib cage cut his season short.
Taking a look at his batted ball metrics, on the surface, his decline is quite puzzling. His hard hit percentage and exit velocity actually increased from 2018 to 2019.
Baseball Savant/MLB Advanced Media, LP
His expected batting average, OBP, and slugging percentages were also all in line with his 2018 numbers for 2019. His walk rate dropped by 1.1% to 9.6%, but that is still quite good in today’s MLB. According to those metrics, he should have produced roughly the same in 2019 that he did in 2018.
However, there are a few red flags that pop up when you dig further into his profile. First - Benny’s average launch angle skyrocketed from 12.8 degrees in 2018 to 17.3 degrees in 2019. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for most players, but for a player like Benintendi who has historically been light on raw power and more focused on being an all-fields line drive hitter, that is a problem. The result was less line drives falling for hits and more fly outs for Benny that season. In 2020 his launch angle regressed to 8.6 degrees, possibly indicating a shift in approach for Benny to return to his line-drive ways of old. 52 plate appearances is too small of a sample to tell for sure if that was his intent though.
Secondly, Benintendi began striking out a lot more. His K rate swelled from 16% in 2018 to 22.8% in 2019 all the way to 32.7% in 2020. Digging even further into that strikeout rate doesn’t offer much encouragement.
Baseball Savant/MLB Advanced Media, LP
Honing in on Benny’s whiff rate, you can see that his swing and miss percentage increased roughly the same amount on fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches from 2018 to 2019. In 2020 he whiffed on offspeed pitches a gut-wrenching 47.6% of the time (again - a small sample size but still concerning nonetheless). Also concerning in his profile is his expected slugging (XSLG) against offspeed pitches. Hitting offspeed pitches was his biggest strength as a hitter in 2018 but it became a weakness for him in 2019. His XSLG dropped from .516 down to .383 that year, and the trend only continued in 2020. Interestingly, Benny did slightly better against fastballs in 2019 than in 2018, a further indication that he was selling out for those pitches.
So is there hope for a rebound for Benintendi in 2021? Assuming he’s healthy it’s possible, although it will not be easy. Benintendi seems to have tried to join the launch-angle movement in baseball by selling out for power and hunting fastballs and the results were not pretty. That kind of hitting approach works for some with elite raw power, but Benny has never been a player with elite raw power. Rather he excelled early in his career with good fundamentals at the plate, the ability to hit all types of pitches for line drives, and his knack for consistently getting on base hitting towards the top of the lineup. Perhaps the pressure of being a star outfielder at the top of the lineup for Boston got to him a bit. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but I believe with an adjustment in his approach at the plate with less of an emphasis on hitting fly balls and more on line drives/getting on base, Benny can return as a mainstay in the Boston lineup.
I think it would probably be in Alex Cora’s best interests to continue to give him low leverage AB’s towards the bottom of the lineup and hope that he can work things out over the next season. He is in a Red Sox uniform until 2023 and given the lack of top hitting outfielders in the Red Sox farm system he is likely the best option in left field in any case until then. However, if Benny’s hitting trends continue to decline and the Red Sox return to being a contending team in the short term, Cora may be faced with a difficult choice to move on from the Benny reclamation project.