In some ways, it would have been the perfect ending to a hitting streak.
Outfielder Andrew Benintendi stepped to the plate in Frederick, Md., in the eighth inning Wednesday, his 15-game hitting streak in jeopardy after three hitless at-bats, and promptly accepted a four-pitch walk — something that pointed to his priority for a solid offensive approach over personal feats.
“I really didn’t even realize how many games it was until someone told me,” said Benintendi. “That’s the last thing I was thinking about. I was thinking about going up there, putting a good at-bat together, putting together a quality at-bat.”
But with the stacked Salem Red Sox lineup batting around against the Orioles’ high Single A affiliate, Benintendi got another opportunity. He didn’t waste it, crunching a three-run homer that marked his first long ball in high Single A and extended his hitting streak to 16 games.
While the 2015 first-rounder sustained that run, another even more remarkable stretch came to an end in the fifth inning of the same game, when he swung and missed at a 3-and-1 pitch in an at-bat that concluded with a strikeout.
According to Salem director of broadcasting and media relations Kevin Burke, Benintendi hadn’t swung and missed since a disputed check swing on April 16 (a call Benintendi disputed with sufficient vehemence to garner the first ejection of his career). His last real swing-and-miss, Burke noted, occurred on April 14 — a span of 13 days and 60 swings between whiffs.
“One thing I try to do is not to give away at-bats,” said Benintendi. “I think so far this season, I haven’t been giving away too many.”
The streak attests to Benintendi’s advanced skill as a hitter. Evaluators from two American League organizations gave the 21-year-old a grade of 70 — on a scale of 20-80 — for his ability as a pure hitter, a grade usually reserved for potential All-Stars and batting titlists.
“In seven years,” said one of the evaluators, “I have only put four 70/80 final grades on position players I saw in A ball: [Mike] Trout, [Bryce] Harper, [Mookie] Betts, and Benintendi.”
Through 19 games, Benintendi is shredding the Carolina League, hitting .338/.395/.636 with more walks (6) and extra-base hits (15) than strikeouts (5).
So, too, is second baseman Yoan Moncada, who despite having a 15-game hitting streak end with an 0-for-4 night Wednesday is hitting .324/.447/.441 with 13 steals (though with 20 strikeouts).
“[Moncada] has shown good control of the strike zone,” said Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “He’s certainly shown the ability to impact the baseball pretty consistently, and obviously when he’s been on the bases, he’s been a force.
“He’s still making improvements on defense. That remains an area of focus. He flashes the great play and is trying to be more consistent.”
The early performances of the duo raise questions about whether the Red Sox might move quickly to promote them to Double A Portland, suspicions that were amplified by the visit of Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to Salem last weekend.
Dombrowski noted that his visit was driven in part by a desire to become familiar with the behind-the-scenes operations of the organization’s affiliates, but he did concede the obvious about the talent of a Salem group that features the organization’s three highest-ranked players in Moncada, Benintendi, and third baseman Rafael Devers.
“There’s no question when you see guys like Moncada, Benintendi, and Devers that they’re special players,” said Dombrowski. “You don’t see that type of talent too often, having three players like that on one team.
“And there are other talented guys, too, but those three guys get all the attention. It’s a special place to go watch a guy play.”
In recent years, the Sox have typically waited until at least the All-Star break before promoting players to Double A (Garin Cecchini, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jacoby Ellsbury).
Yet Benintendi might be more advanced as a hitter at this stage of his career than all of them. Crockett noted that promotion decisions are taken individually, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all timetable for advancing.
Players such as the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber (who opened 2015 in Double A and went straight to the big leagues in June) and the Mets’ Michael Conforto (promoted from high Single A to Double A in late May last year) emerged as big league contributors one year after they were drafted.
Some evaluators believe Benintendi has a chance to fly through the minors at a similar pace, with Moncada not far behind.
Have they dominated the Carolina League to the point where a promotion would be imminent?
“That’s hard to say,” said Dombrowski. “They’re really talented and they’re excelling at this point, but after three weeks of the season, I think you want to hold your judgments to yourself at this point. You don’t want to rush it. I think you need a little bit more time than that.”
The Sox have yet to start internal conversations about a timetable for promoting Benintendi or Moncada. The organization continues to see benefits in letting the two play in Salem, where Carolina League pitchers will start to adjust their plans of attack in a way that will force the duo to make offensive adjustments — all with the accumulated reservoir of confidence drawn from their early successes.
“Both guys at times are getting beat,” said Crockett. “I think they’re learning from those experiences. Everybody is going to go through ups and downs over the course of the season. I think to be able to do that in a place where you’ve had success and can learn from that and then make the requisite adjustments going forward, I think that’s what you’re looking for.”
All the same, barring a drastic slide, the promotion question is increasingly one of when, not if, for Benintendi and Moncada.
Finding the right slot
Righthander Teddy Stankiewicz likes to tinker — sometimes to his benefit, sometimes to his detriment. Entering the 2015 season, an experiment meant to create a bubbling Bunsen burner instead proved more inhibitor than catalyst.
At the start of the year in high Single A Salem, Stankiewicz employed a lower arm slot. Though he sustained his fastball velocity (comfortably 90-94, occasionally up to 95-96), his four-pitch mix flattened in a way that significantly affected his ability to miss bats.
In 25 starts, he went 5-11 with a 4.01 ERA and just 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Even as he recognized that his experiment had gone awry, he couldn’t adjust his mechanics in-season.
“I try out different things sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. That was a case where it didn’t work out.”
In the offseason, Stankiewicz returned to a more traditional arm slot, which has created better angle on all of his pitches in the early stages of his season in Portland — particularly on a slider that has started diving below barrels for swings and misses. He has a 1.12 ERA with 6.8 strikeouts and 1.5 walks per nine innings through four starts (all no-decisions), each time working six innings and allowing no more than one earned run.
“The lower arm slot wasn’t as good,” said Stankiewicz. “I would release the pitches high and they’d sink right back to the middle. That’s not my cup of tea.
“For me, it’s better to have a higher arm slot to create more angle and get to the lower part of the strike zone instead of trying to sling it in there.
“The results are outstanding.”
Blake Swihart isn’t the only one in Triple A Pawtucket who is expanding his positional profile to include the outfield. Marco Hernandez, who has spent most of his career at shortstop but also has played third and second base, played his first career game in the outfield Monday, going 3 for 5 in left. The versatility merely adds to Hernandez’s rapidly growing value as a lefthanded hitter with middle-of-the-field defensive abilities. The 22-year-old, acquired from the Cubs as a player to be named for Felix Doubront, is hitting .357/.400/.500 in Pawtucket . . . Third baseman Michael Chavis, off to a tremendous start in Single A Greenville (.356/.415/.576), suffered a left thumb injury last Sunday and is on Greenville’s seven-day disabled list. Crockett said the 20-year-old will be seen in Boston next week to determine the proper course of treatment, including whether surgery will be needed.