Andrew Benintendi hopped around the batting cage, shaking his hands with discomfort after getting blown up by an offering from a high-speed pitching machine set up on the Fenway Park mound Monday afternoon.
“That machine,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers, “does not play favorites.”
On a day when an early-morning return to Boston had led to the cancellation of batting practice, Benintendi — along with J.D. Martinez, who probably would accept an offer to hit outside in a blizzard — continued his search for a solution to his post-All-Star-break struggles.
Benintendi posted a .297/.380/.517 line with 14 homers and 44 extra-base hits through his first 91 games of the year. That production from the No. 2 hole left opposing pitchers gasping for breath as they tried to navigate the top of the Red Sox lineup.
After the break? It’s a different story.
Benintendi is hitting .271/.337/.376, getting on base at a better-than-league-average level, but with almost no power. His swing remains intact with his upper body, but he has struggled to synch it up with his lower half in a way that permits him to drive the ball. That was evident during the batting practice session Monday, when the timing of Benintendi’s balance transfer from his back to his front leg shifted several times.
“He’s trying to make sure his body works with his hands and not just use his hands over body,” said Hyers. “I’m a big believer that the relationship with the ground is so important. Sometimes [his front foot is] late and he’s in no man’s land. That’s a bad position to be in.”
Benintendi’s average exit velocity since the break (88.5 miles per hour) is almost identical to what it was before it (88.4). Moreover, he’s striking out less (13.3 percent) than he did (17.5 percent).
So what’s happening?
Despite his ability to use the entire field, Benintendi’s power comes when he pulls the ball. Of his 38 career homers, 33 have come to the right of dead center field; 13 of his 14 pre-break long balls were to the right of dead center.
But Benintendi hasn’t been pulling the ball since the break. According to Fangraphs, his pull rate has dropped from 41.6 to 34.4 percent. Moreover, his ground-ball rate has jumped from 37.7 to 45.8 percent.
In other words, his hands are quick enough to make firm contact, but instead of catching the ball in front of the plate where he can drive it, he’s been making contact while swinging down on the ball at the back of the strike zone, with little impact to show for it.
“I was trying to see pitches so long that I was getting beat,” said Benintendi. “I was going the other way so much throughout the second half. I felt like that’s all I was trying to do.
“My swing feels the same. It’s just, I think that since I’ve been trying to see it so long, I’m waiting too long basically to fire.”
Before the break, roughly two of every three balls he hit with an exit velocity of 100+ m.p.h. — the ones with the best chance of getting out of the park — were in the outfield (meaning in the air) and pulled to the right of center field.
Since the break, roughly two of every three balls in play with an exit velocity of 100+ m.p.h. have been either to infielders or between the left field line and dead center field.
And so, rather than slamming batting-practice offerings around the park Monday, Benintendi wanted to see velocity so that he could work on being more aggressive to the ball to drive pitches in the air. The first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader against Baltimore represented progress.
Benintendi jumped on a 95 m.p.h. fastball and tattooed it at 102 m.p.h. off the far right edge of the Green Monster, just to the left of dead-center. Had he caught it slightly farther in front, the swing would have produced a homer, but as it was, it resulted in his career-high 40th double of the year — and marked the first time in just over two weeks that he’d hit a ball at 100+ m.p.h. in the air.
Such a sign is significant for the Sox as they prepare for the postseason, where Benintendi has already demonstrated an ability to hold his own against elite pitching. He homered in his first postseason at-bat in 2016, and he also delivered a go-ahead homer off Astros ace Justin Verlander in Game 4 of last year’s ALDS.
Now he hopes to build on those moments, and to reestablish the swing that made him a standout in the first half of this year. In a long season, such a quest was worth extra work on an afternoon when most of his teammates were given a reprieve.