Should Royals fans be concerned about Andrew Benintendi?

The Royals came back on Sunday to win the series finale on the South Side 4-3 against the White Sox, highlighted by Carlos Santana hitting a game-tying home run off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks in the bottom of the ninth, which ended up extending the contest into extra innings.

In addition to Santana’s hitting his first home run in Royals blue, Kyle Zimmer, who has quietly become one of the Royals’ best relievers over the past two seasons, also earned his first MLB career save, shutting the door on the White Sox in the bottom of the 10th:

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins for Kansas City. The Royals struck out 14 times at the plate in the contest, and the pitching staff also allowed eight walks, both sub-par numbers. However, the White Sox were never really able to take advantage of both. The White Sox never really had that big inning at the plate, even though they had multiple opportunities to do so (they left 27 on base in the game).

Additionally, though the Royals struggled to make contact against Chicago pitchers, especially Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, Kansas City hitters were still able to come through when needed, especially in the 10th inning, as the Royals played small ball to garner what would end up being the game-winning run.

Thus, in a game they should have lost, the Royals not only came up victorious to salvage a split in the series, but they also enter a 10-game home stand with some good momentum, which will be much needed considering they will be starting the homestand against the Angels on Monday evening. Therefore, Royals fans should be riding high, hoping that this year will provide the kind of luck that has seemed to avoid the club on the field the past three seasons.

That being said, the Royals do come back home to Kansas City with some concerns, especially in regard to some of their key players. One of those concerns is Benintendi, who had a solid game on Sunday, as he not only bunted in the game-winning run, but he also hit an opposite field single which helped give the Royals a 2-1 lead (unfortunately, that lead was blown in the bottom of the eighth by Jesse Hahn):

Unfortunately, though Benintendi had some key moments at the plate in the White Sox road finale, his overall stat line in 2021 has left much to be desired from Royals fans, especially considering how his trade generated a lot of fanfare. Currently, Benintendi is posting a triple slash of .207/.281/.207 in 32 plate appearances, and he is also posting a wOBA of .216 and a xwOBA of .261, with the latter ranking him in the bottom 19th percentile of the league, according to Baseball Savant.

Thus, is today’s game a sign of Benintendi turning a corner? Or is his slow start a sign of things to come, with perhaps a down season on the horizon for the 26-year-old former Red Sox first round pick?

Let’s dig deeper into Beintntendi’s profile and see what Royals fans should expect from Benintendi going forward this year, based on his early season metric samples.


Whiffs and K’s a problem so far in Kansas City (but mostly on breaking balls)

Benintendi struggled in his limited sample in 2020 with the Red Sox. That being said, even stemming to 2019, two issues that plagued Benintendi with Boston were his whiffs and strikeout rates at the plate.

In 2018, Benintendi only had a strikeout rate of 16 percent, compounded by an overall whiff rate of 19.2 percent. During that season, Benintendi had one of the best offensive seasons of his young career, as he posted a .282 xBA, which ranked him in the top 10 percent of the league that season.

However, Benintendi ended up regressing in 2019 mostly due to an increase in whiffs and strikeouts. His whiff rate increased to 25.2 percent, and his strikeout rate also increased to 22.8 percent. While they were not dramatic increases, they were big enough to affect his overall stat lines, as his xBA decreased to .260, and his wOBA went from .357 in 2018 to .330 in 2019, according to Baseball Savant.

2020 was the worst for the 26-year-old former Arkansas Razorback when it came to whiff and strikeout rates, as he posted rates of 33.8 and 32.7 in those categories, respectively. However, his last season in Boston was marred by injury, as he only played in 14 games and made 52 plate appearances overall with the Red Sox during the shortened 60-game season. Thus, many Royal fans felt that a change of scenery, and a new focus on “contact” rather than power this Spring (which he did in 2018) would help Benintendi rebound at the plate, and see improved marks in his whiff and strikeout rates.

Unfortunately, it’s been more of the same for Benintendi in 2021 in Kansas City. His whiff rate, going into Monday’s game, is 33.8 percent overall, nearly 0.8 percent higher than a year ago. His strikeout rate is a little lower than last year, as it currently sits 28.1 percent. However, Benintendi has not at all been close to his 2018 self so far this season, and he still ranks in the 35th percentile in strikeout percentage, and 25th percentile in whiff rate, according to Baseball Savant.

The big issue for Benintendi has been his effectiveness against breaking pitches, as he is whiffing on breaking pitches 44 percent of the time this year, and he is also striking out 67 percent of the time on the pitch as well, according to Savant.

Granted, the big issue with the breaking ball has been chasing it both up and down in the zone so far this year. On Opening Day, he chased a Taylor Hearn curve ball up in the zone. If it was a little lower, it would have been a meatball that Benintendi probably could have mashed. But it was a little too high, and the following result ensued:

In the same game, it seemed like Hearn’s strikeout on the pitch lingered in Benintendi’s head in his at-bat against Rangers reliever Kyle Cody. Cody hung a curve ball that Benintendi would have mashed if he was aggressive like in his at-bat against Hearn. Unfortunately, Benintendi didn’t want to chase out of the zone like last time, and instead, Cody got the backward K on Benintendi in a 3-2 count.

In another Benintendi strikeout against the Indians’ James Karinchak, Benintendi “swords” (half-swing chases) a curve ball out of the zone, only this time it’s low and inside zone 14. Karinchak has a pretty effective curve ball, but it’s obvious that Benintendi reads it out of the zone a little too late, and isn’t able to check his swing enough:

While the latter pitch is frustrating to see, Benintendi has actually done pretty well in the lower part of the zone this season. Let’s take a look at his wOBA zone chart this season, and see how he’s performed in that lower middle part of the zone in 2021:

As Royals fans can see, he’s really excelling in that low part of the zone in the middle, specifically zone eight. Thus, while strikeouts like the one above are tough to see for Royals fans, Benintendi has been able to produce in that zone when he makes contact, as evidenced by his single against reigning American League Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber:

Benintendi’s numbers against breaking balls haven’t been encouraging for Royals fans by any means. That being said, he seems to be neutralizing things somewhat against fastballs (22 percent K rate) and offspeed pitches (zero percent K rate) at least,. Furthermore, while he is whiffing a lot against breaking balls, he is also posting a high batted ball velocity exit velocity on breaking pitches (99.7 MPH), which is encouraging to Royals fans that he may be able to get out of this funk at the plate sometime soon.


Benintendi isn’t chasing pitches, despite his high strikeout and whiff rates

One interesting development to begin the 2021 season is that some Royals fans have been noticing is that Franchy Cordero, who was involved in the Andrew Benintendi trade (along with Khalil Lee), has gotten off to a hot start in his first season in Boston:

Right now, Cordero is posting a slash of .333/.364/.429 with a .792 OPS in 22 plate appearances with the Red Sox. That being said, here is what Cordero’s percentiles look like, as of April 12th, via Baseball Savant:

As one can see, Cordero’s exit velocity and hard hit rates are impressive, as they were during his short tenure in Kansas City. That being said, a lot of his other metrics have been questionable, as his wOBA (.348) is nearly 113 point higher than his xWOBA, a classic sign that Cordero is a beneficiary of some luck to begin the 2021 season.

Furthermore, and one that may be worth paying attention to, especially in comparison to Benintentdi, is chase rate. Let’s take a look at Benintendi’s percentile rankings, and notice how they compare to Cordero, especially in regard to chase rate.

While Benintendi is certainly lagging behind Cordero in raw power, especially when measured by average exit velocity (41 percentile average exit velocity to Cordero’s 75th percentile average exit velocity), Benintendi dwarfs Cordero when it comes to chase rate, an encouraging sign for Royals fans who may be overly missing the former Padres outfielder who was acquired for Tim Hill last season.

Benintendi ranks in the 81st percentile in regard to chase rate, while Cordero ranks in the 44th percentile. Thus, while Cordero is turning more heads now with his raw power and hard hit batted balls, Benintendi is producing a more sustainable approach at the plate, discipline-wise, especially since he is chasing less out of the strike zone (19 percent chase rate) than the former Royals and Padres outfield prospect (28 percent).


Benintendi’s defense has been solid in left field

One of the big questions going into the 2020 off-season was this: who would be able to handle left field defensively in the wake of Alex Gordon’s retirement? Benintendi was given the challenge by the Royals front office, and thus far, the former Red Sox outfielder has handled the position splendidly, which isn’t an easy thing to say, considering the legacy Gordo left in left field in Kansas City.

That being said, there certainly was some skepticism among Royals fan that Benintendi could be able to handle Gordo’s spot in left field in 2021.

In 2019, Benintendi was laughably bad in left field, as measured by Baseball Savant’s outs above average (OAA). Benintendi in Boston was 10 outs below average in left, a sign that most of his value that season came at the plate, not with the glove or arm. However, Benintendi has worked hard to be much better defensively in Kansas City, as he rates as one out ABOVE average according to Baseball Savant, and he ranks in the 71st percentile in OAA so far this season as well.

Furthermore, Benintendi has been able to give Royals fans some “Gordo-esque” moments in left early on in 2021, as evidenced by some stellar defensive plays in Kansas City, such as the one below:

Thus, while Benintendi has been a mixed bag offensively as a Royal thus far, his defense has been better than expected in left field, which is much needed for the Royals in the wake of Gordo’s retirement. While Benintendi may not win a Gold Glove in left field, like Gordo, he should be able to handle the position admirably, which is a positive aspect of Benintendi’s that may go under-the-radar among Royals fans, especially with most of the focus on Benintendi this year centering on the hitting end.


Final thoughts out Benintendi

Benintendi hasn’t burst onto the scene in Kansas City to start the 2021 season, as some Royals fans hoped when he was acquired this past Winter. It would be nice if Benintendi got off to a hot start offensively, which would help confirm to Royals nation that trading Cordero and Lee (and some players to be named later) was justified to help make this club better in 2021 and beyond.

That being said, while Benintedi has struggled with whiffs and strikeouts, he has made up for it by not chasing much out of the zone, and providing good defense as well in left field, which isn’t easy to do considering the standard Gordo left in that position for so long.

Therefore, while Royals fans can dwell on the negatives in regard to Benintendi’s start, as well as his outlook for 2021, there are some promising signs from Benintendi, and it is possible that we could could see Benintendi who is not only productive with the glove, but the bat as well come May and June.

At this point in the season, it is easy for Royals fans to be rash with judgement, especially in relation to new Royals acquisitions. There are always high expectations with players of Benintendi’s caliber, and it’s understandable that Royals fans would be frustrated, or at the very least, disappointed, with his slow start at the plate to the 2021 season.

That being said, there is a lot of baseball to go…

And honestly, Benintendi is showing some signs that better days are ahead, which is good not only for him, but also in regard to proving his naysayers wrong as well.

Photo Credit: Sam Greene via Imagn Content Ser

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