Right now, most of the Red Sox offseason is more theoretical than actual movement, which is par for the course around the league right now. They have made one addition to the roster via free agency, bringing in Hunter Renfroe on a one-year deal. The expectation, and certainly the hope, is that this is just the first of many additions to fill the clear holes on this roster.
With regards to this one specifically, as we said on Tuesday the hope should be that Renfroe has been added to be a platoon bat and supporting player rather than someone who can be plugged into the lineup on a nearly everyday basis. That said, whether or not they plan on him being an everyday player, we all know plans are just that: Plans. Things happen and plans change all the time, and even if he starts the year as a bench player it only takes one weird step in the outfield, or one collision, or one hit by pitch, or whatever it is to knock a starter out of the lineup long-term and thrust Renfroe into a starting role. He has been signed and will be on the major-league roster, therefore there has to be some readiness from the team for him to play a significant role, even if it’s not ideal.
So, given that and the fact that the Red Sox very much realize that as well, a big chunk of this signing has to be made with confidence that 2020 was a fluke. This past summer was a weird one for all of us, of course, and it was a very bad one on the field for Renfroe. He came to the plate only 139 times, and in those plate appearances he hit just .156/.252/.393 for a 76 wRC+, causing him to finish the season as a below replacement level player by FanGraphs’s measure. Clearly, the Red Sox would not have signed him to a major-league deal if they felt as though that was reflective of who he is in terms of true talent.
And, of course, it doesn’t take an expert to know that 2020 was not really a season that you have to take entirely on face value. There is plenty of reason to toss it aside for Renfroe. For one, the sample was tiny. On top of that, these players are human beings and I think we as fans and people who analyze the game kind of take for granted that this was a really difficult summer for them too. People’s work suffers when life is erratic, and that’s no different for athletes. And even beyond that obvious stuff that applies to everyone, there are things in Renfroe’s statistical breakdown such as his batting average on balls in play (an unsustainably low .141) that heavily contributed to the poor overall line.
So, it’s not unreasonable to look beyond 2020. The issue is that even if we do that, the numbers still aren’t really going to blow you away. In Renfroe’s other three full seasons beyond 2020 (we’re not counting his 26 plate appearances in 2016) he has been above-average by wRC+ just once. Granted, the years he was not above-average he finished with marks of 94 and 98, so it’s not as if he was in the statistical gutter like 2020. But still, for a corner outfielder with somewhat erratic defensive numbers, it’s not ideal. As a bench player, particularly if he gets to face mostly lefties, you can live with who Renfroe has been for most of his career. But if he is thrust into an everyday role, either due to injury or a lack of other moves as the offseason continues, things get murkier.
And as we look at who he is as a player, it’s clear that the issues lie in terms of him getting on base, not with his power. The power is something that has always played up, even despite largely not playing in hitter’s parks in San Diego or Tampa Bay. In his four full seasons, even counting 2020, he has never had an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) below .236. For context, that career-low mark for Renfroe would have been the best on the Red Sox roster among qualified players in 2020.
On the other hand, over his career he has finished with an on-base percentage over .300 just once, and his career OBP is just .290. Power is great, but when you’re canceling it out by making outs over 70 percent of the time, that’s just not going to cut it as a major-league regular. And when we think of OBP, we tend to think of it in terms of drawing walks, because that is generally a more sustainable skill year over year. To Renfroe’s credit, this is an area in which he has improved over his career. With each passing season, the slugger has had a higher walk rate than the previous one, culminating in a 10 percent rate in 2020.
Unfortunately, this uptick in walk rate has coincided with a dropping BABIP, which has served to essentially cancel out any potential OBP gains. Renfroe has never been a high BABIP player and likely never will, but in his first two full seasons he was at least sitting in the .270 range. If we was able to combine that with his increasing walk rate and the power that’s always been there, all of a sudden we’re talking about a usable player. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. I mentioned the low BABIP in 2020, and even in 2019 that number was down at .239.
It’s easy to toss these things aside as luck, and that is part of it, especially in 2020. But it also has to do with Renfroe’s approach. For one thing, the increased walk rate has a lot to do with him being more selective at the plate. Per Baseball Savant, that selectivity has been reflected much more often on pitches in the zone than pitches out of it. It goes without saying it’s easier to get hits on pitches in the zone. And digging a little deeper, the biggest change has been on pitches in the zone. Below you can see his swing rate on all zones in 2020 compared to 2019, and you’ll notice the inner-third of the plate is where the biggest decreases lie.
This is where the biggest improvement for Renfroe can come, though it’s not simply about swinging at these pitches. He needs to be better at doing damage here, and in particular about using Fenway to his advantage. In terms of average exit velocity, Renfroe has been the worst on these pitches on the inner half. In that sense, perhaps laying off them would be best, but if he can find a way to turn them around, he can find a ton of success at Fenway utilizing the Monster.
That may not lead to any sort of uptick with home runs, but that’s what he needs. Renfroe needs to get on base, and that comes down to just getting hits. He’s done well in terms of increasing the walk rate, and now he needs to keep that up while getting his BABIP up to a respectable level. If he can smash some doubles and singles off the Monster when pitchers challenge him on the inner half, all of a sudden he could take that next step forward and be a consistently better-than-average player. Obviously it’s easier said than done to make this kind of adjustment, but the Red Sox have historically been great at maximizing position players’ skillset at the plate. If they can do the same with Renfroe, they’ll have turned a cheap offseason signing into a potential longer-term player.