Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Hunter Renfroe.
The Question: Can Hunter Renfroe get into attack mode?
Looking back at Alex Cora’s first season in Boston, one of the defining characteristics from that team (non sign-stealing division) is the approach that Cora preached. He came in and wanted to see his batters up there looking to jump on hittable pitches. This was a stark change from the Red Sox we had known for years and years, an organization known for grinding out at bats and making pitchers work. But Cora wanted his team to do damage, and thanks to that preaching as well as mentorship from J.D. Martinez, they did just that. We know the results.
Cora is obviously now back, and while he’s not a new face it’s still always good to get back in that mindset, which in this writer’s humble opinion is not only more productive in today’s game where getting to the bullpen doesn’t carry the same advantage as it did 20 years ago, but it’s also just more fun to watch. Much of this lineup’s core has heard this before, with Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers all thriving under Cora’s tutelage. But looking at the new faces, it could be Hunter Renfroe who benefits the most from this mindset hopefully being reinstated in the clubhouse.
When Renfroe signed with the Red Sox back in December, it was hard to really throw down any sort of strong judgement on either the positive or negative side because it felt like it all depended on what they did around him. As it turned out, they didn’t do a whole lot in terms of adding to the outfield. That lack of activity, along with Franchy Cordero looking like he’ll be a bit late to the party to start the season, means we’ll be seeing a lot of Renfroe as he tries to prove he can be an everyday player, or at least something close to it.
This is an open question, though the optimists among us will point out that means it’s not a definitive no. It is a definitive no if you look only at last season, when he finished the year with a rough 77 wRC+, meaning he was 23 percent worse than the league-average hitter. But the year prior to that he was essentially league-average with a mark of 98, and in 2018 he was safely above average, finishing the year with a 114 wRC+. That three-year sample gives us a nice three-tiered solution. We definitely don’t want to see a repeat of last year, and a 2018 repeat would be ideal, but the Red Sox will probably settle for that middle ground, where he’s certainly not great but also isn’t a black hole in the lineup.
Looking at his season last year is interesting, though, because it’s not as if the things that Renfroe is good at disappear. First and foremost, the new Red Sox right fielder is a power hitter. When he connects, it goes a long way. He finished 2020 with a .238 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), still well above average. Furthermore, his plate discipline numbers, at least in terms of strikeouts and walks, were also quite good relative to his career. His walk rate came in at a career-high 10 percent while his 26 percent strikeout rate was a five percentage point drop from 2019.
The culprit for his issues was the batting average on balls in play, which came in at a minuscule .141. Now, it almost goes without saying that a good chunk of that is because of the sample size, with Renfroe getting only 139 plate appearances on the season. Small sample sizes lead to weird things with BABIP, and the now-29-year-old was on the short end of that stick. With that being said, I do think it would be a mistake to blame it all on the sample size and just assume he’ll get back to his career norms (which are still pretty low with a career mark of .254) without any adjustments. And first and foremost that adjustment points to his level of aggression at the plate.
Renfroe was more passive than ever before in 2020, coming in with a swing rate of just 41 percent, per Baseball Savant. This was a fairly significant drop from his typical 45-47 percent rate, which sits right around league-average. And digging in a bit deeper, the biggest culprit was a lack of swings on pitches in the zone, with his rate dropping from about 66-67 percent down to 61 percent. The logical endpoint here is clear. On the one hand, you draw more walks, which is what Renfroe did.
But the other side of this, particularly when you’re letting pitches in the zone go by, is that you’re falling behind in counts. And then what happens when you’re finding yourself behind in counts more often? Then you’re letting the pitcher dictate the rest of the at bat, which often means you’re seeing more breaking and offspeed stuff. This is not great for any hitter, but it’s particularly not great for Renfroe, who has historically been a fastball hitter.
Looking at who he is as a hitter, I tend to think they don’t really need him to be a hitter who is drawing walks at a double digit rate. If he does, that’s great, but more important with him hitting likely in the bottom half of the lineup is hitting the ball with authority and knocking in the better bats hitting ahead of him. As I said above, they don’t necessarily need him to be a great hitter, as they have potential for a dynamic top half of the lineup. What they need in the bottom half is to avoid black holes.
And in this case, that means taking advantage of his skillset and jumping on fastballs early in counts. Last season, he started letting the pitcher dictate more and more at bats, and it was to his peril. Alex Cora and company have preached aggression before, and presumably they will do it again this year. Renfroe should be one of the most ardent attendees of these sermons.