When the Rays shipped Tommy Pham off to the San Diego Padres in a five player deal that netted them Hunter Renfroe and prospect Xavier Edwards, the rationale was clear: Swap Pham, an aging outfielder with limited control and increasing price tag for Renfroe, a younger, cheaper, and more controllable outfielder with pop while also acquiring Xavier Edwards, a promising shortstop prospect. It was a perfect example of the “Rays’ Way”, a mantra that has become synonymous with the way the business practices of this front office.
From the outset, it seemed this could be both a win-now move (with Renfroe slotting into Pham’s place in the lineup) and a move for the future given Edwards’ high ceiling. Renfroe was only months removed from a monster 2019 first half during which he slashed .252/.308/.613 with a .921 OPS and 27 bombs. But, he was also more recently removed from an injury-riddled second half in which his production stalled. He finished the year slashing .216/.289/.489 with 33 bombs and 64 runs batted in. Respectable in the pitcher friendly Petco Park, promising even, but it was rough, and had some question marks.
From the Rays perspective, if they could get a healthy Hunter Renfroe for a full season they were looking at 45 bombs and 100 runs batted in. If that production came to fruition, it would have been a slam dunk of a trade. To this point, however, that’s not the Renfroe they’ve gotten.
Through 33 games in the Covid-19-shortened season, Renfroe has struggled at the plate slashing .155/.231/.392 with 6 bombs and 19 runs batted in. His OPS is an underwhelming .632 and his 69 OPS+ is well below the league average. This isn't what the Rays were banking on.
If you dive a bit deeper into the numbers, there are some positives. He is striking out less, 24.1 % of the time as opposed to the 31.2% clip he posted in 2019. He still crushes baseballs with an average exit velocity of 89.5 miles per hour and he still makes hard contact 36.1% of the time, only down 3.3% from last year.
But, Renfroe is finding fewer barrels, 8.3% versus the 12% he posted in 2019, and his sweet spot percentage is down 10% (22.2% v.s. 32.2%) from last year.
Why the difference? Because major league pitchers (and their analytics staffs) are always adjusting.
Pitchers have made two sizable adjustments to the way they are attacking the power hitting outfielder. First, they are throwing him more first pitch breaking balls. Not only are they throwing more 0-0 curveballs and sliders, but they are throwing them for strikes. Second, they are throwing him more changeups regardless of the count.
In 2019, Renfroe saw a breaking ball 37.2% of the time and only 45.7% of those were thrown in the zone. This year, he is seeing 0-0 breaking balls 44.4% of the time and 60.4% of those are thrown in the zone. Not only are they attacking him early and often with breaking ball, but they are confident that when thrown for a strike, Renfroe won't be able to make productive contact.
Twenty-five times this year alone, he has fallen to 0-1 after swinging through a first pitch breaking ball. His swing and miss percentage on first pitch breaking balls is up 10.7% from last year. With that in mind, pitchers are going to attack the zone with breaking pitches until he can prove he can barrel them up. To this point, he has seen 54 first pitch fastballs, 48 first pitch breaking balls, and 6 first pitch off-speed pitches. For Renfroe, it is essentially a flip of the coin when he steps into the box as to what type of pitch he will see first, keeping him off balance.
The second big difference in the sequencing Renfroe is seeing this year is the number of off-speed pitches he is seeing (changeups, splitters, etc.). In 2019, he only saw an off speed pitch 8.5% of the time, but in 2020 that rate has risen to 16.1%. If you want to miss barrels, an effective changeup is the way to go. Regardless of a pitcher’s standing in a count versus Renfroe, they have not shied away from off speed pitches. This year, he is seeing 10.1% more off-speed pitches when ahead in the count and 8.8% more when down in the count. He still sees a fastball roughly 51% of the time regardless, but with a newfound willingness to throw offs-peed pitches to Renfroe, pitchers are keeping the Rays new outfielder off balance at the plate and it is working.
If Renfroe wants to see improvements at the dish, he is going to have to become very disciplined in 0-0 counts, sit on fastballs and hanging breakers and punish them when he gets them. If he doesn't get his pitch, then he is going to have to battle and attempt to eliminate one pitch from the pitcher’s arsenal, whether it be an off-speed pitch or the breaking ball, that is for him to decide. But, until he does so and refines his approach at the plate, his struggles will continue, barrels will fail to be found, and the production will remain the same.