The Baseball season is now just around the corner. We are starting to see pitchers throw more innings, and hitters see more time at the plate in Spring Training. The Red Sox season kicks off in a fraction over two weeks time (15 days) on the road in Seattle. Therefore, let’s carry on our series projecting how the Red Sox hitters will do at the plate. In the last couple of weeks we have looked at J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts. Today we look at Andrew Benintendi.
Unlike Martinez and Betts, Benintendi is not the type of hitter who will make headlines with his hitting. However, what he offers is consistent hitting across the board, with just enough of everything to keep everyone happy. In fact the last two years have looked extremely similar for Benintendi, right down to the number of plate appearances.
2018 did see Benintendi take a slight dip in his power numbers compared to 2017, from 20 home runs to 16. Interestingly, last season he actually increased his average exit velocity and barrel % over 2017. The likely reason his power numbers dipped is due to slight decrease in his launch angle. Usually, you would like to see those numbers come back up, but the results of that launch angle change were seen elsewhere.
Getting on Base
Last season saw Benintendi increase his batting average from .271 to .290. That is an increase that is absolutely worth losing a handful of home runs. The really good news is that the increase was not a fluke. Benintendi’s expected batting average was .282 last season, slightly lower than the final output, but not a number which suggests major regression. A report from the Boston Herald suggested that Benintendi may focus on batting average even more this year, even if it comes at the expense of power.
In addition, Benintendi backed up his solid 10.6% walk rate in 2017 with a 10.7% number in 2018. While it only puts him 34th among qualified hitters, it combines really nicely with that batting average. In 2018, Benintendi ranked 29th in on base percentage, one of three Red Sox hitters in the top 30. His ability to get on base consistently is why many project him to hit leadoff.
Hitting in the number one spot is not for everyone. We have seen some hitters struggle with the pressure of being the first man up for their team. However, when Benintendi was asked to hit leadoff in 2018 he thrived. In a small sample size of 97 plate appearances, Benintendi had a .322 batting average a .381 OBP. His walk rate was down slightly, but that was replaced and by getting on base more consistently with his bat.
Interestingly, despite having less than sixth of his plate appearances in the leadoff spot, Benintendi actually hit nearly a third of his home runs last season there. The Herald report suggests that is not a trend we will see continuing this season, but it is worth noting.
One reason that Benintendi may be changing his approach to become a leadoff hitter is because of his record hitting with the bases empty. Last season, Benintendi returned a .243 batting average when at the plate with no one on base. That is in contrast to a .350 batting average with men on base, and a .338 return with men in scoring position. If Benintendi is to hold down the leadoff spot, he will need to improve on that split in 2019.
Another element of Benintendi’s game which has been consistent the last two years has been his base stealing. Benintendi has attempted 25 and 24 steals respectively over the last two seasons. He has been successful on 20 and 21. His over 80% conversion rate on stolen bases comes despite ranking 212th in the majors in sprint speed last season. For context, that placed him in the 68th percentile of major league players. Above average, but not by much.
How Benintendi, and the Red Sox, approach base stealing will be interesting now that he is in the leadoff spot. On one hand you have a player who has had success on the base paths. On the other hand, his relative lack of speed comparatively could be a reason we see him running less. There is also the case of whether it is worth the risk of running Benintendi into potential outs when he is hitting in front of two of the most productive hitters in baseball. How incredibly stupid would everyone look if Benintendi was thrown out at second, only for Betts or Martinez to crush the next ball out of the park?
Given the success rate from the last two years you would expect to see Benintendi given the opportunity to steal bases this season. If he has issues then maybe the Red Sox rethink that, either mid season or for 2020. If the Red Sox do allow Benintendi to run at similar rate, then the extra plate appearances from leading off could mean that he has a shot to steal 25 bases. If they let him run a little more from the leadoff position, which they did last year, then 30 stolen bases could legitimately be on the cards for Benintendi.
Hitting largely first or second in the order last year, Benintendi returned 103 runs and 87 RBI. The switch to leadoff is likely to see those numbers slant even further to the runs side in 2019. A rough projection on his return would still be a combined 190, but more in the region of 115 runs compared to 75 RBI. Usually we can see leadoff hitters struggle for RBI, but the bottom of the Red Sox order has enough talent that Benintendi should still see plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
Therefore, a final projection for Benintendi is likely to be somewhere in the region of 12-15 home runs, 115 runs, 75 RBI, a .290-.300 batting average and 25-30 stolen bases. Again, not the headline numbers of his two superstar teams mates, but an extremely good return from a player who seems to be willing to put team goals above personal glory.
Featured image courtesy of Grueling Truth