Prospect Renfroe providing pop in tough ballpark
While Lake Elsinore's home can be tough on righty hitters, 2013 top pick has flourished
LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- In a league known for being a hitter's haven, the home field of the Lake Elsinore Storm -- the Class A Advanced affiliate of the San Diego Padres in the California League -- stands in defiance.
With the distance from home plate to the deepest part of the field in left-center spanning 425 feet, a 380-foot mark directly behind the usual positioning of the left fielder and a miniature Green Monster towering over right field, The Diamond can prove to be a nightmare for right-handed sluggers.
"It's not a hitters' ballpark, per se," said Lake Elsinore right fielder Hunter Renfroe in his Southern drawl.
"It's probably taken away a few home runs from me already."
It's hard to imagine, then, what the Mississippi native's power numbers would look like if he called one of the California League's numerous bandboxes home. The Storm's cleanup hitter, who was the Padres' first-round pick (No. 13 overall) in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, entered Monday tied for the California League lead in home runs (15), second in total bases (142) and tied for fourth in RBIs (50).
"I've always been really strong and been able to hit balls out of the ballpark," Renfroe said. "But I'm really not trying to hit too many home runs. I try to hit doubles and get as many RBIs as possible. … It just happens sometimes."
This is not news to baseball scouts. Prior to the season, MLB.com ranked Renfroe as the Padres' No. 5 prospect and second-best position prospect, mostly based on the merit of his power and his strong arm in right field.
Chances are good Renfroe won't be in Lake Elsinore much longer, as a promotion this month to Double-A San Antonio appears in the cards.
"I think he's definitely gonna play in the big leagues for a long time," said Lake Elsinore hitting coach Jody Davis, a former big league catcher. "San Diego needs the offense, they're not scoring a lot of runs. And he can definitely produce runs."
Though Renfroe was expected to develop into a plus hitter while in the Minors, some thought he might have to overcome a learning curve at Class A Advanced ball after batting just .212 with two home runs in 18 games for Class A Fort Wayne after getting promoted late last year. That largely hasn't proven to be the case, as Renfroe has worked with Davis to develop a more mature approach at the plate.
"I've really just been trying to focus on plate discipline a lot -- making sure I'm not swinging at pitches in the dirt and out of the strike zone," Renfroe said. "Jody and I have been working really hard on trying to focus on the middle of the field, opposite field, just like I was in college. And then the power will come."
To be sure, rooting that mindset in Renfroe is still a work in progress. He has a strikeout rate of 26.1 percent and still occasionally reverts to dead-pull habits.
"He's still got some maturing to do. The pitching is going be better and more consistent at every level," Davis said. "He wants to hit the ball 550 feet sometimes instead of 400 feet. And 400 feet is enough."
In a May 29 home game against Lancaster between the two teams that were tied atop the South Division, Renfroe yanked a double down the left-field line in his first plate appearance. As he strolled up for his next two at-bats, the JetHawks deployed the rarely used right-handed shift, moving three fielders to the left of second base.
It didn't matter -- Renfroe struck out swinging in both trips, the second coming on a pitch in the dirt that skipped past the Lancaster catcher before Renfroe was thrown out at first. Then, with the Storm facing a 5-2 deficit in the ninth inning, Renfroe took two called strikes before rocketing a solo home run to straightaway center. No dead-pull swing there.
Lake Elsinore didn't score again, as it failed to move past Lancaster in the standings. But Renfroe's 13th home run did break the tie at the top of the California League home run leaderboard, and he hasn't looked back since.
In May, Renfroe put together a slash line of .314/.383/.636 for a sparkling OPS of 1.019, strung together an eight-game hitting streak, reached base in all but three of Lake Elsinore's 30 games and ended the month with 12 fewer strikeouts than he had in April in 15 more at-bats.
Renfroe was recently named as a starter for the California League All-Star Team.
"I'm just seeing the ball a lot better," Renfroe said. "The balls are coming easy to me now since the first part of the year, when I kind of struggled a little and was striking out a good bit."
Renfroe said he hasn't set any concrete statistical benchmarks he wants to reach this year, and he is just focused on keeping a line-drive approach.
"Throughout the season, I just want to hit the ball hard, [make] hard contact," Renfroe said. "If it's right to somebody, that's going to happen. Then sometimes you hit a little blooper over second base and that's a hit. It happens. I just want to try to make contact and get the batting average as high as possible and cut down on the strikeouts."