August 11, 2015 at 9:30 AM
LOWELL, Mass. -- As a senior, Andrew Benintendi set Ohio state high school records for hits and runs. After becoming the state’s all-time hit king, he was selected in the 2013 MLB Draft by his hometown Cincinnati Reds, choosing instead to pursue college ball at Arkansas.
Yet leading into the 2015 draft, all the talk was about how Benintendi had come out of nowhere his sophomore college season to be a top ten pick this year.
Was this characterization surprising to the outfielder after all the high school accolades?
“Not really. My first year at Arkansas was pretty frustrating,” the seventh overall pick said recently. “I think overall, it wasn’t a bad year, but for me, I set my goals pretty high that year and didn’t reach any of them. I just learned from my freshman year and tried to take what I learned into my sophomore year.”
As a freshman, Benintendi hit .276/.368/.333 with just a single home run as well as 17 steals for the Razorbacks. This year, as a sophomore, Benintendi improved all around, but most notably in the power department, as he tallied 20 home runs to lead all of Division I. Overall, he batted .376/.488/.717 to go along with 24 steals, garnering many accolades, including four national player of the year awards such as the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy.
While other players can credit their time playing summer ball for improvements made between seasons, Benintendi says he benefited from his absence from baseball the summer after his freshman year. It was a leg injury that kept him off the field.
“I couldn’t do any lower body [workouts] because of my quad, so I just did basically everything upper body,” he said. “I just focused on gaining weight and getting stronger, and it definitely benefited me.”
This added weight obviously showed up in his power numbers, one of the primary factors in his late move up draft boards. Benintendi said that while the late surge in his draft status was a bit surprising, he blocked out most of that talk as he was focused on the college season and playoffs.
His first time going through the draft process helped him be ready for what to expect, but at the same time this year’s draft was a much different experience. Just how different?
“About thirty rounds different," he joked, referencing his 31st-round selection in 2013. “It was a good experience being drafted out of high school, especially by Cincinnati. I grew up ten minutes from the stadium. It was a good experience and going through that helped me going through this year’s draft a lot.”
Although he was thrilled with the team that drafted him that year, it was a no-brainer when it came time to decide whether to attend Arkansas or get a head start on his professional career.
“Once it got past the second round out of high school, I was going to school. I was asking for a lot of money, so it was a win-win situation either way,” he said.
Benintendi said Boston was the team that showed the most interest in him before this year’s draft, though he did not get to visit the area until shortly before beginning his professional career in Lowell.
“I was up in Boston at [Fenway Park] for a little bit. That was actually the first time I’d ever been there so that was cool seeing all that for the first time,” he said. “Everybody is very enthusiastic about their team, especially with all this Tom Brady stuff going on. Boston people love their sports, so I’m glad to be a part of it.”
As for his transition to professional life, on the field things have gone fairly smoothly, even if his numbers are not eye-popping. SoxProspects.com Assistant Director of Scouting Chaz Fiorino recently wrote up his thoughts on what he’s seen from the outfielder in Lowell so far. Benintendi is batting .263/.395/.485 in 29 games with the Spinners, while showing off his power-speed combo to the tune of five home runs and six stolen bases.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a job,” he said. “It was like that in Arkansas too, where you show up early every day and put in the work. I think playing in Arkansas and the SEC has benefited me and helped me make this transition.”
One of the biggest transitions for him has been playing with wooden bats. Although missing out on summer ball proved to be a boon for him on the field his sophomore season, the summer is often the first time amateur batters hit with wood bats. Because scouts never saw him using them and Benintendi did not get that early introduction, there were some questions about how his skills would translate and if it would be a difficult transition for him. He recognizes the differences, but feels he is already comfortable at this point.
“It took a while for me to get used to it because there’s not as much flex in a wood bat as in a metal bat, and wood bats are a little heavier,” he said. “It took me about two and a half, three weeks to get used to that. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now.”
Benintendi has more walks than strikeouts on the season so far, with a 22-to-14 ratio. Evaluators have liked his approach and his ability to work deep into counts, though it is obvious he still working to refine that balance between aggressiveness and taking what the pitcher gives him.
“I’m a pretty aggressive hitter. I think if I get deep into the count it kind of benefits me because I can see all [of a pitcher’s] pitches. I wouldn’t say that’s what I try to do, but if it happens, it’s going to help,” he said. “I just see a pitch and if that’s not the pitch I’m looking for I lay off of it. Fortunately, I’ve been able to draw some walks.”
In eight plate appearances this writer viewed last week at LeLacheur Park, Benintendi swung at the first pitch three times and put each into play with varying results. But his best at-bat was his final one on Saturday, in which he drove a 92-mph fastball to the base of the right field wall without getting all of it. In the five-pitch at-bat, he worked his way into a 3-1 count before turning on the fastball.
He’s noticed a difference in the way pitchers are attacking him as a professional.
“In college, they kind of stayed away and tried to make me chase, but here, they come right at me,” he said. “I’m just another player. There are a lot of good pitchers that throw hard here, so they’re just going to attack me like any other hitter.”
Short-season A-Ball is not usually the most challenging assignment for top college hitters, but can be a great atmosphere to get their feet wet. Here at SoxProspects, we project that Benintendi is likely to move up to Greenville any day now to get a taste of that competition level before the season ends. Odds are he will head directly to High A Salem out of spring training next year. But for now, Benintendi is enjoying the experience in Lowell and soaking up the baseball knowledge.
“I’m learning a lot here. We have great coaches, great teammates,” he said. “It’s what every kid dreams of, playing professional baseball. I’m just putting in the work.”
Photo credit: Andrew Benintendi by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.