FORT MYERS, Fla. — Andrew Benintendi stepped out of the batting cage, knocked the dirt from his cleats and began to head to the next activity on the Boston Red Sox‘s workout schedule. But first, his hitting coach wanted to give him some love.
“Those were some sexy swings,” Chili Davis said.
Indeed, when Benintendi turns up his left-handed swing, it’s a turn on for any admirer of hitting. Benintendi’s sweet stroke is easily one of the prettiest you’ll see. It’s his calling card, the signature skill for the 22-year-old rookie left fielder who was recently ranked by ESPN’s Keith Law as the No. 1 prospect in baseball and might well develop this season into one of the bright young faces of the game.
Think back to Benintendi’s first career hit, a line-drive single to left field Aug. 3 in Seattle against Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Better yet, remember his solo home run to right field in his first postseason at-bat Oct. 6 in Cleveland against the Indians’ Trevor Bauer.
“My dad is pretty much the only instructor that I’ve had.”
In both cases, Benintendi’s head, hands and bat worked together perfectly. His balance was impeccable, his hands out front while the rest of his body stayed back. The weight transfer was ideal.
Swings don’t get much more beautiful.
“I’ve had my same swing for as long as I can remember,” Benintendi said. “I may change some things here and there just based on what I’ve been doing at the plate. But I have a simple swing. It’s just from A to B, so when I’m struggling, I just go back to making it simple and trying to hit the ball hard.”
Growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Benintendi liked to watch fellow Cincy native Ken Griffey Jr.’s flawless swing. And as a teenager, he played for the Midland Redskins, an amateur program that has produced nearly 80 major leaguers, including Griffey, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin and Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer.
But Benintendi said he didn’t intentionally model his swing after Griffey’s and doesn’t credit one particular coach with teaching it to him. The origin of his swing, according to Benintendi, can be found in the backyard of his childhood home in Madeira, Ohio, where his father, Chris, would pitch him tennis balls.
Chris Benintendi is an attorney in Cincinnati, but he played baseball in high school and at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He talks on the phone with his son practically every day, and after watching from the stands at Safeco Field when Andrew notched his first major league hit, he said proudly, “He’s had that same swing since he was 5. To this day, he’s never had a hitting lesson.”
“My dad is pretty much the only instructor that I’ve had,” Andrew Benintendi said.
Midland coach Dave Evans can vouch for that.
Benintendi always has been one of the smaller players on his teams. Even now, he’s listed at 5-foot-10 — “5-10 is a little gracious; let’s say 5-9,” Chris Benintendi said after Andrew’s big league debut — and 185 pounds only after adding muscle in an intense offseason workout program. When he joined the Midland program as a 15-year-old, he barely weighed 150 pounds and, as Evans recalled, initially “slapped the ball to left field.”
But Benintendi also had a swing that Evans described as “picture-perfect.” And after about 10 games of getting accustomed to playing against mostly 17- and 18-year-olds, Benintendi demonstrated enough aptitude at the plate that Evans moved him from No. 9 in the order to the leadoff spot.
“As he got stronger, instead of just hitting line drives over the shortstop, he’s hitting line drives over the second baseman’s head, the center fielder’s head, the right fielder’s head,” Evans said. “He just has great bat speed, great quickness. He’s a freak kid. We’ve had some good ones come through here, but very seldom do you see a Griffey or a Benintendi.
“A kid like that, they come around once every 10 years or so. You’re not going to make a whole lot of changes with him. You’re just going to give him as many swings as he needs and give him ABs and stay out of his doggone way and hope that you don’t screw him up.”
“Benny’s a little guy. He looks like freakin’ Marty McFly, to tell you the truth. He’s not a big guy, but the ball jumps off his bat — easily. And that’s what I like.”
Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis
Of course, a pretty swing doesn’t make Benintendi slump-proof. And considering opponents will have a more detailed scouting report for getting him out after facing him last season, it will be up to Benintendi to adjust to the more challenging ways in which he will be pitched.
But the Red Sox believe the simplicity of Benintendi’s swing will allow him to shorten his inevitable funks.
Davis, a switch-hitter who belted 424 doubles and 350 homers in a 19-year big league career, said it’s not an overstatement to compare Benintendi’s swing to Griffey’s. Its effortlessness also reminds him of Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, John Olerud, Fred McGriff and Shawn Green.
There is, however, one notable difference.
“Those are big guys. Benny’s a little guy,” Davis said. “He looks like freakin’ Marty McFly, to tell you the truth. He’s not a big guy, but the ball jumps off his bat — easily. And that’s what I like.”
While fellow Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, another undersized player, gets his power from lightning-quick hands that generate what Davis calls “good whip,” Benintendi’s swing provides “good length through the ball and good backspin.” It’s such a fluid motion that Davis warns Benintendi that he need not overswing.
“If I describe Benny’s swing, it should never be at 110 percent,” Davis said. “When it’s working at 80-85 percent, that’s when it’s clicking. It’s not max effort. His hands stay under control and travel where they should. With him, I don’t want to talk about mechanics. I want to try to keep it as simple as possible because that’s his swing.”
Benintendi has never met Griffey and therefore never compared notes on their respective swings, although it’s likely they will someday at a golf tournament for Midland alumni. One of the nicest compliments came at the Futures Game last July in San Diego, when former slugger Jim Thome told Benintendi how much he enjoyed watching him take batting practice.
Davis can’t get enough of it, either.
“He was born with that swing,” Davis said. “I could see him as a 4-year-old having that swing.”
In the backyard with his father, batting tennis balls.