The first two weeks of the 2020 MLB season could not be going worse for the Boston Red Sox. Tuesday night's loss (TB 5, BOS 1) dropped them to 3-8 on the young season -- only the Royals (3-9) have a worse record in the American League -- . They've allowed the fourth most runs per game in baseball (5.64) .
Boston's issues go well beyond the pitching staff. Tuesday's loss was the eighth time in 11 games they were held to four runs or fewer, and since a blowout 13-2 win on Opening Day, they've averaged only 3.40 runs per game. As a team, the Red Sox are hitting .231/.281/.392 in their last 10 games. That's about what Kevin Kiermaier hit last year (.228/.278/.398). Bad, in other words.
No Red Sox hitter has struggled more than season than outfielder Andrew Benintendi. The 26-year-old was expected to step into the leadoff spot to replace Mookie Betts and instead he is 2 for 29 (.069) with 12 strikeouts on the season, and one of the two hits was a bunt single the pitcher barehanded and threw wildly to first.
"I think he's trying to find his recognition of where that zone is where he does a lot of damage," manager Ron Roenicke said during a conference call Tuesday. "And then also making sure he lays off pitches. Usually when he's not going good, he's chasing. He chases down, he chases up. So if he can narrow those pitches and get them back into the zone where we know he can hit, I think that's probably more of it than where he is in the lineup."
Benintendi is a former top prospect -- Baseball America ranked him as the game's No. 1 prospect in 2017, in fact -- who was excellent in 2018, hitting .290/.366/.465 with 16 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 148 games. He was 23 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark. His strong walk (10.7 percent) and strikeout (16.0 percent) rates reflected strike zone knowledge that often portends stardom.
Instead of taking another step forward in 2019, Benintendi slipped to .266/.343/.431 with 13 home runs last season, which is fine but certainly not great. The Red Sox were surely expecting a better follow-up to his breakout age-23 season in 2018. That Benintendi has come out of the gate so poorly this year is discouraging. Discouraging and worrisome because of swings like this:
That's a 92.6 mph first pitch fastball right down the middle, and Benintendi swung through it like it was 99.6 mph, not 92.6 mph. His contact quality this season is dreadful as well. Benintendi's 82.8 mph average exit velocity and 22.2 percent hard-hit rate both rank in the bottom four percent of the league. So, when he's not swinging through center-cut heaters, he's make weak contact. Not great!
Roenicke pointed to a timing issue with Benintendi's leg kick -- "If you're a little late with it, you're always trying to catch up," he said last week -- and teammate J.D. Martinez said batting practice restrictions prevent him from helping Benintendi with video work. MLB's COVID-19 protocols limit time on the field, so the notoriously video-reliant Martinez can't record as much batting practice as he likes.
"In years past I probably would have already been able to get in the video room, break (Benintendi's) swing down, and look at it with comparisons," Martinez said during a conference call Tuesday. "It's what I do for most of the guys on the team. Anytime they're going through some stuff, I dedicate some time either after the game or before the game, or during the game if I just hit. As you guys know, we don't have any access to any of that stuff anymore. It's kind of everyone on their own."
The Red Sox have a lot of problems right now and I'm not sure any are bigger than Benintendi. The rotation is dreadful, yes, but those guys (Martin Perez, Ryan Weber, etc.) are replaceable stopgaps. Benintendi is supposed to be a long-term building block. He's only 26 and he is under team control through 2022. He could -- should -- be part of the next contending Red Sox team.
That will only happen if Benintendi can halt his current slump and reverse the regression that started last season. He's hitting .256/.330/.414 in 147 games since Opening Day 2019. That's a full season's worth of below-average production and it looks like he's going backwards, not getting close to snapping out it. Without a quick reversal, Benintendi may be playing his way out of Boston.