After Aaron Judge jacked 15 homers and knocked in 31 runs last September, then followed it up with four more long balls in an impactful postseason, there didn’t seem to be much question anymore. When it came time to name the American League’s rookie of the year, voters gave 30 first-place nods to Judge — and none to Andrew Benintendi. Then, in AL MVP voting, Judge finished second overall, while Benintendi wasn’t even among the 22 players named on at least one ballot.
A discussion that began burbling at mid-summer about which of those young outfielders was better had seemingly been settled by Judge verifying himself as a member of baseball’s elite with his monster finish to 2017. However, here at the midpoint of 2018, the numbers suggest that it could be time to reopen the conversation.
And that with the Red Sox and Yankees rekindling their rivalry this weekend, Benintendi’s bat could ultimately be a key in deciding what has become an ultra-competitive battle for the top of the AL East.
Benintendi’s sophomore campaign started slowly, with the 24-year-old hitting just .244 through Boston’s first 35 games, and homering only once. But since May 9 he’s gone deep a dozen times while hitting .322, reaching base at a .404 rate, and slugging at a .609 clip. Over that span he’s also walked nearly as often as he’s struck out (25 to 29), collected 34 RBI, and stole eight bases in 43 games.
Judge has the same number of homers over that seven-week span, though Benintendi has otherwise outperformed him across the board offensively. As a result, the gap between the two players that appeared to exist after last season, and after Judge’s solid start to this one, has statistically shrunk.
Entering this weekend’s showdown at Yankee Stadium, Judge is hitting .277 with a .397 OBP and .553 slugging percentage. Benintendi, meanwhile, is hitting .290, and trailing narrowly with a .374 OBP and .519 SLG. That’s not a big difference; in fact, those numbers are close enough that two weeks ago, Benintendi’s on-base and slugging were basically where Judge’s are now.
Judge has walloped 20 home runs, to Benintendi’s 13. But, again, that’s largely reflective of April, and when adding doubles and triples to the equation, the Yankee has just one more extra-base hit than Benintendi (38-37). And despite hitting seven more homers, Judge has just one more RBI (52-51), while Benintendi has scored three more runs (56-53).
Benintendi has also stolen 13 bases on 14 attempts – Judge is four of six – and has been far better in terms of fulfilling the classic expectations of a No. 2 hitter in a lineup by putting the ball in play. Both second-year stars bat in that slot on most nights, though Benintendi while has struck out once every 6.3 plate appearances, Judge has whiffed every 3.3 trips to the dish.
If a pitcher can get ahead in the count, Judge isn’t the same hitter. He’s a .199 hitter after falling behind 0-1 in the count, a .107 hitter after getting to 0-2, and a .152 hitter when the count favors the pitcher in any way. Benintendi’s average is .320 after 0-1, .242 after 0-2, and .255 with the pitcher ahead. The 6-foot-7 Judge may be more capable of inflicting instant damage – but it’s the 5-foot-10 Benintendi who’s tougher to get out.
Both hitters have been sensational in “close and late” situations, each sporting an OPS north of 1.050, and each drawing walks at a clip that suggests a calm confidence with the game on the line. Part of the reason Judge has walked in eight of his 30 plate appearances with two outs and runners in scoring position is reflective of opponents’ unwillingness to let the Yankees’ best hitter burn them at those turning points, though that factor speaks to why Benintendi projects as a pivotal force in the division.
Both Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez have had MVP-caliber first halves for Boston, and are the two hitters foes most fear in the Red Sox lineup. Benintendi hits between them. That means he comes after a guy who boasts a .425 OBP with enough doubles (19) and steals (14) to show he’s routinely in scoring position. And it means he comes before a guy who’s leading the major leagues in both homers (25) and RBI (64).
By the very nature of that role, Benintendi has a chance to make lethal Boston’s two most potent offensive weapons. But if he continues to emerge as a dangerous weapon himself, that’s where the Sox could possibly separate themselves from the Yankees. New York’s lineup isn’t lacking, mind you. Not with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, and rookie star Gleyber Torres highlighting an attack that leads the AL in long balls. But it has flaws at the bottom like Boston’s does – and ultimately the strength and consistency at the top of the Red Sox order could be what tilts the balance of power, particularly if Benintendi can make a sustained argument that he’s on Judge’s level.
An argument that, after the past couple months, again has merit.