NEW YORK -- Before he hit an Opening Day home run on a left-handed uppercut that was eerily reminiscent of Carl Yastrzemski, and before Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon dubbed him "Fred Lynn reincarnated," Andrew Benintendi was all but crowned Rookie of the Year by preseason acclamation.
And then Aaron Judge came along.
With his immense size, brute strength and surprising athleticism, Judge is the new face of the New York Yankees and baseball's breakout star nearly one-third of the way through the season. He has emerged not only as the league's top rookie but, with Mike Trout recovering from surgery on a torn thumb ligament, the early MVP front-runner. Judge has set the bar for his fellow rookies, and it's as impossibly high as his towering homers.
But while Benintendi inevitably will be measured against Judge, the Boston Red Sox phenom is more aptly compared to another up-and-coming New York star, both for their initial success and the struggles that have followed and left him splitting time in left field.
"I definitely watched Benintendi play last year and he was very impressive," Mets outfielder Michael Conforto said in spring training. "Similar situation to me, making the playoffs and going on a run there."
Indeed, from the day the Red Sox called up Benintendi last August, he has been likened to Conforto. Both were first-round draft picks out of major college programs. Both zoomed through the minor leagues, bypassing Triple-A on the way to reaching the majors one year after getting drafted. And both had little difficulty adjusting to the big leagues.
Conforto, 24, batted .270 with nine homers and an .841 OPS in 56 games in 2015, helping lead the Mets to the National League East crown and the World Series. Benintendi, 22, hit .295 with two homers and an .835 OPS in 34 games last season, helping the Red Sox win the AL East and reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.
But Conforto's first full season in the majors was a disappointment. Pitchers changed the way they approached him and he was slow to counter-adjust. His batting average and OPS fell to .220 and .725, respectively. He hit only 12 homers in 304 at-bats. The Mets even demoted him to Triple-A last summer.
Given that context, Benintendi's struggles in May shouldn't have been so surprising. After opening the season so strong that Red Sox manager John Farrell even put him in the cleanup spot to boost an offense that wasn't hitting home runs, Benintendi began seeing more off-speed pitches in fastball counts. Pitchers worked the inside of the plate more often, trying to tie up his hands. He went 20-for-98 (.204) with a .602 OPS last month, at one point enduring an 0-for-26 funk.
Last week, with Benintendi in the midst of a 1-for-23 spell, he wasn't in the lineup for three games, all against left-handed starters (David Holmberg and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles' Wade Miley). Farrell stood by Benintendi, insisting "he's not a platoon player," even if it looks that way based on the allocation of playing time. Benintendi sat out Wednesday night against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia after homering one night earlier.
"One thing we can assure the young players is that they're going to struggle," Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. "I have not seen a guy come to the major leagues and not struggle. So, we've kept preaching to him to stay with what he's done, that he's going to work and he's going to get back. And as soon as he recognizes that he don't need to do more, that he just needs to stick with what he does, he's going to become a better player."
It took a while for Conforto to figure that out, his rookie-year slump persisting for several months. He went 8-for-75 with 28 strikeouts over one particularly brutal 25-game stretch before returning to the minors. Upon his return, he went 10-for-50 with 15 strikeouts and got sent down again.
"I think I kind of fell into the pitcher's game plan as opposed to executing my own game plan," said Conforto, who learned from his mistakes and is having an All-Star season for the Mets. "There's so much information that you can analyze all day, but at the end of the day, it's your natural ability and obviously he has plenty of that. You have to simplify it, just go out there and do what you do, see the ball and hit the ball, and it will take care of itself."
It didn't help either that Conforto never slumped during his brief development in the minors. The same is true of Benintendi, who didn't hit a rough patch at any level until he got to the big leagues, where the pitchers are tougher, the stakes are higher and the spotlight is considerably brighter, especially in big markets such as New York and Boston.
At least Benintendi appears to be a quick study. Unlike Conforto or even Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who went through a brutal slump after the All-Star break during his first full big league season in 2014, Benintendi has been quicker to make adjustments to the way he's being pitched. Rodriguez called him "very coachable" and praised him for trusting the advice of hitting coach Chili Davis.
Sure enough, Benintendi homered twice last Sunday in Baltimore and then went deep against struggling Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka here Tuesday night.
"I feel like I've been seeing a lot of 2-0 changeups and 3-1 sliders," Benintendi said. "I think maybe I was kind of impatient up there, trying to make things happen rather than just letting the game come to me. That's part of where you just mentally stay there and never check out."
Said Conforto: "You just try to keep out that background noise, kind of have tunnel vision a little bit, keep your eyes on what you have to do every day, just try to keep the distractions out of your mind and just focus on what's important, the present moment."
At the moment, Benintendi is doing that well, if not quite as well as the best rookie in the game.