State of the Sox: Left Field
Left field in 2019:
Left field was a disappointing position for the Red Sox in 2019. Andrew Benintendi got almost all of the playing time, with J.D. Martinez and Sam Travis getting occasional starts to give him rest, and he had the worst season of his career. Benintendi's strikeout rate increased from 16% in 2018 to 22.8% in 2019, and his walk rate dropped to the lowest of any full season of his career. He set career lows in home runs (13), batting average (.266), on-base percentage (.343), and OPS (.774). He managed to do this while getting the best batted-ball luck of his career (.333 BABIP). Additionally, his defense and base running were both worse than they were in 2018 (although both were better than they were in his rookie season of 2017). His massive underperformance was the primary reason why the Red Sox ranked 17th in left field bWAR with 1.5. He did manage to hit 40 doubles and 5 triples, so his slugging percentage (.431) and OPS were at least respectable, but it was frustrating to see a player go from hitting .290/.366/.465/.830 with 16 homers, 41 doubles, and 6 triples as a 23 year old to .266/.343/.431/.774 with 13 homers, 40 doubles, and 5 triples as a 24 year old.
Depth chart for 2020:
Benintendi will once again be the primary left fielder for Boston. Unlike last season, however, the 2020 Red Sox have a legitimate fourth outfielder in Kevin Pillar. When Benintendi needs a day of rest, or if he gets hurt for any amount of time, Pillar will be the one taking his place rather than Martinez. Martinez may still get an occasional start in left, but they should be few and far between. It is likely the position will be manned almost exclusively by Benintendi and Pillar.
How left field can be better than 2019:
Benintendi is 25 years old and is coming off of the worst season of his career. Given his age and talent, he seems like an obvious bounce back candidate. As was noted, he struck out much more last season than any other season of his career, and managed to do so while walking less than ever before. Reverting both his strikeout rate and walk rate to his career averages alone should bring about a decent amount of improvement. The biggest area of improvement, however, might have to do with his launch angle. Benintendi’s down year in 2019 is interesting in that his batted ball profile was seemingly the best of his career. He hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls than ever before. Additionally, he had a career low in soft-contact percentage and a career high in hard-contact percentage. He pulled the ball and went the other way slightly less than he has in his career as a whole, and hit the ball to center slightly more often, but his spray chart was close enough to what it had been for his career that it shouldn’t have made a very big difference. My theory is that Benintendi bought into the launch angle frenzy, and adjusted his swing to hit the ball in the air more often. He succeeded in doing so, but suffered adverse effects due to being a lefty playing in Fenway. He doesn’t have tremendous power, so it is possible that trying to hit the ball in the air more frequently wasn’t the right adjustment for him to make. It is quite likely that he is a better hitter when he tries to hit line drives rather than fly balls. If he recognizes this and reverts back to the type of hitter he was prior to 2019, but manages to keep his increased exit-velocity, Benintendi could see massive improvements in 2020.
How left field can be worse than 2019:
I do not see a real possibility of left field being worse for the Red Sox in 2020 than it was in 2019. Benintendi is a talented young player, and typically talented young players coming off a career worst season don’t proceed to have an even worse season the following year. The only way I truly see Boston getting less production out of their left fielders in the upcoming season is if Benintendi were to miss an extended amount of time due to injury.
As I stated above, I think Benintendi will improve drastically and possibly have the best season of his career in 2020. He may never be a true star, but he has too much natural ability to remain a .270, 15 home run hitter. I think Benintendi will make the necessary adjustments to get back to the type of hitter he was prior to 2019, which will lead to an improved average, fewer strikeouts, and more walks. Furthermore, if he can get slightly luckier with regards to how many of his fly balls leave the park (he had a career low 7.9% of his fly balls turn into homers in 2019), he might be able to rejoin the 20 home run club. 2020 is an important year for Andrew Benintendi, as another down year will drastically affect his perceived value, and I see him succeeding in a big way.