What’s Brewing On The Farm: Hunter Renfroe’s Polarizing Potential

what's brewing on the padres farm system

It’s Prospect Week here at Padres Public, so I’ve decided to pop my head out of my apocalypse bunker, at great risk to my own personal safety, to discuss a matter of great import: whether or not Hunter Renfroe is actually going to be good. This message may self-destruct at any moment, so please read quickly but carefully.

Last week, ESPN Baseball Senior Writer, prospect analyst, and Top Chef enthusiast Keith Law released his top 100 prospects for 2017 ($). There was a bit of controversy surrounding Law’s list, as he ranked newly acquired White Sox uber-prospect Yoan Moncada, seen by many/most as a top 5 prospect, #17 on his list, noting Moncada’s ridiculous upside but worrying about his low contact rate. Responding to a reader question about Moncada’s strikeout rate, Law noted that “it’s not just the number, but how a player ends up there,” a suggestion that Moncada’s strikeouts are rooted in a deeper, more troubling problem, such as pitch recognition and/or plate discipline, or problems with his swing mechanics.

Over the weekend, MLB.com released their own top 100 prospect ranking for 2017, and on that list Moncada was 2nd only to his former organization’s top prospect, Andrew Benintendi, with no mention of any problems with his contact rate, and actually noting his increased patience in the 2nd half of the season as one of his many positives.

What makes this relevant to you, Padres fans, is that a very similar difference of opinion seems to have been a major reason in the range of rankings in Padres OF prospect Hunter Renfroe this off-season. Renfroe ranked 42nd on MLB.com’s list while, for the 2nd year in a row, he did not rank on Law’s top 100 list.

While Law has not yet released his Padres top 10 list, we know from the prospects he did list in his top 100 that Renfroe won’t be one of his top 5 Padres prospects heading into this season. This puts Law a bit at odds with other prominent prospect analysts, who seem to mostly have Renfroe ranked between 3 and 5 on their Padres lists. He also ranks 3rd on the Padres Public end of 2016 list, and on the cumulative list posted yesterday by Dustin.

In their report on Renfroe, MLB.com noted his “plus-plus raw power” and “improved feel for driving the ball out of the park the other way,” as well as his impressive arm strength and athleticism on defense. They do recognize Renfroe’s swing and miss, but note that he “trimmed his strikeout rate” and that his contact is “consistently hard and loud.” Overall, their belief is that “even if he struggles to hit for much of an average, Renfroe’s power has him poised to serve as a key run-producer for the Padres for years to come.” I encourage you to read the whole report.

Law, however, seems to feel that Renfroe will struggle enough to make contact that he can’t rank him in his top 100. After releasing his 2016 rankings without Renfroe making the cut, he’s quoted by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Jeff Sanders saying “don’t think he’ll hit for enough average/OBP to be more than a fringy regular.”

During an interview with Darren Smith on The Mighty 1090 in late July, he expanded, saying “For me, he has shown horrible plate discipline, real trouble recognizing off-speed stuff, and frankly, if you look at his home/road splits…he’s been absolutely awful on the road this year,” finishing his comments on Renfroe with “I find it hard to project him as an above average regular right now.”

After seeing what Renfroe can do at the major league level in September, Padres fans have good reason to look forward with excitement and anticipation. He hit .371/.389/.800 in 36 plate appearances, with 3 doubles and 4 home runs, including the monster shot that landed on the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. building.

He performed so well, he earned NL Player of the Week honors and was worth 0.6 fWAR in just 11 games played. And while all of this is based on an extremely small sample, he struck out only 5 times, a 13.9% rate. Needless to say, if he could do this over a full season, he’d be one of the best players in baseball. Like Mike Trout, except even better.

However, Law’s criticisms are backed up by statistics. Renfroe walked at just a 3.9% rate in AAA in 2016, after posting a 4.2% walk rate in a short AAA stint in 2015. He walked only once in his 36 big league plate appearances. If he can’t hit for a near .300 average in the majors and maintains a walk rate under 5%, he’s going to really struggle to crack a .300 OBP, which would really hurt his chances to be an above-average bat.

Right now, STEAMER projects Renfroe’s 2017 at a .249 average with a .289 OBP, and even with 21 projected home runs, that leaves him at a 90 wRC+, below league average and well below what you’d like to see from a power-hitting outfielder you’d like to bat in the middle of the order. The rebuilding Padres have time to be patient with Renfroe, so if he does struggle in 2017 it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but he’s likely going to have to show better plate discipline and pitch recognition than he has so far if he’s going to live up to his hype.

So which is it, is Renfroe a top 50 prospect poised to produce for years to come, or an un-ranked prospect who will struggle to be more than a fringe regular? Right now it’s impossible to know, but based on his numbers, the polarized opinions both seem valid and worth keeping in mind as we head into the season.

And with that, I retreat back in to my bunker. Follow me on Twitter, if you dare.

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