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Assessing the Hunter Renfroe Project

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Rays gambled they could get Tommy Pham production at half the cost. How did that go?

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Tampa Bay Rays Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Last December, the Tampa Bay Rays traded fan favorite and offensive leader OF Tommy Pham, plus SS/RHP prospect Jake Cronenworth to the San Diego Padres. In return the Rays received OF Hunter Renfroe and SS two prospects, including the top-100 rankable Xavier Edwards.

Our own Danny Russell covered this topic last week, but I wanted to look more deeply at the Renfroe part of the trade, especially in light of his DFA.

Many assumed this trade was about money, as Tommy Pham would be earning $7.9 million in his second year of arbitration in contrast to Hunter Renfroe’s $3.3 million. Did the Rays save money at the cost of wins?

LISTEN: Rays Your Voice: Hunter Renfroe DFA, with Darby Robinson

Perspective 1: OF Tommy Pham for OF Hunter Renfroe

The temptation is to look back at the trade from a 1 to 1 swap of Renfroe and Pham, where it seemed like Hunter Renfroe was brought to the Rays’ as part of a platoon with another platoon power bat, Yoshi Tsutsugo. The Rays hoped that both of their strong platoon sides would at least equal Tommy Pham’s production.

Tommy Pham vs Hunter Renfroe & Yoshi Tsutsugo

Batter AB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
Batter AB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
Yoshi Tsutsugo vs RHP 120 0.183 0.303 0.383 91 0.298
Tommy Pham vs RHP 327 0.208 0.274 0.459 88 0.304
Hunter Renfroe vs LHP 41 0.146 0.294 0.512 116 0.335
Tommy Pham vs LHP 30 0.300 0.400 0.567 161 0.410
Tommy Pham vs Hunter Renfroe & Yoshi Tsutsugo

Yoshi Tsutsugo and Tommy Pham seemed pretty similar, with Tommy Pham having more opportunities. Pham had a bit more power than Yoshi, but park adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) gives Yoshi a slight lead.

But as Danny noted there is still time to see if that portion of the overall “trade” works out. Yoshi Tsutsugo still has one year left on his contract. In a shortened season of limited opportunities, he didn’t have time to fully adjust to MLB pitching. There is plenty room for concern, as we are comparing Tsutsugo’s “strong” split side to Pham’s “weak” split side.

When comparing Hunter Renfroe and Tommy Pham’s splits, it doesn’t look great, even with the small sample size. We expected Renfroe to be a three true outcome guy (Strikeout/Walk/HR), and we kind of got a lite version of that, with Renfroe posting a 15.7% walk rate and a 26.5% strikeout rate and 5 HR vs LHP.

It wasn’t enough to match Pham's production, with Pham posting better average, on-base percentage and slightly better slugging in fewer plate appearances, but Renfroe had just awful luck on batted balls in play with a unheard of 0.043 BABIP.

Interestingly, Hunter Renfroe had almost double the plate appearances against right handed pitching (81 PA) than left handed pitching (41 PA); in other words, he was not hitting primarily in an advantageous platoon. And those at bats against righties were really ugly.

Hunter Renfroe vs RHP

PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
81 0.160 0.227 0.333 54 0.244

This is with a better 0.182 BABIP!

Why did Renfroe, a “lefty smasher”, get more plate appearances against RHP?

My first thought was that the Rays’ could have been using Renfroe as a Meadows replacement toward the beginning of the year, and with the shuffle between Kiermaier, Margot, Meadows and Yoshi, ended up getting more plate appearances against RHP than LHP.

My second thought was Renfroe being limited as a pinch hitter, but he started in 32 out of the 42 total games for the Rays. Why? I don’t think the Renfroe was purposely set up for failure, but my guess is that it was an element of bad circumstances.

If Renfroe starts against a LHP, but the opposing team brings in a bullpen full of RHP, the Rays might not have pinch hit for Renfroe depending on score and availability of a potent lefty bat on the bench. Or maybe the prevalence of right-handed pitchers in the league means that you simply can’t protect a right-handed hitter from disadvantageous match-ups.

Other reasons might've been there was not a better defensive substitute, or one that might’ve been worse defensively that made up for it offensively. Later in the season the Rays promoted Randy Arozarena and traded for Brett Phillips, which should have given them more options however. A look at Renfroe’s splits by month shows that his playing time definitely increased in September; his offensive line, however, did not show improvement.

Perspective 2: OF Avisail Garcia for OF Hunter Renfroe

Another angle on this trade is to view it as the Rays needing to replace the production of Avisail Garcia, who signed a 2 year/$20 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Rays needed a right handed, speedy power bat that could play the corner outfield spot.

Hunter Renfroe vs Avisail Garcia

Batter AB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
Batter AB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ wOBA
Hunter Renfroe 139 0.156 0.252 0.393 76 0.277
Avisail Garcia 207 0.238 0.333 0.326 81 0.296

You could make the stretch argument that the Rays got the better end of the deal, with not having to pay $10 million for similar production. But on the other hand, neither production is amazing, and Garcia still put up a 0.7 fWAR for the year.

Editor’s Note: And with the Rays cutting Hunter Renfroe, they’ll definitely be paying less than $10 million in 2021!

Conclusion

No matter what, the Rays surely missed Tommy Pham’s production in the top of the batting order. Even if you reduce the trade comparison to their fWAR, Tommy Pham has Hunter Renfroe barely beat with -0.1 fWAR playing through injury vs. Renfroe’s -0.4.

Last year we said this trade was about money, trying to get the same or greater production for cheaper, and that still holds true whether we are comparing Renfroe to Pham or Garcia.

With the non-tender of Hunter Renfroe, this project by the Rays looks to be a failure, whatever Pham does moving forward. The Rays are often good at identifying players and putting them in a position to succeed, but here they could not. Maybe it was the pandemic that thwarted the team’s trust in a boom or bust bat. Either way, in Renfroe’s case, there will be no value coming from him moving forward, so this experiment clearly failed.