2018 was a troubling season for the San Diego Padres.
The team finished with a 66-96 record, the club’s worst record since 2008, and suffered setbacks of key players such as Eric Hosmer and Manuel Margot. While they struggled, however, many of the homegrown athletes fans have put their hopes in took huge steps in development.
One important Padre who progressed from a trying 2017 was Hunter Renfroe. He left Petco Park in September with plenty of positives and fewer negatives.
Since starring at Mississippi State University, Hunter Renfroe has enamored scouts and baseball lovers with his towering power. The tool has been on display from the first day he took the field as a Eugene Emerald. There, he smashed four bombs in the course of 25 games and hasn’t stopped amazing people with his brute strength. This year, he increased his power output, going from 26 home runs and a .236 ISO in 2017 to 26 home runs and a .256 ISO in 38 fewer plate appearances. He also increased both his slugging (.504) and OPS (.805) from the prior year’s totals of .467 and .751. In other words, the corner outfielder is a wrecking ball to mistake-prone pitchers and is only getting better at causing trouble for opposing teams. It would not be surprising to see the 26-year-old pass 30 round-trippers next season.
He is the next great basher for the team and will be very important in driving in runs for the championship roster coming in a couple years. As of now, he is the biggest run producer on the Padres with 68 RBI, one less than Eric Hosmer, but done so over 210 fewer at-bats. His power was the reason for why he led the club in WAR for the 2018 season. He also ranked third in most home runs during August and September. With his adjustments, especially in the second half, and major league experience, there should be even more production coming from his bat next year. He won’t have to sacrifice batting average to get to add to that production either. After all, he increased his power output this season and moved his batting average up .017 points from .231 in 2017.
Power hitters are rarely patient hitters. They normally limit their value in run production as a result. Hunter Renfroe is no different. Throughout his five years of professional baseball, restraint has been a problem for Renfroe. His first full season as a San Diego Padre was dominated by disappointing plate appearances, especially when runners were in scoring position. After all, he accumulated a 29.2% strikeout rate. Based on this number, he basically struck out at least once per game. As such, there was legitimate frustration from fans who desired a better approach from one of San Diego’s most vaunted prospects.
Well, the Mississippi athlete must have finally received the message in 2018. He lowered his K rate to a manageable 24.7% and increased his BB rate to 6.8%. By striking out less and putting the ball in play more, he was able to add positive value to the team offensively. His wRC+ rose above league-average, 100, to 114 for the first time and he earned a positive overall offensive rating of 6.7 according to Fangraphs. Thankfully, there are no metrics which point to regression. Instead, the left fielder could continue to improve his patience and be a greater threat at the plate. That could mean a much-needed increase in his low .302 on-base percentage.
Before ascending to the majors in 2016, scouts rated the defense of Renfroe positively. He had, according to MLB.com, a 55 glove and a 60 arm. He was supposed to be an asset in the field, one who could scare base runners into staying at the same base. However, the average speed and strong arm he possessed could not erase the bad routes he took nor the inaccurate throws he made. This was extremely evident during the 2017 season when he posted negative marks in nearly every metric, including range runs per average (-1.7), error runs above average (-2.5), ultimate zone rating (-5.6), ultimate zone rating per 150 games (-7.9), outfield arm runs saved runs above average (-1), overall arm (-1.3), and overall defense (-10.9). Only defensive runs saved gave the outfielder a passable score, with just one point. As a result, it’s hard as a fan to not be disappointed over failed promise.
Yet, just like in every other area in 2018, Renfroe improved in the field. His RngR rose to 1.3, his ErrR increased to -1.7, his UZR grew to -.8, his UZR/150 escalated to -1.1, his rARM inflated to 1, his ARM hiked to -.4, and his DEF even surged to 5. These are still mixed results, but are much better than last year’s. They speak to the development of Renfroe this season. He’s become a greater player all around. In fact, according to projections, he’s worth $12.5 million on the free agent market, up from $1.5 last year, in part because of his progression as an outfielder.
With evidence of advancement, there is a possibility that Renfroe can finish 2019 as a positive defensively. The emergence of Franmil Reyes in right should limit the amount of time Hunter has to spend in that corner. As such, the Padre can become more adjusted to left where he may learn how to learn the terrain more. This should allow him to successfully read balls that he has to go back on more frequently than the -3 DRS of 2018 indicates. Furthermore, he won’t have to worry about covering as much ground with his limited speed or throwing accurately over long distances. It’s short, there’s more talent yet to witness from Renfroe.
2018 was an exceptional year for Hunter Renfroe. The 26-year-old proved that he had a viable future with the team. He could be the next great basher for the Friars as well as a solid defender. However, there is one aspect of the game where the Mississippi product backtracked and could definitely use some work in the offseason. The aspect he struggles with the most at the moment is his base running.
When drafted in 2013, the young power hitter was regarded as an above-average runner. While developing in the minors, he became an average one, but still a good contributor on the basepaths. .7 BsR last season attests to the fact that he was a useful base runner as a Padre. Sadly, the mark dropped to a poor -1.1, and in less time. Coming from an everyday player, that is a displeasing sight. Unlike in other aspects, Renfroe may not improve his base running. He may resemble more of a traditional power hitter, big and sluggish, in upcoming years. As a fan, let’s hope he bounces back, but let us recognize that there is no promise of a resurgence here. Increased consistency may make him better, but that suggestion is not a sure one.
Before the season began, Hunter Renfroe was a player being pushed steadily out of the team’s long-term picture. He had failed to fulfill the promise that once made him a top prospect. He contributed power in his prior experience as a Padre, but did not look comfortable at the plate or in the field. His approach denied him the ability to drive in as many runs as a fourth or fifth spot hitter should, while also limiting his chances of getting on base. On defense, his middling range and inaccurate arm established him as a weak defender, one which hitters could exploit.
2018 was a completely different story. He improved in nearly all facets of the game except for base running. He grew closer to fulfilling expectations when he chose a more patient approach and decided to let his scary power come naturally. The threat fans once envisioned patrolling Petco’s outfield transformed into a real player. Additionally, Renfroe cleaned up his defense, thereby resembling the good fielder he was in the minors. There were fewer mistakes when it came to running routes or throwing the ball. As a regular, he was more of a well-rounded player.
Fans can expect further development from Hunter Renfroe in 2019. Since the outfielder made gigantic steps this year and finished it as one of the most powerful players in the game, there is a lot of hope for the homegrown athlete. He has definitely put himself in the conversation of who belongs in the team’s future plans. The Padres will need his bat when the time comes for a playoff push.