Andrew Benintendi wasn’t signed to a five-year, $75 million contract — the richest free-agent deal in White Sox history — to hit a ton of home runs.
But he’d like to hit some home runs.
Benintendi came into a seven-game home stand with just two long balls on the season, a total even lower than the career-worst number he put up last year, when he hit just five while splitting time between the Royals and Yankees.
The 2022 season still saw Benintendi make the All-Star team and finish with an OPS-plus of 121, the second-best mark of his career, trailing only the 123 number he had in 2018. Things have not gone as well this season, as he took longer than anticipated to shed the after effects of offseason hand surgery, which only got worse when he hurt the same hand early on this season.
But facing off against Mariners hurler Luis Castillo this week, he just let it rip. And now his home-run total matches what he finished last season with.
“I’ve been searching for a feel since 2018,” Benintendi said Saturday night, after his third homer in five games. “Facing Castillo the other day, I felt that again. So I’m just trying to replicate that as much as possible, hitting the ball in the air and hitting the ball harder. I think it’s trending in the right direction.
“I was getting blown away by (Castillo’s) heaters, and I figured, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll strikeout? So I might as well try something.’ And I ended up hitting a double. So I think it kind of clicked right there. I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but I’m going to keep trying to ride it out.”
It was a markedly different discussion than the one I had with him a little more than a week prior, when he was talking about his goals for the future, for the remainder of this season and particularly for next season, the second of his five-year deal with the White Sox.
“It’s been a frustrating year overall,” Benintendi told CHGO at Wrigley Field. “I never really got it going. I’m really looking forward to getting to the offseason and just getting bigger and stronger. Now that I’ll have a full offseason of getting my hand back from the surgery I had last year, it can only benefit me, getting three months of work in, whereas last offseason there was only so much I could do coming off of surgery. Looking forward to that.
“Just being more than just a slap hitter or a singles guy. There’s obviously more in the tank for me. It’s easy to talk about it. Just got to do it.”
Benintendi summed up pretty perfectly what he’s been reduced to in Year 1 of that contract, which has given plenty of already-frustrated fans more reason to be irritated, especially after he was the team’s biggest free-agent addition of the winter — and really ever. He came into this home stand slashing .272/.337/.352, that last number, the slugging percentage, being far and away the lowest of his career. It’s jumped up more than .020 points since, but his OPS-plus heading into Sunday’s series-finale with the A’s still had him as a below-average major league hitter this season.
The White Sox might not be paying him to be the most powerful bat in the lineup, but they’re obviously paying him to be much better than that.
All season long, Pedro Grifol, who was part of the Royals’ coaching staff during Benintendi’s season and a half in Kansas City, has promised White Sox fans have not seen the real Benintendi yet. He frequently cites all that Benintendi does on the field, and indeed that can be hard to see in a box score. But five months into the season, it’s clear, from Benintendi’s own assessment, that White Sox fans will have to wait till next year to see the full spectrum of what he can do.
“That’s who he is,” Grifol said after Saturday’s game. “I saw him for a couple years (in Kansas City), and he’s got power. I might sound like a broken record, but he had a tough offseason. He had that surgery, then he had the hand injury early. We haven’t really seen what he can do. This is what he can do.
“He can drive the ball out of the ballpark to left field, he can pull the ball and drive it out, he can hit you between 15 and 20 (home runs). He hasn’t done it this year, but he’s a tough at-bat. He’s a baseball player, plays to win every night, knows what he’s doing, takes his walks. I think Benny’s best years with the White Sox are ahead of him, for sure.”
As Benintendi mentioned, this has obviously been a long time coming. “Searching for a feel since 2018” is strange coming from someone who has been an All Star since and did enough to earn a big free-agent payday in the years that followed. But indeed, he’s been far from the .830 OPS he posted that season.
It’s doubtful this sort of home-run rate will continue, and though Benintendi has some power potential, it’s rarely been described as being of the “homer every other game” variety.
Barry Bonds, your single-season record is probably safe.
There’s certainly more to Benintendi than just what he’s been able to show in 2023. White Sox fans might just roll their eyes at the mention of another player’s potential, at another comment about what someone might be able to do next year. But for one week, there’s been a perfect example of what the White Sox thought they were getting — and could still get in the years to come.