It is time to start worrying about Hunter Renfroe.
Not as a player, mind you, but as the right fielder and clean-up hitter of the future for the Padres. Of course he belongs in the big leagues, that’s not in dispute. We can expect his production will increase year-over-year and even if it doesn’t, he will not benefit from a demotion to Triple-A. So, he stays on the team.
However, I’d like to make the case that he is being asked to do things that maybe he should not be asked to do, currently.
Let me preface this by saying, I want to be wrong here. I like Hunter Renfroe as a player, and I wish nothing but success in his career.
His home runs are great, he has a cannon for an arm, and fans like him.
He’s not the player, I think, many fans believe he is or will become. Sorry. This is not to say he is without value (although he has a negative WAR at the time of this writing), or that he doesn’t have a place on the 25-man roster. However, I think it is time for Andy Green to modify his role. The reason? He is not capable of playing right field or batting anywhere near the middle of the order.
First off, we have to discuss the strikeouts. It is true young players, who are still learning, will strike out a bunch. Renfroe’s lack of contact is not, in and of itself, big news. The data suggests, however, that strikeouts are a problem Renfroe can not, or will not, solve.
Starting in 2012, when he received regular playing time at Mississippi State and going through the middle part of the 2017 season in the big leagues, Renfroe’s best strikeout/AB percentage was 16.8. In all his years of professional baseball, however, his best rate was 2016, at 21.05. So, even in his best year as a pro, he struck out a ton (essentially once out of every five at bats, or a little less than one every game).
2012 – 22.17 (college)
2013 – 16.86 (college)
2013 – 28.82 (Low A/regular A)
2014 – 26.69 (high A/double A)
2015 – 25.83 (double A/triple A)
2016 – 21.05 (triple A/MLB)
2017 – 29.49 (MLB)
We hope 29% is not the baseline for Renfroe’s career, but let’s pretend like it will become something close to that percentage. How likely is Renfroe to dramatically cut down on his strikeout rate? Let’s take a current high-strikeout major leaguer as potential comp: Justin Upton. In his rookie year, his strikeout rate was 19.2%. In a decade since his rookie season, his K% dropped blow that number only once (in 2011).
What does this say? To me, at least, it says that the player we are seeing this year, is the Renfroe we’re going to get moving forward. Guys, typically, don’t fix K% as they progress through their career. Renfroe is going to strike out, a ton.
This does not portend success. So far in 2017, among the league leaders in strikeouts, only Aaron Judge has a WAR above 2.0 and Renfroe certainly is not Aaron Judge. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t true, Renfroe is not going to create elite-level value.
Why is this? Keith Law, in his excellent book, Smart Baseball, adeptly observes that outs are the “cost” of a player’s production. In effect, you get Renfroe’s power at the expense of all the outs he will cost you in a given game. When Renfroe fails to even put the ball in play in nearly 30% of his at bats, this cost is very high. This is not someone you want batting in the middle part of the order, as he will kill more rallies than you’d prefer.
Even if he gets the strikeouts under control this year, lets say the number drops to below 25%, we’ve established that historical data says he will not be able to get the number to a more manageable rate. Even if he does cut down a little, Fangraphs uses K/PA for its strikeout rate and it lists anything above 20% as “below average”.
In addition, his defense has been sub-par. Every metric of value has pegged Renfroe as a below average defender.
-8 defensive runs saved
-0.7 defensive WAR
-7.0 ultimate zone
-3.0 outfield arm above average
I understand the allure of putting a player with a strong arm in right field. However, Renfroe has proved to be a liability there and it is perhaps time to decide he is a left fielder. This decision would be more difficult if the Padres already had a lumbering oaf in left, but there are plenty of candidates (Cordero, Jankowski, Cordoba) for right field duties.
The Padres will benefit if they accept the limitations on Renfroe and make two changes: let him hit lower in the order consistently (6th or 7th) and realize what he actually is at the plate. In addition, let’s stop pretending he is above average in right field. He is not. The team needs to move him to left, where his defensive problems will be mitigated. Put these two changes into effect, and Renfroe can reach his maximum potential as a Padre. Until then, we are just pretending who he is.