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The curious case of Hunter Renfroe’s defense

Is he good?

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an episode late in the run of former NBC sitcom Community — a fantastic choice if you’re looking for a sitcom to binge, FYI — where one of the characters, Abed, takes a course dedicated to whether or not Nicolas Cage is a good actor. Abed connects with the world through movies, TV, and pop culture, and the question begins to consume him until he has a complete meltdown in which he channels the man himself. Ultimately, the answer is never revealed as to whether or not Cage is a good actor. He remains a mystery, an enigma. And it kind of feels like that’s where we are with Hunter Renfroe’s defense in 2021 as well.

Like most everyone reading this, I’m sure, my immediate thoughts on Renfroe’s defense are overwhelmingly positive, or at least they were before this week. He’s made a ton of highlight plays this season, and particularly in the first half his defense seemed to be a major reason they were able to win games. Between his arm, which is among the league’s best, and those highlight grabs, I honestly didn’t really even consider that he hasn’t been a very good defensive player this season. And even with some evidence I’m going to provide below, that is still not something I’m sure I can believe.

But whether you want to look at just the traditional metrics or the advanced ones, the numbers are not high on his glove work this season. You’ve probably heard by now after his rough week in the field that his error total is startlingly high. Renfroe has made 12 errors this season, three more than any other outfielder in the game. And he’s been an equal opportunity error compiler, splitting his miscues evenly with six fielding errors and six of the throwing variety.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Of course, most of us are aware that errors are not always the most reliable stat in telling us whether or not a player is good defensively. For one thing, they are quite subjective as official scorers are ultimately tasked with deciding what is and is not an error. Furthermore, they can often punish players with plus range, as they are able to get to balls no other fielder could, and they get charged with an error when the ball would have gotten by most fielders for a hit. It’s far from a perfect stat, is what I’m saying.

That said, I would also argue that advanced defensive metrics are far from perfect as well. There are a lot of different ways these numbers are calculated, and so often you will see metrics that view the same player in vastly different lights. I think of Xander Bogaerts, who is consistently viewed by DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) as one of the worst defensive players, regardless of position, in the league, while UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) has him consistently ranging from neutral to slightly positive. In those circumstances, I usually dismiss the metrics almost totally out of hand and rely on my eye test to break the tie.

But there are plenty of players on whom the metrics agree, and Renfroe is one of them. They don’t view him positively in 2021. That’s not to say they all view him negatively, to be fair, but rather saying that he is mostly a neutral outfielder. DRS has him as exactly neutral, while UZR puts him just barely into the negatives. There is also OAA (Outs Above Average), which is Statcast’s measure of defense. They have the worst view of Renfroe this year, rating him at -2 for the season, which puts him in the bottom 40 among 125 qualified outfielders this year. That’s not atrocious, but it’s also decidedly not good.

When you start to break things down a little further, though, is when it starts to get interesting. To start with the obvious, most of the defensive value he has created this year has been with his arm. Renfroe has 16 assists from the outfield this season, which just like with his errors is three more than any other outfielder in baseball. DRS says his arm has saved the Red Sox three runs this year. On the other hand, they say his fielding, i.e. everything leading up to a potential catch, has been worth negative three runs.

OAA is the best of the metrics to really break this sort of thing down, as they provide data on where a player is gaining or losing their value based on which direction they have to move. For Renfroe, where he has excelled has been when he’s come in on the ball, as he rates positively on all balls in front of him by OAA’s measure. On the the other hand, he rates negatively going back, and even when you break it down further to going straight back and then back to both his left and right, he rates negatively for each of those individually as well.

The moral of the story, at least based on this data, is that Renfroe is not very good at going back on balls, but is quite effective at coming in on the ball. (Of course that’s true for almost everyone, but these numbers, as the name of the stat suggests, are measured against average, not in aggregate.) And to me, the obvious solution here is to play deeper, something that is made even easier for someone like Renfroe because his arm can help make up for things like getting to base hits at a little deeper depth.

For what it’s worth, according to Statcast his average depth this year is 293 feet, which puts him in the bottom 35 percent of baseball, comes in two feet shallower than league-average, and is shallower than he’s played on average since his rookie year. It should of course be noted that park dimensions play a big role in this, and Fenway’s right field certainly is wonky and can affect that depth. Still, it does seem Renfroe can make things a little easier on himself by playing just a couple steps back to start.

But like I said, even with all of this data I still don’t know how good Renfroe has been defensively. I certainly know he has the ability to make game-changing plays, and that it can come with both his glove and his arm. But I don’t know if he’s a Gold Glove kind of fielder, which is often my instinct when watching him, or if he’s been a below-average fielder, which a lot of the metrics suggest. It seems like another one of those unknowable questions.

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.