Starting in the 21st round of the 2017 draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates went on a run of selecting college shortstops. After taking Brett Pope and Robbie Glendinning, they used their 23rd round pick on Ben Bengtson out of the University of Hartford. They would go on to select Nick Valaika in the 24th round for their fourth straight shortstop. As it turned out, Bengtson was the only one of the four not to see time at shortstop. He spent his time at third base and easily put up the best offensive stats of the quartet.
Bengtson, who said that his often misspelled name is Swedish and pronounced “Bank-t-son”, was a three-year starter at Hartford and almost all of his playing time was at shortstop. That’s the position he grew up playing. His move to third base in the pros came about because he kept getting bigger during his college career, adding muscle each season. That had him going from a speedy, top of the order type of hitter, to someone who slugged .511 over his final two seasons of college ball. The Pirates scouted him as a shortstop, but they did it with the idea of moving him to third base and he found that out during the draft process.
“I was told during the draft process that I would move to third,” Bengtson said. “I put on weight and got stronger throughout my college career, which made me more fit for third base. My Pirates scout Eddie Charles told me I’d move to third so I could focus primarily on my hitting.”
Bengtson signed shortly after the draft ended and was sent to Bristol to begin his professional career. With someone playing a position that they have barely played before, it wasn’t a bad idea to start him at a lower level. The Appalachian League is a low starting point for someone who has three years as a starter in college ball, plus time spent in summer collegiate ball. The idea though, was to get him regular playing time at third base and the Pirates spent their third round draft pick on Dylan Busby, so he was going to get the majority of the third base time for Morgantown.
In 36 games at the hot corner for Bristol, Bengtson posted a .926 fielding percentage, committing eight errors in 108 total chances. For reference sake on Bristol, the other four players who saw time at third base combined for an .874 fielding percentage in 95 total chances.
In 40 games total, which included three as a DH and one as a pinch-hitter, Bengtson batted .257/.381/.393 with four homers. That ranked him sixth on the team in OPS, though he was just a handful of points away from the fourth best OPS for Bristol. The Appalachian League is better for offense than most leagues where the Pirates have affiliates, but Bengtson was still 42 points above league average OPS. It took some adjustment time going from college ball to the pros and Bengston finished strong, posting an .860 OPS in his final 18 games.
“When I got to pro ball I knew the game would be a little faster,” Bengtson said. “The Pirates took their time with entering the Bristol draft guys into the lineup. They wanted us to get familiar and make sure we were ready to go. I think that was big for me and I’m glad they did that. I got to see the adjustments guys were making and learning how pitchers were working batters.”
Bengtson was in the lineup for the first time on June 26th, which was the fifth game of the season for the Bristol Pirates. He got hit in each of his first three at-bats, then quickly found out that the minor league season can be a grind. Bengtson gave a lot of credit for his strong finish to Kelson Brown, who spent six seasons in the minors with the Pirates before switching to coaching after Spring Training in 2016. Here’s the detailed answer of the work Bengtson and Brown put in together and the mentoring that went on between them.
“I worked every single day with our hitting coach Kelson Brown bouncing ideas off his head figuring out a plan of attack for my first pro year. Through the ups and downs of the season, Brownie and I were working on timing, gathering early and getting the head out, while having a soft landing. With those two combinations mastered I would be in the best hitting position. We continued to work on that and as it got better success continued with hard contact. After all, as hitters that’s all we are trying to do. Make hard contact equaling quality at bats. He was a tremendous help for me and everyone else on our team. He was solely interested in our careers and how he could get us better.”
Having a recently-retired player, who knew what it was like to work for everything he got, turned out to be great help for Bengtson. Brown was known as a grinder throughout his career and even worked his way up to Indianapolis, despite the fact he was a 34th round draft pick who never saw consistent starting time during his career. He also provided some help for Bengtson on the defensive side because Brown knew what it was like to move around the infield, playing all four spots during his career. Everyone in the system always talked highly of Kelson Brown the player, so it didn’t surprise anyone when he became a coach, and it’s not surprising to hear that the players think highly of him and the work he puts in daily.
What the Future Holds for Bengtson
The move to third base for Bengtson seems to be a permanent move for now, although adding positions later for versatility is always possible. He has plenty of experience at shortstop already, so that’s in the back pocket, even if it’s not a spot he can play full-time as a pro. Third base was the only position he played with Bristol. During the Fall Instructional League, the Pirates had him spending all four weeks at Pirate City learning the position.
The real defensive work was put in during Instructs with former Major Leaguer and current Minor League Infield Coordinator Gary Green, who Bengtson referred to as “the guru”. It wasn’t just the physical part of playing third base, it was getting in the right position early and being mentally prepared on each and every pitch. Many of the players I talked to about Instructs came away with a positive experience that was centered around what they learned on the mental side of the game. It was a terrific learning experience all around, especially when the mental side helped improve the physical side of the game and they saw immediate results. Bengtson gave another detailed answer on that part, which I left together as one quote below.
“Big thing the Pirates pride themselves on is defense and positioning of defenders. Hitting and defense are very similar, timing is key. Being on time and in the best possible position to cover the most amount of ground is what we worked on. They talked about was the effort we need to give with throws to first base. Knowing how much time we have, where the other team is in there lineup with speed guys versus power guys. How are we going to get 27 clean outs. At the end of the day it’s about getting outs. They have put us in the best position to get those results. Compete and always be locked in until the game is over. Never take a rep off and never disrespect a ground ball.”
After Instructs ended, Bengtson was given an off-season program designed specifically for him by the team’s strength and conditioning staff. It’s an in depth packet of instructions for working out four days a week, including conditioning. Bengtson’s off-season plans are different than we have heard from some of the younger players who are looking to put on weight, especially with the pitchers. Being an athletic third baseman who has added muscle over the last couple of years, he is focused more on staying strong, adding stamina and maintaining that athleticism.
“I’ll be maintaining my weight and increasing muscle mass. I’m not a guy that’s going to swipe 25-30 bags a year,” Bengtson said. “I’ve put on weight and muscle to hit for a little more power while maintaining speed. Of course I’ll be working on speed to keep that tool in the bag. Going to be in good condition so I can hit the ground running when Spring Training hits”
The immediate future for Bengtson looks like he could end up at third base for West Virginia next year. For now, he will be behind Dylan Busby in the system. While Busby had some major strikeout issues, he was a high draft pick from a major college, so he could skip right to Bradenton. That would open the door for Bengtson to play third base for the Power next year. You have someone who has shown some power, speed and the ability to play defense, making him a player to keep an eye on as he develops in pro ball.