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The Rays believe in Hunter Renfroe’s 2019 breakouts

It’s time we talk about the new Rays outfielder

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

With more than half of the offseason remaining, there are at least two things we know about the Rays 2020 roster:

  1. Tommy Pham won’t be on it.
  2. Hunter Renfroe (tentatively) will

And while the motives of the swap have been documented both here and elsewhere, It’s time to address the elephant in the room.

What can we realistically expect from the newest Rays outfielder?

For one, we know he hits baseballs really far. Here is one of 33 homers on the year for Renfroe, a total that matches Austin Meadows’s team high:

But looking at his raw numbers compared to Meadows’s—or even Pham’s for that matter—could easily give a fan pause:

Hunter Renfroe Comparison

Austin Meadows .291 .364 .558 142 4.0
Tommy Pham .273 .369 .450 121 3.3
Hunter Renfroe .216 .289 .489 98 1.9

Steamer projections show an even further disparity, projecting Renfroe to be more than two whole wins worse than his traded counterpart, pegging Pham as more valuable than any current Rays outfielder in 2020 at 3.3 fWAR. Compare that to Meadows at 2.8 wins and Renfroe at just 1.0.

But even though it might appear to be a clear downgrade on the surface, a little digging might shed some light on what Neander and co. see in the former Padre outfielder.

First half tear

You already knew that Renfroe slugged a career high 33 homers in 2019. What you might not know is that, of those 33 said dingers, 27 of them came in the first half, when he slashed a pretty healthy .252/.308/.613—good for a 132 wRC+.

Going into the midsummer classic Hunter Renfroe was the 12th most valuable outfielder in all of baseball, ahead of many familiar names:

First Half Comparison

Rank Player BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Rank Player BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
12 Hunter Renfroe .252 .308 .613 132 2.4
15 Tommy Pham .281 .379 .460 128 2.0
22 Austin Meadows .289 .364 .502 129 1.6
24 Kevin Kiermaier .252 .298 .436 92 1.6
40 Avisail Garcia .276 .333 .445 108 1.1

For some more context, Renfroe was between some other guys you may have heard of in Juan Soto at 11 and Bryce Harper at 13.

But his success was short lived, as he slashed a pedestrian, dare I say, Mike Zunino-esque (Sorry, Darby) .161/.263/.299 (51 wRC+), a far cry from his all star caliber first half, battling injuries which ultimate led to foot surgery following the season. After a first half like that, we expect some regression, but a 51 wRC+ is a clear overcorrection, signaling injuries as a clear factor, as his K% bloated dramatically from 27% to 37%.

As far as Statcast numbers go, certain metrics make Renfroe look a little like another former Rays outfielder:

Renfroe Garcia Comparison

Player Exit Velo Hard Hit % Barrel % XWOBACON
Player Exit Velo Hard Hit % Barrel % XWOBACON
Hunter Renfroe 89.9 39.4 12.0 .413
Avisail Garcia 89.5 40.3 11.7 .424

But there are also some clear differences as well:

More Renfroe Garcia Comparisons

Player xBA xSLG xWOBA Launch Angle
Player xBA xSLG xWOBA Launch Angle
Hunter Renfroe .218 .451 .311 19.1
Avisail Garcia .275 .494 .342 9.8

So with all of that said, what are the Rays hoping for from Renfroe offensively next year? a sustained version of his first half breakout? Somewhere around his career 105 wRC+? Something in between? Are the Rays expecting him to be closer to Pham or Garcia in overall offensive output?

Hard to say, to be quite honest, which seems like both the easiest and most honest answer. It’s clear that Renfroe is a power threat, who is at worst a lefty masher, boasting a lifetime 127 wRC+ against southpaws, and at best an all-star outfielder entering his prime.

Defensive improvements

One aspect of Renfroe’s game that is rather hard to ignore is his fielding, which by nearly any metric, was elite in ‘19 when he was awarded a Gold Glove. While we know that defensive metrics are hard to buy into from year to year, it’s difficult to dismiss the consistency across all well known advanced measurements.

Renfroe ranked 2nd in all of baseball among outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved with 22, 5th in Ultimate Zone Rating with 10.1. In Statcast terms, he ranked in the 73rd percentile in Outs above average and 57th percentile in outfield jump.

Here’s how that compares to Pham:

Hunter Renfroe Defensive Comparison

Hunter Renfroe 22 10.1 73rd 57th
Tommy Pham 1 0.4 3rd 28th

Oh, and let’s not forget about his elite arm to go along with that plus glove:

Yes, imagine an outfield with not one, but two 100+ mph arms in the outfield.

Projections do not believe in the defensive breakout, but the Rays do. Here is what pro scouting director Kevin Ibach had to say about it to Neil Solondz:

‘What probably goes unnoticed to fans is the defensive attributes he has and his ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball ... His ability to change the game defensively along with his power is what made him very attractive to us.’

Concluding Thoughts

Tommy Pham will be missed, there’s no doubt about that. But, there are plenty of reasons to like what the Rays received in Hunter Renfroe, who is both four years younger than Pham and under contract for four more seasons.

With great defense and an outside potential for an elite bat, it’s clear the Rays are betting on a high risk, high ceiling player. But if you think of his acquisition as a moonshot, you don’t need to be too afraid of the crash landing. If the Rays do indeed hit and Renfroe puts it all together, he’ll be quite a fun player to watch.

If the Rays missed here, they should still have one side of a potential super platoon enabled by the addition of the 26th man to major league rosters in 2020. Either way, it’s at least reasonable to believe he could equal or surpass the overall output free agent Avisail Garcia offered the Rays in 2019.