By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Red Sox project to own the fourth pick in next year’s MLB draft, which is a side benefit of 2020, The Season That Never Was. The question is what the Red Sox will do with it.
Which brings us to Andrew Benintendi.
I think the Red Sox are ruining him – and I blame the cookie-cutter mentality that preaches launch angle and encourages strikeouts.
This is all connected, of course, because what a player is and what you want him to be are two entirely different things. In 2015, the Red Sox chose Benintendi with the seventh overall selection of the 2015 draft. This is noteworthy because a team like the Red Sox doesn’t often draft seventh, let alone fourth. In fact, since the draft was instituted in 1965, the Red Sox have picked in the top five only three times – in the first three years of the draft. Since that time, the highest they have picked is seventh, on three occasions, which landed them outfielder Trot Nixon (1993), left-hander and bust Trey Ball (2013) and Benintendi.
Naturally, this all makes perfect sense. Starting in 1967 (the season upon which the 1968 draft order was established), the Red Sox have the second-most wins and second-highest winning percentage in baseball. That’s generally good for the box office – but bad for the draft.
Unless, of course, you finish last in your division four times in a nine-year stretch from 2012-2020.
So now the Sox project to have the fourth pick – their highest since 1966, which would be great were it not for one small fact: they haven’t exactly nailed their high picks this decade. Ball, as noted, has been a colossal bust. Left-handed pitcher Jay Groome, drafted 12th overall in 2016, has been derailed by elbow surgery and wasn’t exactly lighting it up beforehand. And then there is Benintendi, whose professional career began with a bang and has since fizzled.
And with regard to Benintendi, it’s impossible to ignore his regression in an age when organizations and instructors are encouraging hitters to basically play home run derby.
Ask yourselves this question: do you remember what Benintendi was when he got here? He was a highly-skilled hitter, in the purest sense of the word, who could slash the ball to all fields and hit for a little power. After a meteoric rise through the minors – during which he hit just 20 home runs in 570 at-bats but nonetheless slugged .540 with a .932 OPS – Benintendi got to the big leagues and picked up right where he left off. His first major league hit looked like this:
Take a good look at that video a couple of times. It’s an 0-1 count. The pitch is off-speed, down and tailing away. But Benintendi is so highly skilled that he keeps his hands back, drops the head of the bat and shoots a crisp single down the left field line that might just as easily have been a double depending on where the defense was positioned.
There was a time when we would have celebrated this kind of hitting as pure artistry.
Now, many MLB “evaluators” look at it as entirely useless – and would instead encourage Benintendi to pull the ball and hit for power. Had he done that on the above, he would have missed the ball entirely or pulled a weak grounder to the right side.
Now, if you look at the numbers, Benintendi was something close to the same hitter for the first three years of his career 2016-18, when he batted a collective .282 with an .806 OPS while playing excellent defense in left field. Was he perfect? No. But he was a good, solid everyday major leaguer, something of which there are decidedly few.
Time for more questions: what is Benintendi now? When was the last time you saw him spray a ball to left field like the one above? And more important than anything else, why isn’t he the same player?
For that, we go to the numbers:
According to baseballsavant.mlb.com, Benintendi’s exit velocity hasn’t changed much over the course of his career, though it did drop to its lowest in 2020. The launch angle in his best full season, 2018, was actually lower than in either of his two previous seasons. His strikeout rate that year went down, too, which suggested that Benintendi was developing as any young hitter should: he was getting better and he was getting smarter.
So what happened in 2019? The launch angle jumped from 12.8 to 17.3, an increase of 35 percent. The strikeouts went up by 42.5 percent. His batting average, slugging percentage and OPS dropped, which paints a pretty clear picture.
As soon as Benintendi tried to become something he’s not – a power hitter – he got worse.
So what happened in 2020? It’s just a guess, but here goes: an overcorrection. Benintendi probably went home after the 2019 season and recognized he wasn’t playing to his strengths. So he tried to go back to what he was and struck out more. When he did make contact, he hit the ball on the ground. Though his season was cut very short by injury, he looked awful in the early part of the year. But make no mistake: the biggest problem was between his ears – or, more important, by the modern nonsense that was jammed into his head by those who believe that launch angle is the be all and end all.
MAZZ: Are the Red Sox worth the effort anymore?
In the interest of fairness, let’s make something clear here: everything has its place. For a guy like Christian Vazquez, who plays an important defensive position and can be more effective hitting for power, launch angle probably makes some sense. But the problem with baseball today is that almost everybody is expected to play the same way. And in the case of Andrew Benintendi, what he was prior to 2019 was plenty good enough to have value in the major leagues. It was certainly more valuable than what he is now.
And so, as the Red Sox prepare to make the highest draft pick they have made in more than a half-century, here’s the question:
Are the Red Sox in line to get a unique talent here – or they going to screw it up by trying to jam a square peg into a round hole?
You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.