Baseball

Hunter Renfroe’s numbers are encouraging. I think.

The stove has been anything but hot lately (unless you’re really into the Rule 5 draft), but the Red Sox made their first significant signing of the offseason Monday when they inked Hunter Renfroe to a 1-year contract worth $3.1 million.

Boston fans will hope that Renfroe can help turn around an outfield unit that has declined precipitously over the past two years. The Red Sox outfield corps was the backbone of their 2018 championship squad but ranked only 16th in the majors in 2020 despite an all-star caliber year from Alex Verdugo.

Renfroe, who has split time between the outfield corners throughout his career, was once a highly regarded prospect in the Padres’ farm system after San Diego took him with the 13th overall pick of the 2013 draft.

After struggling as a rookie in 2017, Renfroe spent two solid if unspectacular years with the Padres before the club dealt him to Tampa Bay as part of the package for Tommy Pham. The Mississippi State product slashed an abysmal .156/.252/.393 during the shortened 2020 season, and the Rays designated Renfroe for assignment rather than pay the approximately $3.5 million he was expected to earn in arbitration.

So what can Boston expect from their new pickup? Is there reason to believe that Renfroe can bounce back and become an average or even above average player once again?

At 6’1” 230 lbs., the outfielder possesses both above average power and solid footspeed. Yet like so many would-be power/speed dual threats, Renfroe often struggles to make enough contact to take advantage of his physical gifts.

His career 28% strikeout rate is no longer a deal-breaker in a league that has embraced the three true outcomes, but it has consistently resulted in low batting averages. To make up for this, hitters must either post high walk rates or else put up significant power numbers (preferably both).

During his first two full seasons in the majors, Renfroe rarely walked, but he did enough damage in cavernous PETCO park to be a roughly league average hitter overall. Over the last two years, Renfroe has actually taken big steps forward in the walks department: he walked in 10.1% of his plate appearances in 2020, putting him in the league’s 63rd percentile.

So what’s responsible for Renfroe’s nightmarish 2020 slashline? Mainly the wrath of the BABIP gods. The hits simply didn’t fall in for Renfroe, who managed only SIX singles in 42 games. Some of this is clearly just bad luck: he’s not going to have a .141 BABIP over a full season, so it’s safe to expect better results in 2020. The question is whether we can chalk all of the poor outcomes up to luck, or whether there’s something more troubling under the surface.

In fact, there are some red flags in Renfroe’s batted ball profile. His hard contact rate dropped by 12% from 2019 to 2020, while his soft contact rate rose by 5%. He pulled the ball less and traded line drives for ground balls. As a result, Renfroe’s expected batting average was a meager .198, the lowest of his career.

It’s hard to tell why Renfroe struggled to make good contact in 2020, but perhaps the answer lies in his approach at the plate. The outfielder swung at 41.6% of pitches last season, the lowest rate of his career by a significant margin. This newfound patience certainly contributed to his increased walk rate, but it’s possible that Renfroe’s contact suffered because he was too passive early in the count. While Renfroe swung at the first pitch less than ever, pitchers were more aggressive with him; they threw first pitch strikes in 66.9% of Renfroe’s plate appearances, one of the highest figures in the league.

Still, it’s important to take Renfroe’s 2020 numbers with a grain of salt, both because they’re reliant on a small sample size and because the season was anomalous in so many ways. If anything, I think Red Sox fans should be excited about the possibility of coaxing a new level out of the outfielder. If Renfroe can make even the mediocre contact quality he managed 2018 or 2019 while maintaining his 2020 walk rate, he could wind up being something like a 3-win player.

At worst, he should be a good option against lefties, whom he’s crushed throughout his career. This will make him an excellent fit for the Red Sox, who could use a right-handed masher to balance out Andrew Benintendi, Jarren Duran, and possibly Jackie Bradley Jr. Overall, this is a sensible low-risk, moderate-reward signing that fills a need. It’s not sexy, but it’s exactly the kind of move that Chaim Bloom was brought in to make.

Now about that pitching staff…

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