With eyes of Red Sox Nation upon him, Andrew Benintendi focuses on own challenges, not the hype
FORT MYERS — Carrying a bat that looks longer than his arms, Andrew Benintendi was walking from the indoor batting cage to the main practice field at JetBlue Park, where at least a hundred Red Sox fans could watch him take batting practice Friday afternoon.
It’s a swing that deserves an audience.
“It’s a beautiful swing,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox president of baseball operations who said he never considered trading Benintendi this winter.
“I think he’s better than I was at this age,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said.
As Benintendi prepares to enter a season as the No.?1 prospect by Baseball America and the easy preseason choice for American League Rookie of the Year, the compliments keep coming in.
How good can this kid be?
Does his swing resemble that of any former big leaguers?
Ken Griffey Jr. was a player Benintendi loved to watch while growing up in Cincinnati.
“He’s obviously a great player,” Benintendi said. “Just a sweet swing. Very smooth.”
And when Benintendi hits one right, one might notice the similar finish of the swing, with the bat coming around and pointing behind him.
Benintendi won’t compare his swing to Griffey’s, but said, “Hopefully one day someone will have my swing.”
Goal No.?1: Consistency
In Red Sox camp, comparisons for Benintendi just won’t happen. Coaches don’t want to set a bar too high for Benintendi to reach — at just 22 years old with only 37 major league games on his resume.
They don’t want set it too low, either.
“Line drives, doubles, show some power,” hitting coach Chili Davis said of his hopes for Benintendi. “If he plays every day, hits 15 home runs, is consistent,” Davis added before pausing and catching himself. “I don’t even want to harp on the home runs with him. He has power. I’d rather him just surprise himself.”
In 34 regular-season games last year, Benintendi homered twice. That’s a pace of nine homers in a 162-game season, which seems right, since he finished the year with nine total home runs across all three levels — High-A Salem, Double-A Portland and the majors.
But the year before he had 11 homers in just 53 games. In his sophomore season, his final at the University of Arkansas, he hit 20 homers in 65 games.
The potential for power is there. But the Red Sox don’t want him thinking about that.
Sound like a familiar story? Does it bring back memories of another young Red Sox outfielder who had sneaky power despite being undersized?
“I think last year, a guy like Mookie Betts, he hit 30-something homers,” Davis said. “Surprise! Why? Because (Betts’ would say), ‘I was consistent with my approach and when they made mistakes, because I was consistent with my approach, I took advantage of those mistakes. I wasn’t trying to do it, but I squared some balls up that went over the fence. But I’m not trying to hit them over the fence.’
“Every once in awhile, work on the power swing, but be disciplined with the pitches you swing at and are trying to drive. (Benintendi) has the ability to hit the ball over the fence. He has exceptional power for a little guy. I’m not saying I don’t want him to hit for power. But I want him to focus on being more precise, more consistent with his approach, get pitches he can hit and put them in play hard. He has the ability with speed, bat control and ability to hit the ball over the fence, he has the ability to hit 30, 40 doubles for us.”
Betts didn’t hit a single home run in his first season in the Red Sox organization while playing in Lowell.
Then what happened? A slow but steady explosion of power.
Betts came back the next season and hit 15 long balls combined at Greenville and Salem. Then in 2014, he hit 11 in the minors and five in 52 games in the majors.
Eighteen homers in 2015. Thirty-one in 2016 as the runner-up in the MVP voting.
Betts sees potential in Benintendi.
“He’s a great player,” Betts said. “He slows the game down and plays the game the right way.”
Said Bogaerts: “He’ll probably be a bit better than me. I mean, I like him as a player and I like him as a person. Hopefully he goes out and helps the team the same way he did last year. He played great down the stretch, even in the playoffs. Just go out there and be yourself. You’ll have ups and downs, especially in the first year you’ll obviously have those. But trusting your teammates and the coaching staff is probably what I’d say (as advice). They have more experience than you have, listen to them, let them guide you a little bit when you’re going through ups and downs.”
Taking wise approach
Listening to coaches hasn’t been a problem.
“I love his disposition,” Davis said of Benintendi. “He’s real calm, very respectful. When you tell him something, he applies it. Those are the kind of guys you enjoy working with.”
Like Bogaerts two years ago, Benintendi has tried to stay out of the spotlight and reduce the hype. The Portland Press Herald reported that, after his first game in Double A, Benintendi requested the cameras and reporters interview him outside, away from his teammates rather than cause a circus in the locker room.
When he got his first major league hit with the Red Sox, Benintendi wouldn’t even let himself smile.
“I was like, ‘All right, I need to pick up my third base coach right away, because I’m not going to mess around here,’?” he said. “It’s like that awkward, what do I do with my hands kind of thing. I was trying to contain my smile when I hit it. But it was a once in a lifetime thing.”
When Benintendi made a leaping catch with half his body dangling over the left-field wall at Tropicana Field, again he refused to smile.
“I caught it, threw it back and everyone is looking at me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘What do I do?’ I didn’t know what to do. Then I watched it on the replay. That’s when I kind of took it in.
“No smile. Strictly serious.”
Benintendi doesn’t hide his seriousness.
He said he idolizes his parents, Jill and Chris, for the way they raised him and his two sisters, Olivia and Lilly. He took his serious approach home during the offseason after the Red Sox expressed their desire for him to put on weight. He jumped from 170 to 185 pounds and showed up to camp looking like a WWE wrestler. And he did it despite his admiration of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chicken restaurant he favors.
“I’m so young so we’ll see if it catches up to me at some point,” he said. “I think I was just trying to eat more. I didn’t have a meal plan but I definitely ate better than I usually would and worked out more.”
“We asked him to do that,” Dombrowski said. “Of course he came in with muscle, but it’s the type of muscle that we wanted him to have.”
Ready for ‘marathon’
What’s next for the kid? He’s slated to be the everyday starter in left field, a job he earned by hitting .295 with an .835 OPS in 34 games last season, then going 3-for-9 with a double and a homer in the playoffs.
The Red Sox aren’t too worried about pitchers adjusting to him, since they already have.
A pull-hitter who has faced defensive shifts throughout his career, Benintendi spread his 31 hits last year to left, center and right field.
Davis said players can’t prove much in a late-season call-up, but he expects Benintendi to prove himself this season.
“This is a marathon,” Davis said. “And I think Benny, and the kid with the Yankees (Gary Sanchez), they’ve shown they have the ability to sustain the marathon and be good hitters.”
The rookie with the pretty swing has his eyes on an even prettier 2017 season.
“I think my first season went pretty well,” Benintendi said. “I think I learned a lot. And obviously only three games in the playoffs wasn’t what we were hoping for. But with this team, things can change.
“We’ll see what happens.”