Alex Cora became Red Sox manager at least in part to unlock Andrew Benintendi.
During John Farrell's final season at the helm, in 2017, management often wondered why Benintendi wasn't performing at a higher level. Ownership recognized that it needed a manager who could better relate to young players, which made Cora the obvious choice.
Three years later, the Red Sox again find themselves hoping for more out of the left fielder, but the crossroads feels more decisive. After two straight down seasons, including a disastrous 2020, the 26-year-old is reaching the portion of his career where he either takes the next step or remains a JAG.
Cora knows which Benintendi he hopes to see in 2021.
"The Andrew that we saw in October 2018, right, that's the Andrew we want," Cora said on a Thursday Zoom with reporters. "I know a lot of people talk about the second half. I don't think it was that bad. In '19, talking to him, he tried to make some adjustments as far as hitting the ball in the air. You saw him. He became a little bit stronger. He wasn't out of shape, actually, he was in great shape. His mindset was a little bit different.
"Last year, talking to him, he never felt right in the batter's box, although it was 50-something at-bats, but the swing and misses, we talked about it in '19, we saw it in '20, we need to find a balance between driving the ball and not swinging and missing. I'll take the Andrew Benintendi the complete player."
If there has been one victim of the launch-angle revolution, Benintendi certainly qualifies. A line drive hitter out of Arkansas, Benintendi arrived as the seventh pick in the 2015 draft and reached the big leagues a year later, where he posted an .835 OPS and homered in his playoff debut.
He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting during his sophomore campaign and set career highs in homers (20) and RBIs (90), but his OPS regressed and he failed to make the leap to All-Star.
Everything seemed fine at the All-Star break in 2018, but Benintendi has hit for almost zero power since, and last year he batted just .103 before a rib injury mercifully ended his season.
Over those years, Benintendi transformed from a hitter content to rip outside pitches into the left field corner to one who tried to yank everything out of the park. As a result, his average has tanked and his strikeouts have soared.
"They found a few things last year as far as the swing and they were working on it before he got hurt," Cora said. "Talking to him, he never felt comfortable in the batter's box. I think it's something that me and him have been talking about for a while. That pitch down and away he can shoot it to left field. I think in '18, he led the big leagues in hits to the opposite field, and he can do that. When this kid got drafted, he was probably the best hitting prospect coming out of college. Like I always said, those first rounders, they don't get lucky, they're good. I still believe Andrew Benintendi is a good player, I think Andrew Benintendi is an impactful player, and we need to get him back to that mindset that he had in '18 and even in '17."
Benintendi's first order of business: embrace an approach that keeps the ball in the park.
"I don't want Andrew, just to say a number, to hit 35 or 40 home runs," Cora said. "It doesn't matter. I want him to get on base, be fast on the basepaths, steal bases, play better defense the way he played in October. If we get that guy back, we're in a good position. I've been saying all along in our meetings and to the media, I want our group to get back to playing fast. It seems they were one step behind last year as a unit, and we need to be better. The communication has been there.
"I'm a big fan of Andrew. At 7:05 or 7:35, I know he gives his best, but we need him to get back to stay level in the strike zone, drive the ball all over the field, run around, and be a complete player. I don't want him to be one-dimensional."