Going Deep: Breaking Down Andrew Benintendi’s 2019
After two strong seasons in the bigs, Andrew Benintendi was a popular pick in the third round of drafts this year. Despite that, he has largely been a disappointment, currently ranking 180th overall according to Yahoo 5×5 rankings. In fact, prior to last season, Ben Palmer and I argued about Benintendi’s viability in standard leagues, given his lefty-righty splits. But his struggles this season have gone beyond that, so let’s look at Benintendi’s performance this season and whether or not he should improve moving forward. First, let’s look at Benintendi’s statcast production thus far this year:
Those charts on the right side are extraordinarily underwhelming and borderline concerning, and we will discuss the issues inherent in them. But let us start in my favorite place: plate discipline.
I often find plate discipline to be the best place to start in evaluating hitters because of the vast sample size; so let’s check out Benintendi’s 2019 numbers versus his career numbers.
Clearly, there are contact issues in Benintendi’s profile this season; the reduced contact rate and increased swinging strike rate both support his increased strikeout rate, a change that corresponds with significantly increased swing rate overall. So let’s dig deeper into the specific pitch types to see if we can identify the root cause of these issues.
Initially, it appears we should be concerned by the darker blue line, representing splitters, but Benintendi has only seen 12 of those, representing 1.1% of his pitches, so it’s incredibly unlikely that splitters have caused any kind of difference. It’s particularly concerning that Benintendi is whiffing more against all different pitch types. But perhaps there is too much noise looking at individual pitch types, so it might help to look at pitch groups instead.
It’s no secret that Benintendi has never been known for his power. The former first-rounder smacked 20 bombs in 2017 and followed it up with 16 last year, cementing the idea that he is a 15-20 homer threat. So far, this year, he has 7 in 285 PAs, a 16 homer pace over the 660ish PAs he’s recorded the last two seasons, so he’s right in line with last year. You might be inclined to say that he’s basically the same player in that department that he has been, but he’s actually made some interesting changes in the power department.
Benintendi has posted low barrel/batted ball event rates for most of his career—5.5% in 2017 and 6.4% in 2018—but he’s upped that figure to 9.7% in 2019, corresponding with a significant shift in his profile that has resulted in the following changes as well:
Hitting more balls in the air increases the chances that one can hit a barrel, so it’s not surprising that Benintendi has hit more barrels this year. What is surprising is that his HR/FB% has dropped from 11.2% in 2017 to 9.4% in 2018 to 8.5% in 2019. This whole time, Benintendi’s Exit Velocity on FBs and LDs has stayed pretty much the same, suggesting that either his HR/FB shouldn’t be dropping like this, or it shouldn’t have been so high in the first place. Considering he is a lefty in the AL East, I’m inclined to say it’s the former and it’s quite possible that Benintendi improves his HR production moving forward.
Benintendi’s greatest weakness last year appeared to be breaking balls, as he finished with a .228 average, .283 wOBA, and an 18% putaway rate (percentage of 2-strike pitches resulting in a strikeout). While Benintendi’s 2019 numbers look strong on the surface—Benintendi boasts a .300 average on breaking balls this seasons versus a .228 mark last year—the Statcast data suggests otherwise, giving him a .195 xBA and .293 xwOBA. Furthermore, that swinging strike rate has increased every month of the season, from 19.2% in April to 29.2% in May to 33.3% in June.
However, there are reasons for optimism! Despite the increased whiff rate, Benintendi has improved his xBA (.243), xSLG (.636), xwOBA (.364), Exit Velocity (92.7 mph), and putaway rate (13.3%) against breaking balls in June. This corresponds with a 12% drop in Benintendi’s 50 PA rolling strikeout rate since May 22nd (34% to 22%) and a 76 point jump in xwOBA over that same time frame (.305 to .381). One month of improved production does not automatically mean the problem is gone, but the last two seasons, his xBA on breaking balls tended to get better, month by month, as the season went along, so I’m willing to bet he can maintain this improvement moving forward in 2019; we can have some confidence in this happening due to his .318/.388/.545 triple slash over the last two weeks.
If you’re a Benintendi owner, you’re probably pulling your hair out over his lack of counting stats more than anything else. Thus far, he has just 65 R+RBI in 61 games as opposed 190 in 148 games last year and 174 in 151 games the year before. Counting stat production is generally the result of three things: your spot in the batting order, the production of the rest of the team around you, and your performance with runners on base. Let’s look at the last factor first.
So we can rule out the latter. Benintendi has actually performed far better with men on base and in scoring position! So now, let’s see if there have been issues with the Red Sox offense in general by comparing the 2018 and 2019 Red Sox through 69 games.
There’s definitely a drop-off, even if it’s not significant. JD Martinez has spent much of the first half on the mend from back spasms, Mookie Betts has been a shell of his former self, and Jackie Bradley Jr. has been below replacement level offensively; the team has been buoyed offensively mostly by Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers.
This helps explain why Benintendi isn’t driving in runs. Of his 60 starts this year, he’s started 43 in the leadoff spot and 15 in the 2-hole. Therefore, he’s been hitting mostly behind Brock Holt/Mitch Moreland, Bradley, and Michael Chavis, none of whom have been overly impressive in the OBP department. Compare this to last year, when Benintendi hit mostly in the 2-hole between twin MVP candidates Mookie Betts and JD Martinez. This helped both drive guys in and get driven in. I wish I could tell you what the secret to increased counting stat production from Benintendi is, but as Betts and Martinez return to production and health, respectively, the counting stats should climb.
It’s important to note that “counting stats” includes both HRs and SBs as well, so let’s look at those figures as well. Thus far, Benintendi has 7 steals in 61 games, putting him on pace for 18 over 160 games. Of course, Benintendi won’t play 160 games this year; he’s already missed 3 after fouling a ball off his foot. So let’s scale it out to 150, which is roughly what he played the last two seasons, taking him to 17. At first glance, that seems like a non-issue because 17 is a stone’s throw from the 21 and 20 he’s posted the last two years, but there is reason for concern here. Take a look at Benintendi’s sprint speed since debuting three years ago:
|Sprint Speed (mph)||HP to 1st||OF Rank||Age Rank||Lg Rank||% Rank|
*Data not available
There’s a lot of reason for concern in those numbers. One doesn’t normally drop from the 89th percentile in sprint speed to the 43rd with a consistent decline over three years, all while in their 20s. Even if we tried to attribute it to age, which we shouldn’t do for a guy who is 24 years old, we can also see Benintendi’s speed dropping relative to the guys his own age. Perhaps we’re seeing the effects of that April foot injury and this will all go away with time, but his speed was down in 2018 as well without an apparent injury to speak of. Despite this, he’s still attempting stolen bases at roughly the same rate and has been successful at roughly the same rate; so perhaps there’s nothing to worry about. His SBot, although we can’t calculate it for this year, declined by 1.9% from 2017 to 2018, ending at a somewhat mediocre 12.63%; but again, that’s not enough for us to say there are any long-term concerns with SBot. And Austin Bristow pointed out in that article that steals and sprint speed are not directly correlated.
With the bat, it appears that Benintendi has turned a corner in both average and home run production, which is definitely a plus for your fantasy squad. Meanwhile, there are concerns about his ability to maintain his stolen base production moving forward. Overall, he should continue to improve moving forward, but I do not expect him to return his 3rd round value over the rest of the season.
(Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)