It’s easy to see, from time to time, why Hunter Renfroe used to be one of the top prospects in baseball.
The Boston Red Sox are hoping they can further unlock the slugger’s talents, and if they can, they will have themselves one of the offseason’s biggest bargains.
Boston signed Renfroe to a one-year contract Monday. It’s seemingly a small move given Renfroe’s career production, but it’s easy to see how the soon-to-be 29-year-old could outproduce expectations in 2021.
At the very least, Renfroe will give Boston a dependable outfielder who can hit for power. Make no mistake, Renfroe isn’t going to win any batting titles. He comes to Boston with a career .228 average and is coming off an abbreviated 2020 campaign in which he posted a career-low .156 average. Renfroe’s .198 expected batting average was in the bottom sixth percentile, and his .221 xBA a season ago was in the bottom 5 percent of the league.
What Renfroe lacks in average, however, he makes up for in pop. He hit eight home runs in just 42 games in 2020 after averaging nearly 30 dingers per year in three seasons with the San Diego Padres. He strikes out a lot — his 31.2 percent strikeout percentage in 2019 was in the bottom 4 percent of the league — but when he makes contact, he abuses the baseball. His career barrel percentage (per Baseball Savant) is 11.5 percent, and the major league average is 6.4 percent. His hard-hit percentage typically has outpaced his peers with his 39 percent career mark better than the 34.9 percent league average.
Renfroe has been especially tough on left-handed pitchers. His .912 career OPS vs. left-handers is nearly 200 points higher than his mark against right-handers. Renfroe’s OPS versus left-handers since the start of 2017 is .907, which ranks him 23rd among all qualified big leaguers in that time, right behind Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez and ahead of someone like George Springer, who is considered the top position player on the market this winter.
Typically, the Red Sox have fared pretty well versus left-handers, but they were league average at best in 2020. Interestingly, Boston failed to lift the ball versus southpaws. Renfroe, meanwhile, hit just under half of his batted balls in the air. He’s also typically a pull hitter who infrequently uses the other side of the field.
All of these things profile well at Fenway Park.
As you can see in the spray chart below, Renfroe — who hit two home runs at Fenway this summer — hits plenty of balls that could find their way over the Green Monster. Just a few of his home runs would fail to get out at Fenway, while plenty of other batted balls (mostly in grey) would be home runs.
To take full advantage of that profile, Renfroe has to make more contact. He’d be wise to be a little more aggressive, especially if used off the bench in Boston. Renfroe only swung at 57 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone in 2020, which was a pretty sharp drop-off from his career average of 65.7 percent and below the league average of 66.1 percent. Perhaps that’s among the benefits of Alex Cora’s return to the dugout. The Red Sox were aggressive under Cora, leading the American League in swing rate at pitches inside the strike zone over the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The big question with Renfroe will be how he fits into Boston’s lineup plans. He’s mostly been used as a right fielder throughout his career with some time in left field, too. Despite pretty decent range, it seems unlikely he’d replace Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field. The Red Sox have made it clear they’d like to re-sign Bradley, and that would likely be the best-case scenario. Doing so essentially would create a platoon in left field between Renfroe and Andrew Benintendi and giving Boston a major upgrade in the outfield overall.
Even if the Red Sox are unable to fully unlock Renfroe’s potential, there’s a lot to like about the move. It’s not a move that puts them right back in the World Series contender conversation, but it is the sort of smart, relatively risk-free move that can help keep Boston on the path back to where it wants to be.