Before a recent Grapefruit League home game, Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe sat on top of the replica Green Monster at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., for a socially distanced interview, and memories came flooding back of the first time he saw the real Monster that resides in Boston.
It had been a long journey for the right-handed-hitting masher to finally land with the Red Sox, the team that took a flier on him in the 31st round of the 2010 Draft.
Though Renfroe had little intention of going pro at that time and bypassing every Mississippi youth baseball player’s dream -- a full scholarship to Mississippi State -- he went through some of the obligatory recruitment perks in the weeks following the Draft, and that included a trip to Boston which he still cherishes.
“Probably just being with my dad [is what sticks out],” Renfroe said. “And we walked around Fenway and got to see the Green Monster and sit up on the Green Monster and stuff.”
Just 18 years old at the time, Renfroe got to play a scrimmage at Fenway Park with and against others who were drafted by Boston that June.
“I don’t know how many high school guys get to go and play on Fenway, just to step foot on Fenway, let alone play a game,” Renfroe said. “I took BP there, played a game, a little intrasquad game between the guys and stuff. So obviously I was a little bit overmatched being a high school kid playing against a lot of college guys, but I feel like I did well.”
Renfroe remembers hitting a double to center during the game, but he doesn’t remember connecting with the Monster.
He will have plenty of time for that this season.
Coming full circle
Eleven years later, Renfroe is finally a member of the Red Sox. As for the long path it took for that to become a reality, the 29-year-old has no regrets.
“I basically told everybody beforehand when I got drafted or whenever all the scouts had come to see me in high school, I said, ‘Don't waste your time, I want to go to Mississippi State. You know, don't waste a Draft [pick] on me,’” Renfroe remembers. “Because I knew I had my mind set, unless it was a pretty high-round pick or a lot of money, that I was going to go to school, and just get that experience and get that, you know, maturation for me, myself, because I'm a small-town kid that comes from Crystal Springs, Miss.
“I went to high school with 40 kids in my grade, and to go from there to go into Major League baseball or in the Minor Leagues would been a huge step for me. I feel like for my career I wanted to go to school and experience that. And it was always my dream to play in the College World Series, and so I got to fulfill that, so it was pretty cool.”
Last year, Renfroe played in the World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays, hitting a game-tying homer in the Instant Classic that was Game 4, a night remembered best for Randy Arozarena’s mad dash home for the winning run.
The Rays lost that World Series in six games to the Dodgers, and they non-tendered Renfroe not long after, allowing the Red Sox to pounce and sign a player coming off a down season for one year at $3 million.
Sometimes, it takes a decade or so for a dream to finally materialize.
“It feels great,” Renfroe said. “Obviously, just being here and obviously, the history behind the team and obviously Fenway, the culture they’ve tried to build here is incredible. The culture they're building is pretty special. [Manager] Alex [Cora] has done a great job at telling the guys what’s going on and communicating what’s next. I feel like they’re on the right page.”
Though Cora has talked a lot about Renfroe’s athleticism and how it will enable the veteran to play center and right -- the most spacious areas of Fenway -- it is the bat that has always served as the separator.
Early pop commanded respect
Renfroe first realized he could be a renowned power hitter when he was a sophomore in high school.
“And then my junior year, I started going to a few showcases and stuff like that, and was able to hit some balls out of some college ballparks with ease,” said Renfroe.
By senior year, his biggest weapon became his biggest annoyance. Almost nobody would pitch to him.
“So I started turning some heads and my senior year, I hit 20 home runs and got intentionally walked like 60 times,” said Renfroe. “And I knew then that I had a really good chance to be where I am now.”
By the time Renfroe got drafted again, it was 2013 and the Padres took him 13th overall. From '17-19, Renfroe belted 26 or more homers in three straight seasons for San Diego, capped by a career-high 33 before the Padres traded him to the Rays following the ’19 season. Renfroe attributes his struggles last year to the 60-game season, which didn’t give him time to make adjustments. Many players had similar struggles.
His longest blasts?
While Renfroe figures to pepper Lansdowne Street behind the Green Monster both during batting practice and in games this season, he thinks that the longest he ever hit a baseball was in the Minor Leagues against Josh Hader in 2014.
“I hit a ball off Hader in High-A, it was in Lake Elsinore. And it was one of those deals where Hader was blowing my door,” said Renfroe. “He was a starter then for Houston. He kept blowing my doors away and I kept jamshotting it to the second baseman, or over the head of the second baseman. I was like, 'I'm not [getting] blown up this at-bat. I’m cheating to it, I’m getting the head out and I’m going to drive the ball.'
“So I get up there of course, and he throws me a pitch. I just unleashed and I tried to catch it as far out in front of it as I could. And I caught it and it went out of the stadium at Lake Elsinore to left-center field, and I was pretty pumped that I finally got the head out and called a fastball.”
Forgive Renfroe if his bubble burst a little when he studied the video and found out that, no, it actually wasn’t a fastball.
“After the game, I went back inside and watched the video of it, and it was a changeup,” said Renfroe, still chuckling about it seven years later. “I was like, 'God, I was still late on the fastball.' It was pretty funny to me, but that's probably the best bullet I've ever hit. Obviously I hit a bunch of balls in Colorado that were just moonballs because of Colorado.”
There were also those two mammoth homers to left field in San Diego that landed on top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building in 2016 and ’17. The first one -- struck in Renfroe’s rookie season -- got a signature “Oh my!” from legendary broadcaster Dick Enberg.
For perspective, the only other player to reach that building? Fernando Tatis Jr., who did it last season.
Art of crushing lefties
Renfroe’s top skill as a baseball player is his ability to crush left-handed pitching. And Cora will go to that early and often, playing Renfroe against every lefty the Red Sox face. In 495 career plate appearances against left-handers, Renfroe has a .912 OPS, which is 195 points higher than his .717 mark in 1,094 PAs against righties.
It turns out it wasn’t always easy for Renfroe to mash lefties. He had to learn the art.
“It’s kind of a funny deal where in college, I didn’t hit lefties well at all,” said Renfroe. “Even in high school, I didn't necessarily hit lefties. I don’t know if I didn’t face them enough to really understand it. And throughout my Minor League career, I never really hit lefties well.”
By 2015, when he reached Triple-A, Renfroe got fed up that he wasn’t doing better against lefties.
“We were playing the Dodgers’ Triple-A and they had a lefty who was throwing pretty good -- like mid 90s -- and it kept blowing me away. I just always had a little bit of an issue with the changeup and the fastball from lefties,” said Renfroe. “And I really couldn't see or have the depth perception to see the difference of them and I didn't understand why.”
Then came the adjustment.
“And it got to a point where I said, just kind of the same deal off Hader, that I’m getting ahead, I don't care what happens,” said Renfroe. “I’m sick and tired of being beat by fastballs from lefties. So I basically got a big leg kick, and I jumped out on the ball and I caught it out front and I hit a home run. I was like, ‘Wow. Well, why did that work?’
“And I faced another lefty like the next day, did the same thing, caught it out front, hit a home run. I was like, ‘Wow, this is all I have to do.’ Kind of started building off of that and making sure I’m seeing the ball out front and catching it out front and not letting it travel and beat me. The way lefties work is if you're trying to see the ball coming in on you too much, you’re going to get beat.”
Trying to get off on right foot
Now that he has the whole lefty thing mastered, Renfroe is working hard this spring to improve his performance against righties.
“I’ve figured some stuff out this year as far as hitting righties, and I think I’ve got in a good spot and try to stay in my legs a little bit more, so it’s going to be good,” said Renfroe.
As he gets ready for his first season in his new baseball home, Renfroe is feeling good about everything.
“I knew going into this offseason when [the Rays] released me, and Boston had a great interest in me, I knew it was a great fit and I wanted to go there,” said Renfroe. “The two places I’ve had home fields have been tough places to hit in. San Diego is getting more hitter friendly for some reason, I have no idea why. But I’m very excited to be able to play there [at Fenway Park] for a home park and be able to have a full season under my belt at Fenway with fans. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I think we have a lot better team than people think we do.”