Andrew Benintendi and the Thrill of the Chase Zone

© Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Once you get past Aaron Judge, this offseason’s free agent outfield class gets real thin real fast. Brandon Nimmo is a very good player, but not a power threat, and after him and maybe Mitch Haniger, you get into the Michael ConfortoCody Bellinger zone with alarming speed. “I can fix him” is as risky a conceit in baseball as it is in romance.

Andrew Benintendi sits in a bit of a no-man’s land between Nimmo and the true reclamation projects. There will be a team that misses out on Judge and Nimmo and finds itself with a hole in an outfield corner and about $15 million a year to spend to fill it; Benintendi will likely be the beneficiary of that vacancy when it emerges.

The sales pitch for Benintendi is pretty simple: At 28, he’s hitting the market fairly young and could command a deal as long as four years without including much of his decline, if any. He’s a capable defender in a corner who posted a career-high .373 OBP last year, which for what it’s worth was a hair higher than Nimmo’s, and has had a few monster seasons in the past, including a 20-20 campaign in 2017 and a nearly-5 WAR year the following season.

But there are drawbacks. When he was drafted seventh overall out of Arkansas in 2015, the question about Benintendi was, “How does such a teeny, tiny man hit so many home runs?” Twenty home runs, to be precise, in just 65 games, along with a .717 slugging percentage. That power has never showed up in the majors for Benintedi, whose career high in homers is exactly 20 in 151 games, and what moderate power he once had is going away.

Benintendi just doesn’t hit the ball that hard; his Statcast barrel and exit velo rankings are middling at best — and that’s compared to the whole league, not just left fielders. In 2022, Benintendi hit just five home runs and 23 doubles in 126 games, with his slugging percentage dropping below .400 for the first time in a full season. Even his career-best OBP comes on the heels of 2021, when his walk rate was roughly two-thirds of his career average and his OBP was just .324.

In this day and age, $15 million a year doesn’t buy you what it used to. But if I were a GM looking to make that kind of investment, I’d want some evidence that the on-base ability Benintendi showed in 2022 is legit. So let’s get really reductive. The name of the game, for hitters, is to swing at strikes while not swinging at balls, and to make contact as much as is practicable.

2022 Plate Discipline and Contact Rates
Stat O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Benintendi 27.9 74.9 73.4 85.5 8.9
Rank* 35th 23rd 21st 86th 43rd
MLB Average 32.6 69.1 63.5 85.3 11.1
*130 qualified hitters

Benintendi does all that; he has excellent strike zone judgment, and even when he swings at a pitch outside the zone, there’s a good chance he’ll get wood on it anyway. Most important, his O-Swing% dropped from 34.6% in 2021 to 27.9% this past year; as a result, his O-Contact% went up about a percentage point and a half, and his walk rate rebounded from 6.7% to an even 10.0%. Incidentally, the last full season in which Benintendi was this selective on pitches outside the zone was 2018, when he posted a 123 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR.

So far, so good. When there’s that kind of variance in results, it’s nice to be able to tie it to a change in approach. But we can get even more granular than that. Baseball Savant sorts pitches into four buckets based on location: Heart (middle of the zone), Shadow (edge of the zone and just outside), Chase (for, you know, chase pitches), and Waste (so far out of the zone there’s an illustration of a dragon to indicate that you’re about to go off the map).

Sorting hitters’ run production by different zones, archetypes emerge. The top three in runs produced in the heart of the zone are Judge, Bryce Harper, and Austin Riley — dudes who can hit the ball a mile. Those who do well in the Shadow Zone have a good combination of bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline — Freddie Freeman, Jeff McNeil, and Rafael Devers are in the top 10 here. The top of the Chase leaderboard is populated mostly by patient hitters: Juan Soto is no. 1, Nimmo is third, Kyle Schwarber fourth, Max Muncy ninth. And the best hitters in the Waste Zone can either hit total trash (Jose Altuve) or know to lay off it (Soto, Schwarber, Judge).

Andrew Benintendi’s Runs by Zone*
Heart Shadow Chase Waste
Swing Runs Rank 181st 137th 42nd 167th
Take Runs Rank 97th 40th 74th 170th
Total Runs Rank 177th 133rd 43rd 177th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*out of 300 qualified hitters

Benintendi doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to really punish pitches over the heart of the plate. He’s better in the Shadow Zone, if not as good as Batman, or even Freeman. It’s in the Chase Zone where Benintendi shines. A ranking in the low 40s doesn’t look that hot on its own, but 43rd out of 300 hitters is the 86th percentile. Benintendi is not only more productive than average in the Chase Zone, he’s more selective, swinging at 15% of pitches there as opposed to the league average of 24%.

Pitchers these days throw breaking balls that move like they’ve got ailerons, with the object of confusing hitters — making balls look like strikes and strikes look like balls. What Benintendi was able to do in 2022 was identify what’s hittable and what’s bait, and even when he swung at bait, he was more capable of doing something productive with it than about three-quarters of the hitters in the league.

I don’t know if that’s where I’d pour my resources if I were a GM who’d missed out on Judge and Nimmo, and I don’t know if I’d want to commit long-term to a corner outfielder who isn’t a power threat. But if the question is merely whether you can trust Benintendi’s gaudy on-base numbers from 2022, the answer is yes.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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johndarc
10 days ago

I only really saw him for about 30 games as a Yankee, and he was not hitting for like a third of those games. But he still got on base decently, and when he did hit, I liked what I saw.