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Trend Tracking: Andrew Benintendi Has a Favorable Week

I’ve been doing my weekly previews all year, and I’ll continue to modify on the fly. Starting this week, I’ll try out a new format where I look at one player who’s been hot (Paul DeJong) and looks poised to continue at something resembling their current pace, one player who’s scuffling (Andrew Benintendi) but might break through and a two-start pitcher (Lucas Giolito) who could be a plausible streamer.

Keeping it Rolling- Paul DeJong

DeJong’s fourth in MLB in Fangraphs WAR. He’s quietly off to a spectacular start. Adjustment-fueled breakouts are sexy and get all the attention (looking at you, Yoan Moncada and Joey Gallo). DeJong doesn’t seem to be doing much differently. He’s just been better.

DeJong’s off to slight improvements essentially across the board. He’s chasing a little less, swinging at a few more strikes, making a little more hard contact. DeJong’s pop-up rate is down, he’s hitting more balls to the center of the diamond. DeJong is doing everything you’d want a hitter to do, and his batted ball estimators reflect it.

DeJong’s expected batting average, per Statcast, of .309 and expected slugging percentage of .555 are both elite, right in line with his results. That’s not to say DeJong will continue to hit this well, but his performance thus far wasn’t merely the product of luck. DeJong just looks like a really good hitter. Something like The BAT’s .264/.325/.488 projection seems right moving forward. As a shortstop, that’s a fantastic package.

About to Break Out- Andrew Benintendi

Benintendi isn’t having a bad year, but it’s nevertheless been disappointing. A .278/.351/.435 line is fine, but it’s not what owners had in mind when they took him 29th overall. The dreams of a 25-25 season are dead and gone. Nevertheless, next week could be the week that gets Benintendi going.

Perhaps you’ve heard, the Orioles can’t pitch… at all. They’re on pace to shatter all records for home run allowance, so any hitter eyeing a series in Baltimore has to be licking his lips. That applies equally to all the Red Sox (and Angels, for that matter) next week. So why am I optimistic about Benintendi, in particular? That has more to do with Boston’s second series of the week, when they return home to face the Mariners. Not only will that series be the culmination of a grueling, 10-game-in-10-day road trip to the East Coast for the Pacific Northwesterners, but their pitching staff also seems especially ill-equipped to take advantage of Benintendi’s timid performance thus far.

Benintendi’s sitting on a career-worst strikeout rate, up nearly six points from last season. That’s not surprising since the league strikeout rate continues to rise. What is surprising is how pitchers are beating Benintendi. As pitchers leaguewide become more fastball-averse, Benintendi has been beatable with velocity. His whiff rate on fastballs is the highest of his career, while he’s swinging and missing less often than ever on breaking balls. That’s rare.

Benintendi’s only in the 34th percentile in terms of making contact on fastballs (minimum 100 fastballs seen). He’s in the 91st percentile in lowest whiff rate on breaking balls (minimum 100 breaking balls seen). In simpler terms, he’s been exceptional at hitting spin, but he’s really struggled to catch up to heat. Maybe that’s an approach issue, where Benintendi is just too often looking for secondary stuff. It might also be a physical problem, though.

Gauging swing length from center field cameras is impossible, but there are myriad instances of Benintendi seemingly getting overpowered by velocity. Perhaps even more concerning is Benintendi’s running data. Long viewed as a potential center fielder by scouts, Benintendi’s looked anything but this season. He’s been slow. His sprint speed is down, his home-to-first times longer. For whatever reason, it seems Benintendi has been less explosive this season.

So what makes the Mariners such a fun matchup? If the fastball is Benintendi’s bugaboo now, no team in baseball is in a worse position to exploit it. Only the Astros throw fewer fastballs than Seattle, but unlike Houston, the Mariners do so out of necessity. Seattle’s average fastball velocity of 91 MPH is worst in baseball, almost two MPH softer than the average heater leaguewide. Their arms aren’t equipped to overpower hitters.

If Benintendi is hiding a physical issue, then facing a couple bad pitching staffs won’t correct that. The Red Sox say he’s just been in a funk though, that his timing is off. If that’s really true, then nobody better than Baltimore and Seattle to get you back rolling.

Two-Start Streamer – Lucas Giolito

Giolito’s right on the border of availability, currently owned in 50% of leagues. That makes perfect sense, since he’s right on the border of viability, too. He’s got above-average fastball velocity and two swing-and-miss offspeed pitches. That kind of stuff is hard to find on the wire. Of course, he gives it back with dreadful command and projects for a 5.07 ERA moving forward, so I don’t think he’s more than a streamer.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what we’re looking for here. Giolito should start next Tuesday and Sunday in Cleveland and Toronto. That’s two bottom ten offenses, and his Tuesday matchup is against Jefry Rodriguez and his career 5.52 FIP, so that’s an opportunity for Giolito to steal a win, too. That’s all you can ask for; beggars, choosers and all that.

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