The Cleveland Indians were looking into the future when they selected Will Benson 14th overall in the 2016 draft. The powerfully-built Atlanta, Georgia product was a week shy of his 18th birthday, and his left-handed stroke — lethal against prep competition — was going to require polish if he hoped to reach his sky-high ceiling. Two years later, that process is well underway.
“You really wouldn’t,” Benson responded when I asked if now-versus-then film footage would show the same setup and swing. “In high school, you’d see a very athletic kid just competing and somehow getting it done. What you’d see now is more efficient movement — that’s a big thing I’ve worked on — and I’m maintaining better posture throughout my swing. Mechanically, making sure I’m getting behind the baseball is huge for me.”
Hitting the ball long distances isn’t a problem for the young outfielder. His power potential is a primary reason he went in the first round, and 545 plate appearances into his professional career — keep in mind he’s still a teenager — Benson has gone yard 23 times. The youngest position player on the roster of the Lake County Captains, he currently co-leads the low-A Midwest League with seven round trippers.
While Benson’s swing is conducive to clearing fences, his mindset is that of a well-rounded hitter. While he’s embraced launch-angle concepts, his focus is on simply squaring up the baseball.
“(Launch angle) has opened my eyes to the correct path, which isn’t the way I was taught growing up,” said Benson, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 238 pounds. “But at the same time, that comes into play when your swing is efficient and you catch the ball out front. If you’re not on time and don’t make plus contact, whatever angle you’re trying to create won’t work.”
Benson elaborated, telling me that his “swing path gets screwed up and then everything else just goes out the window” if he lets the ball travel. In order for him to “get a good, clean swing off,” he needs to attack the ball out front.
Not attacking pitches out of the strike zone has been a strength. Benson’s batting average is currently hovering around the Mendoza line, but his OBP is .376 thanks to a Votto-esque 20% walk rate.
“I’m anticipating a pitch that I can put a good swing on,” explained Benson. “If it’s not a pitch I can put a good swing on, I don’t swing, period. Let’s say I’m looking to crush something middle-in. If he throws a strike away, God bless him, we’ll be ready for the next pitch. If your approach is simply see-ball-hit-ball, you’re going to be reacting instead of anticipating. I want to have a plan up at the plate.”
The humble youngster embraces another plan, as well.
“God has one for all of us,” said Benson. “We can get tied up and stressed out about what’s going on in the present moment, but we need to have faith when things aren’t looking too good. We need to push through it — we need to keep learning and growing — and the next days will get better and better. Ten years down the road, you’ll look back and see you’re right where you want to be.”
Where would Benson like to be in 10 years?
“I’ll be 29, so I’d like to be the big leagues putting up some good years,” Benson said after a contemplative pause. “I guess I wouldn’t mind if I were hitting .330.”
On May 4, I opined on Twitter than Nomar Mazara will likely go on to hit 400-plus home runs. Five days later, as I type these words on Wednesday, the Texas Rangers slugger has just gone deep twice to up his career total to an even 50.
Making that number especially notable is the fact that Mazara rounded the bases on #50 at the tender age of 23 years and 13 days. Here are the career totals, at that exact age, for the 10 active players with 300-or-more home runs: Miguel Cabrera 82, Albert Pujols 71, Adrian Beltre 55, Robinson Cano 14, Edwin Encarnacion 9, Adrian Gonzalez 3, Jose Bautista 0, Ryan Braun 0, Nelson Cruz 0, Curtis Granderson 0.
According to its mission statement, the Denard Span Foundation aims to “serve and empower single parents.” I recently asked the Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Denard Span why it exists.
“I want to give back to kids that grew up similar to how I grew up,” answered Span, whose foundation is based in his hometown of Tampa. “My mom raised me and my brother by herself, and as an adult I realize the struggles, and how difficult it was for her to do that. The home works better with two parents, but a single-parent family can work as well. I want to show myself an example of how having one parent in the home doesn’t mean you can’t make something of yourself.”
As successful as he’s gone on to be, the 11-year big-league veteran had psychological hurdles to overcome. He also missed out on many of the traditional father-son experiences that most of us take for granted.
“I questioned why my father wasn’t around,” explained Span, who was in a single-parent home from ages 3-15. “Psychologically, it hindered me in a sense, because as a kid it’s hard to understand why. And while I didn’t really need one by the time my mother remarried — I’d already been molded into the young man that I was supposed to be — it would have been nice to have a father figure when I was five, six, seven, eight years old, somebody to teach me how to change the oil, somebody to take me fishing.”
Span is a new father — his son is seven months old — and he fully intends to be the male role model he never had himself. To his credit, he will also continue to provide support to kids who don’t have that luxury.
Prior to the internet and easy, real-time access, fans typically got their leaderboards fix via the sports section of their Sunday paper. With that piece of nostalgia in mind, here are a few old-school-stat league leaders:
Batting average: Odubel Herrera (Phillies) .360.
Hits: Nick Markakis (Braves) 53.
Home runs: Mookie Betts (Boston) 13.
RBIs: Manny Machado (Baltimore) 36.
Wins: Max Scherzer (Washington) 7.
Strikeouts: Max Scherzer (Washington) 91.
Baseball Digest, the oldest and longest-running baseball magazine — their first issue came out in August 1942 — is undergoing change. Bob Kuenster, who has been with the print publication for the last 31 years — his late father, John Kuenster, was there for over 40 — was informed on May 2 that he is being replaced as editor-in-chief. The reason given was that Baseball Digest’s current ownership group, Grandstand Publishing LLC, “wants to go in another direction.”
Exactly what that direction will be remains to be seen, but the person entrusted with shaping it will be Rick Cerrone (not to be confused with former Yankees catcher Rick Cerone). The longtime baseball executive will be taking over as Baseball Digest’s editor-in-chief beginning with the September/October issue.
Chris Young told me in spring training that if he didn’t win a spot on the Padres pitching staff, “The time will have come to move on from the playing side.” That transition is now official. On Thursday, Major League Baseball announced that the 38-year old Princeton graduate has been hired as Vice President, On-Field Operations, Initiatives & Strategy.
Marc Appleman announced on Friday that he is resigning as the Chief Executive Officer of the Society for American Baseball Research, effective July 6. Notable accomplishments during Appeleman’s eight-year tenure include the creation of the the SABR Analytics Conference, and the incorporation of the SABR Defensive Index into the Gold Glove Award voting process.
Many of the featured speakers and panelists for this year’s national SABR convention — to be held in Pittsburgh June 20-24 — have been announced. Steve Blass, John Candelaria, Frank Coonelly, Dan Fox, Dick Groat, and Neal Huntington are among the notables.
Daisuke Matsuzaka got his first win in Japan since 2006, and his 109th overall, two weeks ago. Now pitching with the Chunichi Dragons, the 37-year-old Matzuzaka went 56-43 for the Red Sox and Mets from 2007-2014.
Kensuke Kondo — slashing .392/.520/.557 in 100 plate appearances for the Nippon Ham Fighters — has been out of action since late April with a right leg strain, The 24-year-old outfielder hit .413 last year in an injury-truncated (231 plate appearances) season.
With Ichiro Suzuki temporarily added while manager Scott Servais is away for his daughter’s graduation, the Mariners coaching staff had 6,515 MLB hits to their credit yesterday (Ichiro 3,089, Edgar Martinez 2,247, Scott Brosius 1,001, Mike Hampton 178.)
A dozen Miami Marlins rookies have seen action so far this season, the most for any team. The San Diego Padres have used the second-most rookies with 11.
Earlier this week, Adeiny Hechavarria suffered a bruised and swollen left eye after a being hit by a ball that caromed off a speaker on a Tropicana Field catwalk. Yet another reminder that Tampa Bay is badly in need of a new ballpark. The Rays— their fans and players alike — deserve better.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Following Mookie Betts’ three-home-run game against the Royals a week ago Wednesday, I asked Kansas City manager Ned Yost if the Red Sox outfielder belongs in the conversation with Mike Trout as the best player in baseball.
“I see Mookie Betts six times a year,” responded Yost. “But going on a six-game look, he’s a special player. To be in a conversation with Mike Trout, I don’t know about all that, but he’s up there with the upper echelon of players in this league.” He’s a fantastic, talented, athletic, quick hands, great power, good swing.”
Two days later, Betts went deep for the 11th time in his last 14 games. Per Elias, he is the only player in Red Sox history to homer 11 times in a span of 14 games or fewer.
THREE ALBERT PUJOLS STAT COMPARISONS
Pujols has 3,006 hits and 1,257 walks. Al Kaline had 3,007 hits,and 1,277 walks.
Of Pujols’s 3,006 hits, 1,264 (42%) have gone for extra bases. Of Ichiro Suzuki’s 3,089 hits, 575 (18.6%) went for extra bases.
In 2011, Pujols hit 37 home runs and struck out 58 times. In 2011, Michael Bourn hit two home runs and struck out 140 times.
It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a Ruthian display, but given his profile and track record, the 13 home runs Cory Spangenberg hit with the Padres last season was notable. Since being drafted 10th overall by San Diego in 2011, the left-handed-hitting infielder had gone deep just 20 times as a professional. Where did the power come from?
“I’ve always had it in me,” Spangenberg told me during spring training. “I was able to hit homers in BP, they just never translated into the game. Last year I concentrated on driving the ball more — my hitting coaches saw the potential for some power and I took it to heart — and it led to more home runs.”
Creating optimal launch angle wasn’t part of the equation.
“It was more about getting a pitch to drive, and not just a pitch to put in play,” said Spangenberg. “I don’t think any hitter goes up there thinking, ‘I want this specific degree of launch angle.’ We’re not scientists. We’re just baseball players. I just want to hit the ball hard.”
The 27-year-old hasn’t done much of that so far this season. Spangengberg has a .575 OPS with the Padres in 62 plate appearances.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Writing for Global Sports Matters, Barry Bloom explained how MLB players are aided through the visa process, but their families face roadblocks.
Over at Bless You Boys, Dan Dickerson — the radio play-by-play voice of the Detroit Tigers — weighed in on a (suspicious) 1885 article about launch angle.
A high school player from Wisconsin could be one of the first 10 players taken in this year’s amateur draft — no Badger State product has ever gone that high — and Jon Paul Morosi told us about him at MLB.com.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 2007, in a game dubbed “The Mother’s Day Miracle,” the Red Sox scored six times in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Orioles 6-5.
On this date in 1958, Stan Musial recorded his 3,000th hit on his way to a career total of 3,630. Pinch-hitting for “Toothpick Sam” Jones, “Stan the Man” lined a sixth-inning double off Moe Drabowsky to help lead the Cardinals to a 5-3 win over the Cubs.
On May 5, 1925, Ty Cobb went 6 for 6 with three home runs, a double, and five RBIs. The following day he went 3 for 6 with two home runs and six RBIs.
Mark Fidrych made his first career start on May 15, 1976, pitching a complete game 2-1 win over the Cleveland Indians at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. The eccentric right-hander went on to be named the American League Rookie of the Year after going 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA, and leading the circuit with 24 complete games. Strikeouts? “The Bird” fanned 97 batters in 250-and-a-third innings.
From 1953-1956, Ted Kluszewski struck out 140 times (an average of 35 per season) while hitting an MLB-best 171 home runs (an average of 43 per season). Kluzewski had more home runs than strikeouts in each of the four seasons.
In 1941, Ted Williams, playing in his age-22 season, walked 147 times and struck out 27 times. He slashed .406/.553/.735 with 37 home runs.
In 1942, Ted Lyons, pitching in his age-41 season, started 20 games and completed all of them. Lyons is the White Sox all-time leader in games started (484) and complete games (356).
Mother Watson appeared in two games for the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1887, both in the month of May. The Middleport, Ohio native had one hit in eight at bats and lost his only pitching decision.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.