The Reds are unexpectedly in contention this season thanks in no small part to an influx of young talent that has arrived ahead of schedule. A quartet of rookies 25 years old or younger — Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, and Andrew Abbott — have powered the surprising surge to contention. Christian Encarnacion-Strand has now joined the fray.
But those are hardly the only young players making a major impact. Although he’s technically not a rookie, another 25-year-old has also helped fuel Cincinnati’s recent hot stretch: Will Benson. Somewhat lost in the deluge of superhuman highlights from De La Cruz, opposite-field bombs by McLain, and steady production of Steer, Benson has become an everyday player against right-handed pitching and lengthened an already-mighty lineup.
That would’ve seemed unfathomable only a few months ago.
Benson was acquired from the Guardians in February, made the club out of spring training, and was in the Opening Day lineup. But he got off to a nightmarish start in the batter’s box. In his first 21 plate appearances of the season, he reached base only twice and struck out 12 times, prompting his demotion when Nick Senzel returned from the injured list on April 13. Benson’s woes initially continued in Triple-A before he got it rolling in May.
When Wil Myers (remember him?) hit the injured list on May 26 due to kidney stones, Benson was called back up to the Reds. This time, he stuck around — and he won’t be going anywhere soon.
Benson had a -80 wRC+ at the MLB level when he was recalled. That’s 180% worse than the league-average hitter. Since his return to the big leagues, Benson has been not just one of the Reds’ best hitters — but one of the best hitters in baseball. He’s batting .339/.444/.636 with seven home runs in his last 145 plate appearances, raising his season slash line to .288/.392/.534. That’s a wRC+ of 144 — or 44% better than the league-average hitter. How’s that for a turnaround?
Benson has been right in the thick of the Reds’ hot stretch, from hitting his first home run in walk-off fashion against the Dodgers to giving the Reds critical insurance runs with a homer in Milwaukee last night.
His 184 wRC+ since May 26 trails only two players who have at least 100 plate appearances in that span (Shohei Ohtani, Corey Seager). Among Reds position players, only McLain (2.2) has a higher fWAR than Benson (1.7) during that span. This two-month stretch of red-hot hitting has seen Benson rapidly ascend from a bench player to a staple of the Reds’ lineup against right-handed pitching. Benson is seeing the ball so well that David Bell has given him some opportunities against southpaws, too.
All of this begs an obvious question…
What changed for Benson?
The simplest explanation for Benson’s turnaround: he dramatically cut down his swings and misses.
Strikeouts have always been a part of Benson’s game, which is partly why his prospect status diminished in the Guardians organization. The former first-round draft pick always had power, speed, and a Votto-like sense of the strike zone. But he couldn’t put the ball in play often enough, which made him essentially a three-true-outcome hitter. Benson hit .210/.334/.427 in his first five seasons as a pro, striking out in 34.7% of his plate appearances.
Benson made an adjustment to shorten his swing during the 2022 season, as outlined by the Enquirer’s Charlie Goldsmith in March. It paid huge dividends. Benson cut his strikeout rate to 22.7%, a whopping 12 percentage points lower than his previous career average. His swinging-strike rate, which is the percentage of swings and misses on all pitches, was 8.7% when it had never been lower than 14.1% at any stop in his minor-league career.
Turns out when Benson makes more contact, he can do more damage. He posted the highest wRC+ in Triple-A last year before he was called up to the big leagues in August. His strikeouts ticked back up with the Guardians, but it was understandable given how little playing time he received — just 61 plate appearances over the final two months of the season.
Coming into 2023, the Reds were willing to bet Benson’s dramatic decrease in whiffs could stick, especially with consistent playing time at the major-league level. Benson won a roster spot during spring training and looked poised to get regular at-bats against right-handed pitching. Then, the aforementioned swing-and-miss problems reappeared. Even in Triple-A, Benson was initially struggling to make contact. He hit .108/.313/.135 with a 43.8% strikeout rate and 37.2% whiff rate in his first 48 plate appearances after the demotion. His only production was coming from his keen eye at the plate (22.9 BB%).
Were Benson’s strides from 2022 a mirage? Had he reverted back to the strikeout-prone, three-true-outcome player he was previously? Fortunately for Benson and the Reds, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.”
Over his last 85 plate appearances in Louisville, he batted .267/.459/.567 with a 156 wRC+ and more walks (19) than strikeouts (10). And it carried over to the majors. Benson has gone from a player who was swinging and missing at an alarming clip to someone who whiffs less than the average MLB hitter. He owns a 22.1% strikeout rate and 22.5% whiff rate since returning to the majors, both of which are under league average (22.7 K%, 25.7 Whiff%).
It didn’t happen without some adjustments, though.
A shift in mindset and mechanics
In his recent appearance on the Jim Day Podcast, Benson talked about how he’s leaned on his strength — his eye at the plate — to recover from his early-season funk. But instead of being passive, he’s focusing on using his pitch recognition skills to crush hittable pitches:
“I started to identify, like, ‘Man, I’m really good at getting on base.’ And that was where my approach went from, ‘I’m being attacked’ to ‘I am the aggressor. I am on offense for a reason. I have this bat in my hand for a reason.’ When I’m more aggressive and ready to hit — truly ready to hit — I am able to see pitches better. I catch pitches more in my sweet contact point. I’m not missing stuff.”
Early in the season, Benson was uncharacteristically chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He quickly shook that off and, as he refers to in the quote above, returned to being the patient hitter he’s always been. Benson’s chase rate fell quickly after the blip at the start of the season and now ranks in elite territory.
Benson has also made some adjustments to his swing mechanics in addition to his mindset at the plate.
In his initial stint with the Reds, he was struggling to hit all pitches, but what jumped out was the way he swung through so many fastballs — typically the pitch type with the lowest whiff rate. It was an issue that had been noted during his time in the minor leagues, and it’s not uncommon for a tall player (Benson is 6-foot-5) with long arms to struggle catching up to heaters, especially up in the zone. In the eight games he played before his demotion, Benson had a 44.8% whiff rate on fastballs. That’s more than double the league average (20.4%).
At the beginning of the year, Benson had a longer, higher leg kick, which often caused him to be late on pitches, especially fastballs. Here was Benson on Opening Day:
For hitters, a leg kick is all about timing. Some have bigger leg kicks than others, and some have none at all. In Benson’s case, the timing with his leg kick was off at the beginning of the season. And when a hitter’s timing is off by even a fraction of a second, it’s problematic. In the example above, he couldn’t get his foot down until the fastball was right on him, and his swing was late as a result.
Here’s a second example of the higher leg kick. In this case, it looks like Benson’s timing is off from the start. With a high fastball coming at him, he had to rush to get his foot down quickly enough. The result was another late swing and a whiff.
Benson seemingly corrected the issue in Louisville, shortening his leg kick to help his timing at the plate.
Will Benson, cleared for takeoff ? pic.twitter.com/eNJ07VQwv6
— Louisville Bats (@LouisvilleBats) May 2, 2023
It’s a little tough to see the difference in the Triple-A video, so here’s one of Benson’s more noteworthy swings of the season from the GABP camera angle:
If you still can’t tell the difference, here are the two swings side by side, paused at the apex of Benson’s leg kick (Opening Day on the left, walk-off homer on the right):
It’s a difference of only a few inches, perhaps no more than the width of a baseball, but it seems this subtle change has allowed Benson to get his timing in sync.
One might think this is just a difference in velocity. The strikeout against Mitch Keller was a 96.8-mph four-seamer and the home run against Evan Phillips was a 92.4-mph cutter. A 4-mph difference is significant, to be sure. But with the shorter leg kick, Benson has seen far fewer fastballs blown by him. He has a 15.5% whiff rate against fastballs since May 26, well below league average and a stark difference from early in the season. In fact, Benson has the third-highest wOBA against fastballs in that timeframe. That trails only Ohtani and McCormick among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances.
Here’s Benson sending a 96.2-mph fastball from old friend Raisel Iglesias out of the ballpark:
The shortened leg kick isn’t the only change Benson has made at the plate. He has also adopted a more neutral stance as opposed to an open one, which may also help in shortening his swing and/or improving his timing.
The gaudy results
Those seemingly small swing adjustments have paid huge dividends. Not only has Benson cut down his strikeouts, but other aspects of his game have also flourished. Among players with at least 140 plate appearances over the last two months, Benson leads the league in on-base percentage (.444). Only five hitters — Juan Soto, Andrew McCutchen, Ohtani, Brandon Belt, and J.J. Bleday — have better walk rates than Benson (16.5%). Just two players, Soto and Ha-Seong Kim, have better chase rates than Benson (18.3%). By getting on base regularly, Benson’s 90th-percentile speed has been an asset. He ranks fifth on the Reds in stolen bases with 10 and is tied for the team lead in triples (4).
And by putting the ball in play more, his power has emerged.
Benson’s swing is geared for elevating the ball, as 43% of his batted balls this season have been hit at a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees — called the “sweet spot” in Statcast terminology. That ranks ninth among 334 hitters with at least 150 plate appearances this season. Some of the notable players ahead of Benson in sweet-spot rate are Freddie Freeman and Luis Arraez. For reference, here are the league averages for batted balls hit in the launch angle sweet spot: .594 batting average, 1.091 slugging percentage, .699 weighted on-base average. Seems good!
His ability to hit the ball with authority has only helped matters. Since returning to the Reds, Benson has an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph (82nd percentile) and an 11.2% barrel rate (75th). Only nine players have a higher isolated power (ISO) than Benson (.298) in the last two months, as 18 of his 41 hits have gone for extra bases.
Although the Myers signing didn’t work out, general manager Nick Krall more than made up for it by acquiring Benson in February. Many were excited about Benson’s upside at the time of the trade, and the buzz only grew during his impressive spring training. That made his poor start especially tough to watch.
But those initial struggles have made Benson’s emergence even sweeter. He’s played an instrumental role in getting the Reds into playoff contention and looks to be a key piece of the outfield for years to come. Benson is doing all of this while batting ninth on most days. How many other teams are getting that kind of production from the bottom of the lineup? There are strong arguments for moving Benson up in the lineup, to be sure. But regardless of where he’s batting, his turnaround has been remarkable. Benson has assertively placed himself into the club’s current and future plans, right alongside the crop of talented prospects who’ve taken baseball by storm in 2023.
Should we expect Benson to continue being the .340 hitter he’s been over the last two months? Probably not, as his .420 BABIP is bound to come down. But is he someone who can get on base 40% of the time, hit 20 homers, and steal 20 bases? That sure doesn’t seem out of the question moving forward. The 25-year-old has demonstrated a unique blend of power, speed, and elite plate discipline that can certainly make one daydream about his ceiling — especially now that his swing-and-miss issues seem to be in the rearview mirror.
Featured photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire