Andrew Benintendi claims his struggles hitting leadoff were a fluke and the early returns this spring prove can fill that role for the Red Sox.
It was a sound strategy, in theory. Andrew Benintendi has shown a knack for getting on base at a solid clip and possesses enough speed to be a threat on the bases. The Boston Red Sox wanted to move Mookie Betts down a spot in the lineup where his emerging power would be more of a factor in run production. Flipping the two outfielders in the order to place Benintendi in the leadoff spot made sense on paper.
The experiment didn’t last long. Benny struggled to adapt to the leadoff role, hitting a disappointing .257 with a .767 OPS in 199 at-bats from the top of the batting order last season. He was a meager 5-for-42 (.119) with five walks, a hit by pitch and a double when leading off a game.
Former manager Alex Cora was forced to abandon the idea by the end of May, sending Betts back to his familiar leadoff spot while Benintendi bounced around the order. He would end up seeing at least one at-bat everywhere except the third spot.
Now Betts has been shipped off to Los Angeles and the Red Sox are scrambling to find his replacement for the leadoff spot. Benintendi is the presumed favorite to fill the void at the top of the lineup, in part due to a lack of options while Alex Verdugo remains sidelined by a back injury.
The lack of production during his limited sample as a leadoff hitter last year has created a narrative that Benintendi can’t handle the role. Benny clearly disagrees, as he explained to Masslive’s Chris Cotillo.
"“I think that was just during a period I wasn’t playing well,” Benintendi said. “At that point, it didn’t matter where I hit. It was not going well. I can see why it’s being talked about, if I hit leadoff. I think it was more of a fluke than anything.”"
Benintendi doesn’t intentionally alter his approach based on where he’s hitting in the order but he found himself in a funk due to some mechanical issues at the plate. The lefty’s sweet swing abandoned him and he seemed to be pressing too much as he tinkered with it. He didn’t look comfortable during his slump and may have been overreacting to making adjustments.
He eventually fixed his swing but credit can’t be attributed to moving out of the leadoff spot. Benintendi has been back at the top of the order this spring and the early returns are promising. He’s 2-for-5 (.400) through two games.
Benintendi led off Saturday’s game against the Tampay Bay Rays with a base hit and stolen base. He followed up by belting a home run to deep right field to lead off his next game on Monday against the Minnesota Twins.
The concept of Benintendi producing out of the leadoff spot isn’t completely foreign. He hit .322/.381/.598 with five homers and 15 RBI while briefly filling in for Betts at the top of the order in 2018.
It’s a small 21-game sample from two years ago during the best season of his career so it’s fair to question if this success will translate to this year. Likewise, it’s fair to wonder if the poor results from early last season should be chalked up to a slump that was unrelated to his position in the lineup.
How he performs as a leadoff hitter will be a trend to watch this spring but it’s clear Benintendi is motivated to prove that last year’s struggles were a fluke that he’s put in the rear-view mirror.