STARKVILLE — The book on Hunter Renfroe needs to be rewritten.
No longer is Mississippi State University junior outfielder susceptible to an average slider in the dirt like he was in his first two seasons.
No longer does Renfroe go games without seeing a fastball to hit.
No longer is he asked if he will realize the potential he showed in summer league games.
The book on Renfroe needs to be rewritten because he is having a breakthrough season that has him at the top of nearly every offensive category in the Southeastern Conference.
“We’re talking about a young man that knows who he is, knows what his weaknesses are, and is finally comfortable every single time he goes to the plate,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “When all those things line up, you start to see the kinds of things he’s doing in the best league in America, the Southeastern Conference.”
Following a three-game sweep of Texas A&M University last weekend, Renfroe earned his first SEC Player of the Week honors. He had a home run in each of the three games in College Station, Texas, hit .571, and had three multi-hit games, including back-to-back three-hit efforts.
“I just think people in the past were able to throw an average slider in the dirt and get me out, but that’s not the case anymore,” Renfroe said. “I’m now taking that pitch with the knowledge that my pitch is eventually coming.”
Renfroe also had two doubles and a 1.357 slugging percentage against Texas A&M. The three-game series marked the second time this season Renfroe has homered in each game of a SEC series, proving his approach is giving him an opportunity to hit non-breaking pitches over the plate.
“If somebody can get me out on a pitch like that then so be it,” Renfroe said. “At least then I’m giving myself a chance instead of swinging at everything. In fact, I know I hit changeups out of the ballpark on my last two home runs. This tells me teams are trying a new approach on me.”
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 named Renfroe the top prospect in the Cal Ripken League. This season, the junior has replicated those numbers thanks to a better understanding of how pitchers got him out in his first two seasons.
“It’s about learning patience because the tools were always there, and people would question when I’d say Hunter Renfroe is maybe the most talented athlete I’ve ever coached at Mississippi State,” Cohen said. “He’s just one of those kids that if he goes 0-for-3 with three punchouts, he’ll still be in the lineup the next day. You can’t treat every kid like that but with him. It’s the right thing to do.”
Renfroe is making a push for SEC Player of the Year. He is second in the league in batting average (.429), tied for first in home runs (13), third in RBIs (42), first in slugging percentage (.865), and third in on-base percentage (.494).
“You’re taking about somebody that made the incredible leap of dominating his level of competition at the high school level to realizing the SEC is the opposite of easy,” Cohen said. “Now he’s a guy that is leading our team as a veteran and is one of those complete players we all know he could be.”
Renfroe’s success this season also can be traced to the protection he has in the lineup. MSU is third in the SEC in batting average (.298) and on-base percentage (.398). Protection of a hitter is normally thought of as the batters behind a player, but Cohen feels it starts with the player who hits in the No. 2 spot in the order in front of Renfroe. C.T. Bradford and Alex Detz have 37 of the 39 starts in that spot. They are second and third on the team in multi-hit games. Detz is hitting .322, which is third on the team, and is fourth in the SEC in on-base percentage (.477), while Bradford, who is hitting .275, is third on the team with 41 hits.
“I know teams would rather walk Hunter and put him on first base,” Cohen said. “The problem is if Detzy walks or gets on then it’s really tough for that coach or that pitcher to say, ‘I’ll just walk him and put that lead runner in scoring position.’ ”
Renfroe recognizes the success of Detz, a junior college transfer from California, is helping him get better pitches to hit.
“He’s one of the best guys on our team in terms of plate discipline,” Renfroe said. “Then you combine that with the fact that if he doesn’t get walked, he can shoot a ball in the gap just as easily. Then our lineup is very dangerous.”
Junior college transfer Brett Pirtle, who is hitting .328 in conference play after hitting .222 last year at Panola (Texas) College, is hitting behind Renfroe.
“If I’m standing on second base after a double, then I have all the confidence in the world Pirtle is going to find a gap even with first base open,” Renfroe said. “Why is that? Because big Wes Rea is sitting right behind him, and if Pirtle is walked, then a team is starting to go down the road of a big inning.”
Big innings have helped No. 16 MSU (30-9, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) go 7-1 this month and climb to No. 8 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The latest stretch follows a run that saw MSU lose four weekend series in a row and start SEC play 3-6.
“We knew we were still a great club that was losing one-run games in that 3-6 start,” Renfroe said. “You have to look at that and say if the talent is there then eventually that trend will swing the other way. We know we’re capable of beating anybody in the country.”
MSU will play host to Auburn University (22-14, 5-10) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPNU) Dudy Noble Field in game one of a three-game SEC series that is part of Super Bulldog Weekend.