Benson's winter work paying off with snazzy plays in '24

April 7th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Sheldon's Reds Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CINCINNATI -- As much as Reds outfielder worked on his hitting in the offseason, he put as much effort into getting better defensively. It's already showing up in the first eight games this season.

Gone are the first steps in the wrong direction. Gone are the indirect routes often seen in 2023. Whether he's playing right field or center field, Benson's defensive play looks both smoother and cleaner.

“Those two words are really important," outfield and first-base coach Collin Cowgill said on Friday. "The big focus for him was being under control. He’s such a great athlete that he thinks about being fast and thinks about being quick, and it slows him down.

"When he’s naturally smooth and naturally free, he’s just much better. Physically, we tweaked his pre-pitch stuff to get more movement involved, so he’s off towards the ball faster."

Playing right field on Monday at Philadelphia, Benson's work showed up on several plays -- many of which appeared routine. On Whit Merrifield's second-inning fly ball, Benson made a quick first step toward center field and was under the ball in plenty of time. Likewise in the fifth inning, on a Trea Turner fly ball to right-center field.

In the seventh inning, Benson was quick to react to the ball off the bat and made a long run into foul territory to catch another ball from Merrifield.

“It’s reassuring that the work I’ve put in [is paying off], and to obviously get the opportunities and the catches. It echoes in my head that what I’m doing is correct," Benson said. “Those are the plays that if you continue to add those up and collect them, it makes a great defender.”

On Tuesday vs. the Phillies while playing center field, Benson made a spectacular diving catch on Bryce Harper's hard line drive. If Benson had missed it, Harper could've had extra bases.

“You know me; I’m just helping my team win," Benson said. "To be able to do that on the defensive side, it’s a full-circle moment in terms that I can impact the game on the defensive side as well.”

Because TJ Friedl is on the injured list with a fractured right wrist, Benson is getting more time in center field. He has less experience there than in the corner spots, but it has not looked that way.

Benson had a -3 Outs Above Average and a -0.7 defensive WAR last season. If he continues on the current trajectory, he can also expect those analytics to improve.

Both before and during games, Benson is moving, hopping and anticipating the ball. He has access to PitchCom when he’s in center field, which helps with knowing what pitch is coming and what the hitter might do. But Benson is mentally prepared as well, especially in the corners.

“The mental stuff is just putting himself in the box against the hitter," Cowgill said. "'Where do you think this hitter is going to hit the ball based on who we’ve got on the mound?' Using his brain and his instincts and matching it up with our guy on the mound and their guy in the box and where he thinks the ball is going to go.

"The biggest goal for him is to be able to anticipate where the ball is going to go before it’s being hit. He’ll just have a better jump that way. Our guy knows that if he doesn’t execute on the mound, he’s got someone behind him.”