With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at pitcher Wes Benjamin.
One of the things that I have come to appreciate over the years is how incredibly important command is for major league pitchers.
I remember back in the early days of LSB, fabled commenter Dan Cahill, as part of his overall “crotchety old man” online persona, would grouse about the Rangers’ emphasis on fastball command with their minor league pitchers. The Rangers, he theorized, couldn’t develop pitchers because they spent too much worrying about fastball command, and not enough time developing secondaries. As a result, when Ranger minor league pitchers reached the majors, their secondaries were terrible, and they got hammered. Other teams, Cahill theorized, actually tried to make their pitching prospects good well-rounded pitchers, rather than obsessing over fastball command, especially since every major leaguer could hit a fastball anyway.
But fastball command is a big deal. Most pitchers throw a fastball the majority of the time — even in 2021, at a time where fastballs are being used less often than ever before, 408,000 of 709,851 pitches thrown were in the “fastball” family, 57.5% of the total. If you can’t throw your fastball 1) for strikes, and 2) where you want it in the strike zone, you’re going to have problems.
Want an example of how far fastball command can take you? Look at Lance Lynn. Over 90% of his pitches are in the “fastball” family (four seamer, sinker, cutter). He’s only in the 28th percentile in fastball velocity. But he has a high spin fastball that he commands extremely well, with the result being that, since 2019, he’s been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
To be clear, it isn’t just fastball command — you have to be able to command your secondaries as well (unless you’re Lance Lynn and you decide you just aren’t going to throw your secondaries). But fastball command is your starting point.
There’s also something of a mystique surrounding pitcher command. There’s something of an attitude among some folks, at least, that command is something that anyone can develop and do well. A notion that if you can’t locate your pitches, well, you’re just not trying hard enough. The mindset has been that, well, not everyone can throw 100 mph, but that’s not the case with command. Velocity is elitest, command is egalitarian, and a real fan ignores the radar gun because, well, Greg Maddux didn’t throw that hard, and look how well he did.
Part of that is because, I think, command is something that is very difficult for those of us on the outside to judge. You’ve always* been able to know how fast someone’s pitches are. With the development of pitch f/x and Statcast and the like, we now know how much movement pitches have, how much spin. All that is now tangible, objective, able to be measured and evaluated quantitatively.
* “Always” meaning “as far back as I care to personally remember” for the purposes of this discussion.
Command, though? That’s harder. We can look at heat maps, see where a pitcher generally locates his pitches, get an idea from a big picture standpoint as to where he is throwing the ball. But how well he hits his spots? His ability to locate well, if needed, both up and down in the zone, both glove side and arm side? That isn’t something that, as far as I know, anyway, we can distill down to a specific number, in no small part because its impossible for us to know where, exactly, a pitcher is intending to locate a specific pitch.
There’s also the fact that command, seemingly, can be variable. That isn’t the case with, say, fastball velocity (the occasional Demarcus Evans notwithstanding). A pitcher with very good stuff but shaky command might seemingly figure it out, have it click for a while, but then lose it again — see, e.g., Ian Gibaut in 2020. That sort of variability makes command seem much more mystical, the sometimes ephemeral nature of pitcher command giving it an aura of unfathomability to us outsiders.
And finally, of course, there is the fact that velocity, movement, repertoire, command, all these things ultimately go hand-in-hand. Think of these various attributes as sliders in an RPG or a sim — for a pitcher, one attribute’s slider bar can be lower, farther to the left, if others are farther to the right. Which means that, for example, if you have a number of pitches that you throw hard and that have great movement, you can have success with weaker command than what you would need if your pitches are more marginal.
Which takes us to Wes Benjamin. A lefty drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Rangers out of the University of Kansas, Texas selected him knowing that he would likely not make his professional debut until 2016 due to needing Tommy John surgery, and Benjamin made his full season debut for Hickory, then the low-A affiliate of the Rangers, that season.
Benjamin moved up the organizational ladder, bumping up a level per season, being a solid but unspectacular starter, never really landing prominently on the prospect map. In 2019, Benjamin got his first taste of AAA ball, and for the first time as a professional he struggled, putting up a 5.52 ERA in 135.1 IP, with 114 Ks, 53 walks and 24 home runs allowed.
Benjamin appeared, at that point, to have established who he was — an organizational soldier, a guy who could round out a AAA rotation and possibly be an option in the majors in an emergency, but who was likely to be saddle with an NP grade by most. He was a pitchability guy, someone with good command, but without the stuff and repertoire needed to succeed at the highest level.
But Benjamin was working to change that. After the 2018 season, he went to Driveline Baseball and learned about pitch design, figuring out what changes he could make to get more depth to his breaking ball, improve the tunneling of his pitches, better understand the steps he can take to make adjustments. After the 2019 season, he replaced his slider with a cutter, in an effort to improve the differentiation in his pitches.
Come spring training, 2020, Wes Benjamin was one of the stories of camp. His improved repertoire, combined with the solid command he has always displayed, had him being viewed as a legitimate option for the major league pitching staff. Then there was that pandemic you may have heard about, everything was put on hold for a while. But when summer camp opened, Benjamin continued to impress. He started the year at the Alternate Training Site, but was called up in mid-August, and ended up making eight appearances in the majors in the COVID season.
Benjamin didn’t tear up the majors in 2020 — he had a 4.84 ERA and 4.58 FIP in 22.1 IP over 8 games, but he also put up a 3.79 xERA and a .301 xwOBA, both of which are very solid. In the rebuilding year of 2021, Benjamin was seen as someone who was going to get an opportunity to show that he could be a major league contributor for the Rangers in some role going forward. And he was someone I was feeling a lot of optimism about — someone who I felt could be a very positive surprise for the team.
That opportunity ended up lasting just three games. Set up to work in a tandem role behind Jordan Lyles, Benjamin had a very nice season debut, throwing 2.1 scoreless innings against the Royals, allowing just one hit while striking out three and not walking anyone.
Outing two, against the Padres, there was a bump in the road. Coming into the game in the top of the fifth with one out, Benjamin got Jurickson Profar to pop out, then after a walk to Manny Machado, an Eric Hosmer single ended up ending the inning due to Machado unwisely trying to test Joey Gallo’s arm in right field, resulting in him being thrown out at third. Things went fine in the sixth, as he fanned Wil Myers, then after a single was able to elicited a 6-4-3 GIDP. Then in the seventh, Benjamin walked Ha-Seong Kim with one out before allowing a two run home run to Trent Grisham to turn a 4-3 Rangers lead into a 5-4 Rangers deficit. Benjamin was lifted for Josh Sborz, and the Rangers went on to lose.
In game three, against the Tampa Bay Rays, things went sideways. Coming into the game in relief of Lyles with out out in the sixth, Benjamin went F7, walk, K to get out of the inning. The seventh, however, saw him issue a one out walk to Brett Phillips, followed up by a 3-2 fly out by Austin Meadows, and then a walk to Randy Arozarena. Clownball ensued after that, as Phillips was picked off second base...or would have been, but for the fact that a poor throw by Jose Trevino went into center field. Leody Taveras’s throw to third to then got away, allowing Phillips to score the go-ahead run. A 3-2 walk to Brandon Lowe then ended Benjamin’s outing and, as it turned out, his time in the majors for a while.
Needing fresh arms and having concerns about Benjamin’s uncharacteristic lack of command, the Rangers optioned Benjamin after that game, beginning what would be a season-long shuttling of Benjamin between Round Rock and Texas. The lefty bounced up and down between AAA and the majors, never being able to settle in and consistently log innings. He also, not surprisingly, struggled all year long with his command, something the team acknowledged was impacted by his shuffling back and forth and not being able to get consistent work in.
When the 2021 season ended, the numbers for Benjamin were not good. He put up a 8.74 ERA, 7.18 FIP and 6.04 xERA in 22.2 major league innings, and a 8.29 ERA in 46.2 innings in AAA. His major league walk rate doubled compared to 2020, his K rate dropped by 20%, and his xwOBA jumped 66 points, to .367.
At the end of the season, Benjamin was designated for assignment, cleared waivers, and was outrighted. He became a minor league free agent, and ended up signing with the Chicago White Sox, where he is currently slated to be part of the team’s AAA rotation.
I’m still pulling for Benjamin, and my hope is that he can spend at least a few months pitching regularly in the rotation for the Charlotte Knights. If he gets that opportunity, gets to take the ball every 5-6 days, he can see if he can get into a groove and get his command locked back in and work on the changes he has been making with his pitches.
If he does that, and pitches well, he’ll get another shot in the majors. Hell, even if he doesn’t, he’ll likely get another shot in the majors, since he’s a lefty and everyone loves those lefties.
But Benjamin’s 2021 season highlights how fickle command can be, and how fleeting an opportunity can be when you don’t immediately take advantage of it.
Here’s hoping things go well for him in 2022.