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Is Hunter Renfroe a Major League Outfielder?

Photo: © Ivansabo | Dreamstime.com

As the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Hunter Renfroe was expected to be at least a passable outfielder, but hopefully more as evidenced by his $2.678 million signing bonus, in the major leagues.  He showed a strong arm and power bat in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League and at Mississippi State, and as recently as last year was a Top 50 prospect, with grade 60 power and a grade 60 arm.  He was even graded with an above-average glove.  With all of this promise as a young outfielder, it has been surprising to see him struggle this season to make himself a valuable part of the team, especially in the field.  His fielding struggles, outlined below, bring to mind the question: is he a major-league outfielder, or should he be moved to the DH, necessitating a trade?

Renfroe’s Defensive Metrics

There are multiple different stats to look at here. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), a defensive run score relative to the average for that player’s position, for Renfroe is -7.0.  This means he has cost his team 7 runs defensively compared to the average right fielder this season. This places him as a below average to poor right fielder this season.  UZR/150, a 150-game scaled UZR to account for differences in playing time, rates him even worse at -15.4. DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), which is similar to UZR but is used on a one-year basis as opposed to UZR, which needs to be viewed over 3 years or more to avoid statistical outliers/bias, rates Renfroe at -5 this season, which is below average for right fielders.  Finally, Def, a non-positional defensive rating relative to league average defense, rates him at -10.7.  That is very low for a player who is going to hopefully be an everyday player.

Another way to look at a player’s fielding ability is Statcast’s catch probability 5-star system.  It rates the difficulty of a catch by looking at the opportunity time, or the time between when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and when it lands/gets caught, and the minimum distance traveled needed for the player to get to the ball. The hardest plays are 5-star plays, while the most routine are 1-star plays.  The following table shows Renfroe’s catch probability stats. As you can see in the table, he has made all of the most routine plays he’s had to make, but he has made very few difficult plays when he’s had the opportunity, while making only 82% of his fairly routine plays.  Further comparison of his stats to other outfielders follows later in this article.

5-Star Opp Catch % 4-Star Opp Catch % 3-Star Opp Catch % 2-Star Opp Catch % 1-Star Opp Catch %
16 0 9 33.3 10 50.0 11 81.8 20 100.0

While poor fielding could be understood for a player who was not necessarily outstanding in the field as a prospect, poor statistics related to his arm when he was graded at 60 on his arm are surprising.  His rARM, a stat that measures the defensive runs saved with his arm, is -1.  He even has 8 throwing errors this season, which is also very poor for an arm-focused outfielder.

With fielding problems like this, the only real reason to believe Renfroe is a major-league outfielder is if his offense makes up for his fielding shortcomings, and then one could hope the defense would improve over time.  However, despite his 17 home runs this season, he is only hitting .229 and is striking out once in less than every 4 at bats.  His Off, the offensive counterpart to Def, is also negative (-1.1).  In other words, he has negative value across the board as a right fielder this season.

A Comparison

A final way to look at Renfroe’s problems would be to compare his stats to another right fielder.  Scott Schebler, the Reds’ right fielder, was not as highly rated as Renfroe, and actually was poorly defensively rated as a prospect (Arm: 35, Field: 45).  However, he had similar offensive ratings, and his offensive stats this season are similar (.238 average, 22 HR, Off rating 1.5), and he is in only his second full year in the majors with a team in the midst of a rebuild. His defensive stats are surprisingly better than Renfroe’s, despite his inferior defensive prospect grades. (one caveat: his Def rating includes about 7 games spent in CF; the other stats below are only for RF)

Player UZR UZR/150 DRS rARM Def
Renfroe -7.0 -15.4 -5 -1 -10.9
Schebler -0.4 -1.0 1 2 -3.3

The most surprising part of this is that Schebler, who was so lowly rated for his arm, has saved 3 more runs than Renfroe with his arm. Also, his UZR/150 is so vastly better than Renfroe’s, which is very surprising.  Below is a catch probability comparison, with the caveat that some of the opportunities for Schebler have come in centerfield. Schebler has clearly been a more reliable fielder.

Player 5-Star Opp Catch % 4-Star Opp Catch % 3-Star Opp Catch % 2-Star Opp Catch % 1-Star Opp Catch %
Renfroe 16 0 9 33.3 10 50.0 11 81.8 20 100.0
Schebler 17 0 8 62.5 7 85.7 18 94.4 15 100.0

So, looking at the statistics, there are two conclusions that we can reach.  One is that one season is not enough time to really get a good sense of Renfroe’s fielding ability at the MLB level and we should take more time to allow for some of the statistics, like UZR, to have a significant sample size, and he might improve over time.  The other is that, like Schebler’s prospect grades seem to have been incorrect about his fielding based on his stats, Renfroe’s grades were incorrect, and he is not a valuable major-league outfielder. In the case of this second conclusion’s veracity, Renfroe will be best served focusing on improving his offense and becoming a DH, requiring a trade to the AL. Hopefully, for both the Padres and Renfroe, the first conclusion is the correct one.

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