The journey to Petco Park wasn’t always a smooth one. At one point in 2015, Renfroe’s career seemed to hit a snag. While playing in Double-A San Antonio, Renfroe hit under .200 in April before making some adjustments to his swing. He got hot and eventually was promoted to Triple-A El Paso, where he hit .333/.358/.633 in a brief August cameo. San Diego ultimately chose not to add the slugger to the active roster in September. His big league debut would have to wait.
San Diego went into the 2016 season with a crowded outfield, with veterans Matt Kemp, Jon Jay and Melvin Upton Jr. occupying starting jobs. The organization was inclined to give at-bats to Jabari Blash, a Rule 5 selection. With no chance to crack the roster out of spring training, Renfroe was sent back to El Paso to start the 2016 season -- one that proved to be his best as a professional.
“When you are in the minor leagues, it’s just a working environment and you just do all of the little things to prepare yourself,” Renfroe said before a Padres game in September. “I got myself into a good routine working with [El Paso hitting coach Morgan Burkhart] and I would do a lot of work with my swing before batting practice. All of that extra work and preparation led me to make it up to San Diego.”
Renfroe’s monster season led to his selection as the Pacific Coast MVP and Renfroe was also the obvious choice as the MadFriars Player of the Year. The 24-year-old outfielder hit .306/.336/.557 with a career-high 30 homers, 105 RBI, and a career-high 163 hits. Renfroe spent most of the season launching tape-measure homers while showcasing a plus arm and surprising athleticism for a man his side. Despite all of the production, Renfroe was passed over several times when San Diego needed an outfielder. The team traded Upton and Kemp but Renfroe’s name was never called by the Friars.
“Down in El Paso, we are definitely keeping up with guys in San Diego,” said Renfroe. “After games, we’d usually go into the clubhouse and catch the last few innings of the Padres games. While everyone’s goal is to get to San Diego, I just tried to keep working and I knew that if I kept producing, my shot would come eventually.”
One perceived weakness in Renfroe’s offensive game is his low walk total -- Renfroe drew just 22 walks in well over 500 plate appearances this year. While some have speculated that Renfroe’s aggressiveness was part of the reason he stayed behind in El Paso, Renfroe is certainly is quick to dismiss those critical of his aggressive approach.
“I go into every at-bat looking for a pitch that I can do damage with. I’ll attack the first pitch if I believe I can do something with it. I didn’t draw a lot of walks this year because I wasn’t missing that pitch I could do something with. I was consistently getting to that fastball that I may have missed in the past. My game is power and driving in runs and if I get a ball that I can drive early in the count, I will attack.”
While the walks were down a bit in 2016, Renfroe’s explanation of not missing hittable pitches has merit -- the righty cut his strikeout rate to 20.4%, about four points lower than 2015. His .306 average was also a career-best over a full season.
“The biggest difference this year was that I was able to consistently hammer mistake pitches. The fastballs over the plate, the hanging sliders were pitches I was able to punish. In past seasons, I would foul those off or even swing through them. This year I made more consistent contact and that’s why the average was up and the home run totals were up.”
Renfroe’s MVP season was instrumental in a second straight Pacific Southern Division championship and the organization’s first Pacific Coast League championship. While El Paso lost in the Gildan Triple-A National Championship game, Renfroe had his contract purchased by the Padres the next day.
After a pinch-hitting appearance to mark his Major League debut, Renfroe went 2-for-4 in his first big league start a day later. On September 24, Renfroe connected on his first big league homer, a shot that came off of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.
“He [Bumgarner] likes to attack with his fastball in. He did that in my first at-bat and he was trying to get me off of the plate. I was able to get my hands through on the inside fastball and hit it out. The pitch caught more of the plate than I think he would have liked and I didn’t miss it.”
Renfroe’s performance in the last few weeks of the season gave fans a taste of the potential that has made the former Mississippi State star a staple on top prospect lists since he was drafted. While Renfroe is far from establishing himself as a big leaguer, he reflected on the special season that led to a PCL MVP award and winning the MadFriars Player of the Year.
“The biggest take-away for me is that I made it,” said Renfroe. “The championship run was incredible, the PCL MVP was an honor but I got to play in the big leagues. It was the realization of all my dreams and hard work. This was what I waited my whole life to do. It’s an amazing feeling.”