As the Red Sox have stayed steady at the top of the American League East for the majority of this season, there have obviously been some issues here and there on this roster that have kept them from really running away as some of their competition have stumbled out of the gate. Among the issues that have been most apparent as the season has gone along as been the bottom of the lineup, which at times has seemingly single-handedly kept them out of the win column. Those issues have not been totally solved, either, as there are still plenty of question marks in the lineup outside of the core group. With that said, there have been some improvements, most notably with Hunter Renfroe.
Coming into the season, I think there were some mixed feelings about what Renfroe could bring to the team. The right fielder was an early signing for the winter, so it felt at the time of his signing that the evaluation really depended on what else they did. As things turned out, of course, it resulted in Renfroe having to be something close to an everyday outfielder, particularly now with Franchy Cordero never really getting going. That led to disappointment from some, including me, and the month of April only strengthened those feelings.
To that end, things were dismal for the former Padre and Ray through the first month of the season, where he was very much in that group of hitters at the bottom of the lineup who was being carried by the core group of the offense. By the end of the month he was hitting just .167/.235/.250 for a 34 wRC+. In other words, he was 66 percent worse than the league-average hitter. Among the 238 players who got at least 60 plate appearances over the month of April, only nine had a worse month at the plate by wRC+.
We all know first impressions are everything, a rule that applies both to baseball and life in general, and so it can be hard to notice when someone is digging themselves out of that kind of hole, particularly when the overall numbers are still bad. But with Renfroe, that last part is just an indication of how low he was in April because he has legitimately turned things around in the month of May. Since the calendar flipped to the second month of the season, the Red Sox outfielder is hitting .283/.283/.533 for a 121 wRC+. As I said, the overall numbers are still rough with a 74 wRC+ on the year, but things are clearly trending in the right direction.
There are a few things to point out here in terms of why he’s starting to turn things around. Some if it comes in how he’s approaching things, though he’s really just being more aggressive and making more contact. He’s seeing a lot fewer offspeed pitches right now than he did in May, per Baseball Savant, which is good for him because those were the pitches with which he had the most trouble in April. He’s also just swinging through fewer of every type of pitch.
But the plate discipline stuff has been secondary to his improvement, which his easy to tell by looking at his line since his average and on-base percentage are the same number. That, of course, means he hasn’t drawn a walk this month. All of his work has come by simply hitting the ball better, and really this run of success does come down to the quality of contact and the way he is hitting the ball. A lot of times when a player turns things around like this, particularly with so much power being added to the mix, the first thing to look for is whether they’re hitting more balls in the air. For Renfroe, there was a little bit of an improvement there, but nothing too extreme.
Instead, the two things I’m looking at are simply how hard he’s hitting the ball and where he’s hitting it. To the first point, it’s pretty straight forward. Per FanGraphs, the jump in hard-hit rate is impossible to ignore. In April, he was hitting just 22 percent of his batted balls at least 95 mph. So far in May, that rate has jumped all the way up to 42 percent. It should be noted that while some of that jump has come at the expense of soft contact, it has mostly come at the expense of medium contact.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is where he’s hitting the ball. We hear all the time about right-handed hitters at Fenway being too pull-happy because they see that big wall in batting practice and it’s too tempting to try and attack it, which can lead to guys rolling a lot of balls over as they try too hard to get it into left field. That was the opposite of what happened with Renfroe in April. He’s been a pull-heavy hitter throughout his career, but it seemed he was trying to be someone else in the first month of the season, pulling just 27 percent of the balls he hit.
This month, he’s been the hitter he’s supposed to be. He’s attacking pitches, hitting them hard, and perhaps most importantly he’s hitting them to his pull side. Renfroe has pulled 42 percent of his batted balls so far this month, and the results show with the power. Not only is he taking advantage of the Monster, but he’s taking advantage of his swing. Renfroe is very much a traditional power hitter, and while he can hit it out in any direction, 64 percent of his career homers have come to the pull side. That’s where his strength is, and he’s taking advantage.
We knew coming into the season that Renfroe was a streaky hitter, so I don’t expect the version that we’ve seen in April or May to be one that we’ll see for the rest of the season. We’ll see another downturn, and we’ll see him turn it around again as well. But we know the formula for his success, and we’re seeing it in action right now. If we see Renfroe trying to be someone he’s not, spraying the ball all around the field, it could be a recipe for disaster. It’s counter-intuitive to the concerns we often hear about new right-handed hitters at Fenway, but for Renfroe, we want him to go for that Monster and let it build his power up to provide some thump down low in the lineup.