Benny's Best Beats Birds
It was really a team effort, but Andrew Benintendi had the game-winning RBI and the game-saving catch, which is a pretty good day.
I think it’s safe to say that the 2021 season hasn’t been the career renaissance anyone hoped it would be for Andrew Benintendi. He started slow (as I predicted before the season) and then picked things up. Then he went down with that rib injury and has struggled quite a bit since he returned without a rehab assignment. Heading into yesterday’s game, he’d hit .211/.238/.361 in 190 plate appearances with a minuscule 3.7 percent walk rate since coming off the IL. Sure there had been some good games and some good swings that maybe didn’t get good results, but in all, it’s been a really rough go. Maybe it just took getting back to somewhere he’s played quite a bit because yesterday was the Benintendi everyone thought was coming to Kansas City.
The final line is impressive. He was 2 for 3 with a double, walk and an RBI. I’m not going to pretend that this means he’s fixed and is about to have a huge September, but it’s a good start at least, and for one day, he was pretty much the reason behind a win. Before he got into the heroics, he did a couple things that we haven’t seen a ton of lately. In his first at bat, facing Zac Lowther, who pitched really well, he had one of his better plate appearances in awhile. He saw five pitches outside the strike zone. One was called a strike, which is annoying, and on one he tried to beat the shift with a bunt. Then the sixth pitch was a 91.6 MPH over the middle of the plate and up, and Benintendi actually did what he’s supposed to do.
That ball traveled 372 feet and was hit at 107.6 MPH. Why is that exit velocity important? Well it’s the hardest he’s hit a ball since coming off the IL. The previous hardest he’d hit was 104.8 MPH on a home run in Chicago a couple weeks ago against the Cubs. To see him turn on that ball was just really good to see. I actually think that high wall might have taken a home run away from him had he been in Kauffman Stadium with that swing. Again, he’s done it before, so maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but I just really liked the approach throughout the at bat leading up to it as well.
Then in his next plate appearance, Lowther tried to attack him away, but he wasn’t having it. He took two off the plate and one low before taking a strike on 3-0 and swinging through a very good curve on 3-1 before working the walk.
Now, he walked on Sunday as well against the White Sox, so maybe that’s a bit of a trend because he hadn’t walked since August 11 before that.
After a groundout, he came up in the top of the eighth in a big situation. I’ll set this one up first because I really want to get to the Salvador Perez hit.
First, let’s take a look at the farthest hit ball of Hanser Alberto’s career as he got the Royals on the board in the fifth with his second home run.
Now, on to the eighth. Whit Merrifield started the inning with a big double off the right field scoreboard and Nicky Lopez bunted him over to third. With Perez coming to the plate, I think a lot of people assumed the Orioles would just walk him. I don’t know if Cole Sulser just badly missed or wanted to try to get into Salvy’s kitchen with a changeup, but either way, he threw one that caught too much of the plate and Salvy, well, did this:
It certainly isn’t the hardest he’s ever hit a ball, but it tied the game up. After Ryan O’Hearn pinch hit and predictably did nothing, Carlos Santana singled and that brought Benintendi to the plate again.
It was more plate discipline that I feel like we haven’t seen from him much lately. He took a fastball at the top of the zone for a ball and then laid off a changeup in the dirt. He fouled off an elevated changeup that looked like he was trying to go the other way and then got a fastball in a happy zone again.
It was a bit lower than the pitch he drove in the second, but it was good to see him turn on that pitch. Since coming back from the pitch, pitches around the area where these two were have held Benintendi down badly. He’s hit just .077 with a .231 SLG on them with an average exit velocity of a reasonable 89.2 MPH. So while there is some bad luck involved, his xBA is just .190 in that spot. To get two big hits on pitches up and over the plate might be a good sign.
But of course, the story can’t be completed until we get to see this catch in the top of the ninth.
That ball would be nowhere near the wall at Kauffman Stadium, but they weren’t playing the game at The K, so it mattered that Benintendi tracked that ball and pulled it out of the stands. So I guess you could say that ultimately Benintendi bailed out Barlow after bailing out Bubic to help beat the birds.
Speaking of Kris Bubic, he was…serviceable. I’ve said so many times now that I’m beginning to believe that higher velocity is the key to unlocking his best. If he’s able to figure out how to sit 92-95 and maintain that throughout a game, I think he has a chance to be in the conversation with any Royals pitching prospect. But if he sits 88-91, he’s definitely more of a back-end guy and maybe a swing starter.
I really liked a lot of his fastballs in this game. He averaged 91.3 MPH, so his velocity was above his season average, but I feel like he was a little too hesitant to throw harder. Again, I don’t know if that’s because he just doesn’t have it or because he wants to save some bullets, but I believe that throwing harder allows him to make some mistakes with his changeup. And he did make a couple. Cedric Mullins doubled on a changeup that didn’t get quite low enough to start the game for the Orioles and then homered on one that just didn’t do anything.
Would a bigger fastball have made a difference? Probably not in the first inning, and it wasn’t even a terrible pitch honestly, but maybe on that home run. We can’t know for sure, but I just really want to see more of the fastball that we know is in there. And he showed it quite a bit, but really only in flashes.
The first was 92.0 MPH and the second was 92.8 MPH. If you’ve read me in any space for any length of time, you know how much I love the fastball up like these. I just wish we’d see that so much more with him. I guess it’s not entirely fair to say he has to be 92-95, but the upper-80s just doesn’t work for him. He got eight whiffs on the fastball yesterday and just one was on a pitch under 90 and even that one rounded up to 90 at 89.6 MPH. He has enough deception that it can work occasionally, but I just want to see more. Maybe I’m being greedy.
I generally really liked where he was putting the fastball.
He had some trouble locating as the outing went on, but, again, I love the fastball up. I wish he had spotted the changeup better because I think the start could have given a few more innings, but the Royals bullpen was fantastic…with some help from that defense.
A win in game one of a series is always a good feeling and the Royals got it done, with a lot of help from Benintendi.
When Bubic had reached the end of the line after one out in the sixth inning, Mike Matheny went to his bullpen and called on Domingo Tapia, who came in and got struck out Jorge Mateo on three pitches, including two excellent sliders. Then he got Ryan McKenna on the second pitch on a soft lineout. It took just five pitches to finish the sixth inning and that allowed Tapia to remain in the game. He got through the seventh on seven pitches and now he’s given up just five runs on 10 hits in 20 innings with the Royals. He definitely walks too many to be counted on all the time in high leverage and somehow doesn’t strike out as many as you’d think with his stuff, but he’s just been really impressive since being called up. He’s definitely surpassed Kyle Zimmer in terms of leverage.
And it’s not just him. Joel Payamps was DFA’d by the Blue Jays and has looked sharp in limited time with the big club (you know, aside from throwing to first for the out as the winning run scored in Houston). He’s shown good stuff and while he also isn’t striking out as many as you’d think, he’s not walking hitters and he’s been a nice find in the middle of that bullpen. Add in Jake Brentz, who worked a 1-2-3 eighth yesterday and has shown legitimate closer stuff in his rookie season and it’s a reminder that the Royals generally do a pretty good job of finding bullpen help. It’s why counting on guys like Wily Peralta and Brad Boxberger in past seasons was so frustrating given that they have a good ability to uncover some gems. I don’t think Payamps and Tapia have a future beyond middle relief, but Brentz has already shown he has a chance to be nasty in the late innings.
The Path to 73
This may seem stupid, but I think there’s some value in the team getting to 73 wins. Barring a losing streak to end all losing streaks to end the season, they’re already going to avoid 100 losses, but there’s something to be said for avoiding 90 losses as well. Finishing a season with losses in the 80s after they lost 100+ in 2018 and 2019 and were on a 92-loss pace in 2020 would represent a really nice step forward, especially with the young pitching being at the forefront of the nice end of season push. Their season record has them on pace for 73-89, but if they maintain what they’ve done since the break, they’re actually on pace for 76-86 (just saying, that was my prediction). I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in psyche between those two records, but I do think there’s something weirdly psychologically important to getting to 73 wins.