FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the wake of his disappointing 2019 season, one number in particular made Andrew Benintendi wince: 140.
That was how many times Benintendi struck out last season, blowing away his previous career high. He made a U-turn to the dugout following a strikeout at the conclusion of 22.8 percent of his plate appearances in 2019, up from 16 percent in 2018.
The whiff spike was shocking for a player whose tremendous hand-eye coordination and natural ability to barrel the ball had led to projections of a potential batting champion as he was coming through the minors and early in his big league career.
“It felt like a complete 180 of who I thought I was,” Benintendi reflected.
The 25-year-old finished 2019 with a .266 average, .343 OBP, .431 slugging mark, 13 homers, and 10 steals, a painful drop from the 2018 season (.290/.366/.465 with 16 homers and 21 steals) that Benintendi views as more representative of his abilities. That player is the one the Red Sox need the left fielder to be in 2020, as the team moved forward without Mookie Betts.
So, what happened? Some evaluators believe that amid baseball’s offensive explosion, Benintendi was selling out his clean, simple swing in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to generate more power. Benintendi doesn’t agree with such a view.
“I think it was overall just a bad year,” said Benintendi. “In the end, for me, [trying to swing for] more power — I don’t know, I’m 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, and it’s the biggest right field in baseball. I’m not going to be hitting a bunch of homers at Fenway.”
Benintendi suggests he’s happy to live with regular hard contact that yields singles and doubles, and doesn’t use the number of times he clears the fences as a barometer of performance. In 2019, however, Benintendi believes that his struggles related to a loss of discipline and an inability to limit his swings to pitches in the strike zone.
“What really hurt me last year was just swinging at pitches out of the zone, trying to chase,” said Benintendi.
Certainly, Benintendi did see a marked increase in the number of pitches he attacked in 2019. He swung at more pitches inside the zone but, as he suggested, there was also a marked increase in the number of pitches he chased out of the zone, a number that spiked from 27.0 percent in 2018 to 33.6 percent in 2019. That is not a recipe for hard contact.
Nonetheless, Benintendi’s struggles last year may have run deeper than his inability to narrow the strike zone. He swung and missed far more frequently not only at pitches outside the strike zone but those inside of it. That easy ability to put the ball in play and to shoot liners all over the field disappeared.
His offense wasn’t the only part of his game that suffered. Benintendi’s defense also took a hit. Statcast measures “Outs Above Average,” a measure of the number of plays an outfielder makes relative to his average peer based on the time a ball is in the air and the distance an outfielder must travel to catch it.
|PITCH LOCATION||2018 (%)||2019 (%)|
|Outside the zone||27||33.6|
|Inside the zone||66.3||71.5|
|PITCH LOCATION||2018 (%)||2019 (%)|
|Outside the zone||23.5||31.1|
|Inside the zone||12.5||17.4|
In 2018, Benintendi ranked as a roughly league average outfielder (one out below average, per the metric) — a strong number for a left fielder. In 2019, Benintendi delivered 10 fewer outs than an average player based on his opportunities — sixth worst among 92 qualifying outfielders.
The Sox are hopeful that Benintendi has positioned himself for a bounceback season. After dealing with a number of injuries that he described as “self-inflicted” at the beginning and end of the year — mostly a remarkable run of foul balls off of his feet and legs — he is rested and healthy. Moreover, interim manager Ron Roenicke believes that Benintendi is in better physical condition than a year ago, and thus is positioned to let his natural athleticism make more of an impact.
“He’s in better shape,” said Roenicke. “He comes to spring training realizing he needs to be heavy because he always loses weight and doesn’t want to get too thin. But this year, he came lighter. Hopefully he can keep the weight on, but I think [the lighter weight] will help his running. It will help everything.”
Additionally, Benintendi believes he did the work this offseason to position himself for a more familiar performance at the plate. Hitting coach Tim Hyers and assistant Peter Fatse went twice to St. Louis to work with Benintendi during the offseason. He also spent more time facing live pitching this winter than the previous one in hopes of sharpening his selectivity and timing.
How those efforts translate remains to be seen — and will have a considerable impact on what kind of offense the Red Sox feature in 2020.
“I’ve just got to learn to bounce back,” said Benintendi. “It’s a new year. What’s in the past is in the past and I’m just looking forward.”