March 28, 2013 10:45:42 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Natural is often used to describe Hunter Renfroe's skills on the diamond.
That description couldn't be more false. Renfroe is constantly working on the finer points of his game so he can have weekends like last week in Lexington, Ky., against then-No.10 University of Kentucky. Despite all of the attention to details, the Mississippi State University outfielder, a nominee for the Golden Spikes Trophy this season, is difficult to please. Sometimes, in fact, it seems nothing is good enough for Renfroe, who is his biggest critic. The constant self-evaluation drives MSU coaches crazy.
"In the past and sometimes still to this day, he still worries about things (like), 'Where should my hands be in my stance?' or 'Should I hold the bat further back here?' " said MSU coach John Cohen, who would prefer Renfroe to be more natural. "We as coaches are constantly telling Hunter, 'Listen, just relax and go play.' It's never a lack of preparation or effort with Hunter, but sometimes you just have to trust your skill set, and he's got a lot in that skill set."
In the past, Renfroe would nit-pick his swing and tweak it, which led to prolonged batting slumps that prevented his spring statistics from matching his summer numbers.
"I agree with the coaches at MSU because it's not about the summer numbers translating so much to the fall or next season but just maintaining a confidence level in what you're doing every day," Renfroe said. "I was waiting out pitchers last season and trying to get their pitch counts up, which is fine, but then I'd swing at strike three in the dirt, and suddenly that's a wasted at-bat."
Renfroe hasn't had many at-bats like this season. The junior outfielder from Crystal Springs leads No. 25 MSU (22-6) in batting average (.427) and seven other offensive categories. MSU will look to Renfroe to lead the attack this weekend when it takes on No. 15 University of Arkansas in a three-game Southeastern Conference series that begins Friday night.
Last summer, Renfroe hit .364 with the Bethesda (Md.) Big Train and set Cal Ripken College Baseball League marks with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs. Perfect Game scouting also named him the top prospect in the league. However, the question remained: Would Renfroe be able to put up similar numbers in the SEC?
Renfroe has answered that question in the first two months of this season. Renfroe entered the week third in the league in batting average and was the only player with a slugging percentage (now at .902) above .900. A career .242 hitter, he hit .252 last season and was second on the team in hits (58) and extra-base hits (20 -- 16 doubles, four home runs). This season, he is second on the team with 35 hits and he is tied for the team with eight doubles and leads the team with nine home runs.
"He's a freakish talent with huge raw power, and biggest raw power you'll probably see in the SEC," Baseball America national writer Aaron Fitt said. "He's got a big, big arm, too, that can run it up 98-99 (mph). If he realizes his potential then look out, the sky is the limit for him."
With numbers like those, you would think pitchers and coaches in the SEC wouldn't give the 215-pounder anything to hit. Renfroe's teammates said that is happening.
"Hunter Renfroe hasn't seen a lot of good stuff to hit lately and you've seen the numbers he's still putting up," MSU senior designated hitter Trey Porter said Tuesday. "We know the power guys have to step up and produce (behind him)."
Renfroe, who is playing through a slight fracture in his right hand, said the biggest change he has made this season is trying not to critique himself so much and letting the results prove themselves. When his coaches see a problem, then he'll address it.
"I haven't even watched video this year," Renfroe said. "I did all that last year and I know what I'm doing up there now. I'm in a good place and seeing the ball the well, so I'm not going to harp on every little thing I'm doing anymore."
After telling Cohen that Renfroe said he hasn't watched film, the Bulldogs fifth-year cocked his head, smiled, and laughed.
"He lied to you," Cohen said. "OK. Our every-day players know film study is voluntary. For our pitchers, it's mandatory, but in between classes every day there's still Hunter going over everything. We still have to chase him out of that room."
Even while battling a cold, Renfroe went 5-for-9 to lead MSU against Kentucky. He had three home runs, five RBIs, four runs scored, and three walks in three games in two days.
"I'd say we have a lot of guys on this team that are trying too hard do things like Hunter Renfroe and they just can't," Cohen said. "Consequently, we lose our identity as a lineup when guys try to be like that when they're not that type of player."
Renfroe arrived at MSU from Copiah Academy as a 31st-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox. He was considered a prospect who could do it all considering he had been clocked at 98 mph off the mound, he had the fastest throwing time from home to second base Cohen has clocked as a college coach, and he has had one of the three fastest running times from home to first base every season.
"Hunter is one of those few players I've ever been around, even as an assistant on Team USA (in 2005), where we had 20 of the best freshman and sophomores in the country, Hunter is one of those kids that when he takes BP (batting practice) our whole team shuts down and says, 'Oh my goodness, look at this,' " Cohen said. "He takes the mound and everybody is behind home plate (wondering) 'Is he touching 100 (mph) today?' Hunter is a special talent."
MSU has the data to show Renfroe is hitting pitches harder than any player at a major college. Over the summer, MSU coaches had a digital reading box installed above the press box at Dudy Noble Field to analyze pitches and to gauge the velocity of swings. In a trial run, more than 30 of the largest college ballparks have installed this technology. MSU director of baseball operations Tyler Bratton confirmed that a opposite-field home run by Renfroe last month showed a readout of the highest swing speed in terms of mph of any college hitter this season.
His peers are still in awe of his abilities, including his roommate Wes Rea, who arrived at MSU after having 11 scholarship offers from SEC schools to play football. Rea physically dwarfs Renfroe by more than 50 pounds and marvels at how hard Renfroe can hit a baseball.
"Hunter would hit some shots last year that you'd just stare at and go, 'Wow, that's crazy', and so wherever he plays (after college) he'll be great," Rea said.