Lancaster, California —— The first time I met TJ Bennett, he was hitting everything.
In 71 games last summer in the San Francisco Giants’ organization—including 65 with the San Jose Giants here in the California League—Bennett went on a tear in his first taste of affiliated ball, slashing .282/.356/.479/.835 with 18 doubles and nine home runs over 238 at-bats. He collected 19 hits in ten regular season games on the road in Bakersfield during August alone, wreaking havoc on the Seattle Mariners farmhands and at one point raising his season average as high as .317 before falling back a bit in September.
It was a nice coming-out party for Bennett, an undrafted infielder who the Giants had quietly plucked out of an independent league months earlier. But it didn’t last.
After earning a spot at Double-A Richmond to begin 2017, Bennett went on a cold streak, going just 7-for-39 (.179) in 15 games there before finding himself once again in San Jose. Once he got back on the west coast, the cold streak didn’t snap; through Sunday night in High-A, Bennett is slashing just .132/.221/.221/.441 in 68 at-bats—an undesirable line for anybody, but especially for a guy who torched this league just a season ago.
But if there’s one guy I know who isn’t too worried about hitting .150, it’s TJ Bennett.
Perhaps you can credit his Christian faith, which the San Francisco Giants infielder wears on his sleeve. Maybe you could credit his indy league background; compared to where he’s been, going through a slump in affiliated ball really isn’t so bad. Or maybe just credit his good nature and exceptional work ethic, both requirements for being an undrafted, unheralded minor league underdog. But whatever the focal point, there’s more behind Bennett than a first-half slump.
“I’m not too worried about [the slump], but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to fight it,” TJ Bennett told Baseball Census before a road game in Lancaster late last month. “The competitor in me wants to do well. The teammate in me wants to do well for my teammates, for my coaches, for my organization. I want to help the team. But when it comes down to it, man, I can only control so much. And ironically enough, in my season so far between here and Richmond, I really do feel good about what I’ve done. I feel like I’ve prepared well and competed well, even if the cards haven’t fallen like I wanted.”
There’s likely some truth to Bennett’s last assertion there, at least insofar as the tangible points you can take away from his stats. He put the ball in play quite a bit up in Richmond, striking out just seven times in 45 plate appearances. It’s difficult to iron out a slump when you’re not getting everyday playing time, though, and the San Francisco Giants had a clear plan for Bennett in Richmond: learn to come off the bench, because that’s going to be your role going forward.
In that way, slumping takes a back seat to the value pulled out of learning the nuances of National League rules, then brand-new to TJ Bennett at the Double-A level.
“I learned a ton about how to be ready for double switches, and how to hit in front of a pitcher, and things like that,” he noted. “[Richmond] was a great opportunity, I loved it. I got a lot of playing time, and a lot of pinch-hit time in different roles. And I did hit quite a few balls hard there that went for outs. There was a span of a couple weeks where I was like, ‘man, I don’t know what I did to the baseball gods but they don’t want to give me any hits right now.’”
That TJ Bennett has the ability to laugh at himself about upsetting the baseball gods is indicative of the broader way the infielder takes on adversity, and it’s instructive as to why I knew he wouldn’t be pressing too hard to get some hits. There’s a mature calm in him that’s not typical at this level. His faith, his age, his undrafted background—it all plays a role—but perspective through a demotion has the infielder seeing it for what it really is: another opportunity.
“I could be roasting in Arizona right now [at the Giants’ facility in Scottsdale], and I have a lot of teammates that are,” he acknowledged. “I feel for them, and that makes me not want to take for granted that I’m here, and not there. I’ve watched people take situations like mine for granted, and then they look back and admit, ‘you know, that wasn’t that bad. My situation there really wasn’t too bad.’ I don’t want to do that.”
“And we have some young prospects here,” Bennett continued, referencing San Jose’s prospect-heavy roster. “For a lot of them, this is their first full season. Some of them are still 20 and 21 years old. I want to be that veteran voice on the bench. I want to be able to share my experience with them, and share something I saw from the dugout or something that can help them, and they can take it and it’ll help propel their careers.”
It must be humbling to have to admit this is your station in baseball. Not a prospect, too old for the league, left to figure out your own way back to Richmond while younger, flashier, more projectable guys all around you soak up the spotlight. It takes a specific player to relish that role and balance personal competitiveness with a larger understanding of how a bench role can help make a team function with no regard for how ugly your own slash line may be.
“The biggest cliché is ‘taking things one day at a time,’ but there’s a reason why it’s a cliché,” the San Francisco Giants prospect mused. “Clichés are there because things are easier said than done, right? It’s easy for me to say, ‘take it one day at a time,’ or say to a reporter, ‘you know, I’m just taking it one day at a time.’ But it’s different to go about my day and take care of my time right now. It’s different to say to myself, ‘hey, I’m going to focus on this moment to be better as a human, or a baseball player, or a boyfriend, or a son,’ and then actually go do that.”
That’s not to say there isn’t some desire to go on a tear at the plate, of course. No matter how unselfish a role player like TJ Bennett may be, he’s a competitor too, with his own goals of reaching the big leagues. That means he’ll have to eventually reconcile his relationship with the finicky baseball gods so that some hits can start falling again.
“When things are going good as a hitter, things go very good,” the San Francisco Giants infielder said, smiling as if reminiscing about better days like that hot streak last summer. “When things start clicking, hitting gets easy. Talk to any hitter. When things are really good, we have thoughts like, ‘I don’t know how they ever got me out before. This game isn’t that hard.’ And then when things start going bad, the thoughts come the other way. ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to get on base again.’ There’s this roller coaster you are always mentally riding as a hitter.”
“But I feel good mentally,” he continued. “I’ve hit some balls at people that instead of doubles they become outs, or instead of clean base hits they get caught, or there’s a shift, or different circumstances cause it to be an out. But it is what it is. You can’t do much about that. This is the game we play.”
A few hours after our conversation, TJ Bennett found himself in the lineup against the Lancaster JetHawks and starter Peter Lambert, one of the Colorado Rockies’ top pitching prospects. In his first two at-bats against the poised, talented righty, Bennett collected a single and a triple, at the time raising his average nearly one hundred points. Sure, it was only two at-bats in a sea of sluggish days and inconsistent playing time, but maybe it was also a small sign of good faith from the baseball gods: stick with it, kid. More hits are soon coming your way.
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