Benintendi keeps climbing out of the valley Judge is now in
NEW YORK — The verdict was rendered before the All-Star break: Aaron Judge was the runaway favorite to be the American League Rookie of the Year.
There wasn’t much Andrew Benintendi could do about it.
Now, however, there is still time for Benintendi to emerge from this season as the more advanced, closer-to-complete player of the two high-profile young stars in the ongoing New York Yankees–Boston Red Sox drama. He doesn’t have a dedicated rooting section in his home ballpark or a hashtag that plays off his surname. But Benintendi has been where Judge is at the moment and has found his way out of the darkness of a confidence-shaking slump. The proof came Saturday in the Bronx.
With the Red Sox still feeling the sting of a late-inning defeat one night earlier and the Yankees jumping to an early two-run lead, Benintendi slugged the first of two three-run homers against hard-throwing Luis Severino and carried Boston to a feel-good, 10-5 victory.
Benintendi’s big day came with his grandfather, Robert, a Brooklyn native and recovering Yankees fan living in the Cincinnati area, in the stands as a gift for his 85th birthday. Benintendi’s big day also continued a torrid two-week stretch that followed a team-imposed two-day breather intended to clear his head and help the 23-year-old remember everything that has made him one of the game’s most promising young players.
“There was some frustration from not doing well,” said Benintendi, who is 15-for-31 with three doubles and four homers since he was benched for back-to-back games July 31 and Aug. 1. “[To] just kind of sit back, watch the game and relax, I think was beneficial.”
Judge would likely find a similar break to be useful, and if the Yankees weren’t scratching for every victory to keep pace in a pennant race, they might consider giving it to him.
After taking the league by storm in the first half with titanic home runs that inspired the “Judge’s Chambers” adjacent to the right-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium as well as #AllRise, which has essentially become a permanent trending topic on Twitter, the hulking slugger is 15-for-93 (.161) with only five homers and 43 strikeouts since the All-Star break. He has been particularly susceptible to sliders and elevated fastballs and has whiffed at least once in 29 consecutive games, which puts him three away from tying Adam Dunn’s major league record.
Benintendi understands the depths of the valley Judge is currently in.
Before the season began, Benintendi was all but preordained as the Rookie of the Year, based on his pedigree at the University of Arkansas, his 15-month ascent through the minor leagues and his promising debut late last season. But then came a pair of slumps in May and July. For all his initial success, pitchers were changing the way they attacked him and finding new ways to get him out, just as they are doing now to Judge. That’s life in the big leagues.
It got so bad at times that Benintendi would trudge back to the dugout with his head hanging low enough that it could have dragged the infield. He went from batting cleanup for the Red Sox to not starting against left-handed pitchers. Then, finally, he didn’t play at all in those games July 31 and Aug. 1, even though the Cleveland Indians had righties Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco on the mound.
“When I was struggling, I felt like I was always down 0-1, 0-2, 1-2,” Benintendi said. “You’re not going to have much success when you’re always down in the count. I just picked a pitch and went with it.”
Lately, Benintendi hasn’t been missing. He stroked three hits, including two doubles, in his return to the lineup Aug. 3 against the Chicago White Sox and swatted a home run two days later. He notched five hits over two games earlier this week at Tampa Bay and homered in Friday night’s series opener against the Yankees. In his second at-bat Saturday against Severino, he reached down and lined a 98 mph fastball into the right-field bleachers to open a 5-2 Boston lead in the third inning. In the fifth, he swatted another three-run shot into the bleachers with an uppercut swing.
“More than anything, pitches that he’s gotten over the plate he hasn’t missed,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “I can’t say there’s been anything fundamentally he’s changed. He’s got a beautiful swing, and he’s a natural-looking hitter. But prior to the [two-day break], he was just missing some pitches that he’s otherwise squared up, and he’s back doing that.”
After crossing the plate on both homers, Benintendi signaled to his large contingent of family. Asked if his grandfather grew up rooting for the Yankees or Mets, Benintendi said, “He was a Yankees fan — not anymore.”
Benintendi has closed the gap ever so slightly in a still-lopsided Rookie of the Year race. He’s batting .280 with 16 homers, 65 RBIs and an .808 OPS compared to Judge’s .289 average, 35 homers, 78 RBIs and 1.026 OPS.
Odds are, though, the award will still belong to Judge, who nevertheless could learn a lesson from Benintendi.
“He’s having an unreal year, and he’s kind of struggling right now,” Benintendi said. “I went through that for two months. I’m sure he’ll figure it out.”
Benintendi, it seems, already has.